AN investigation is underway into an early-morning inferno which gutted the former Epping Forest Country Club.

Seven fire crews were called shortly before 3.30am on Wednesday morning to tackle the blaze off Abridge Road.

Eyewitnesses said the flames leapt 70ft into the night sky at the height of the blaze and quickly spread through the listed building, which used to be home to the Epping Forest Country Club nightclub.

The building was under renovation and parts of its three floors had already collapsed by the time fire crews arrived.

Firefighters used an aerial ladder to hover above the building and attempted to dowse the blaze with water pumped from the nearby River Roding.

The building was empty and no one was hurt.

There was no damage to the nearby Virgin Active Health Club, or the neighbouring Woolston Manor Golf and Country Club.

Divisional fire officer Mick Osborne said: "It was a difficult incident to tackle because of the initial problems in maintaining a water supply, and because of the age of the building, and the fact it is under renovation made access difficult at times due to scaffolding and other things associated with working around what essentially is a building site.

"Following the partial collapse of the building we had to work carefully, but once we’d established a good water supply we were able to take control and tackle the fire successfully in sectors."

He added: "Full credit to crews - they put in a lot of effort to get the water supplies going and then in containing the fire to the old part of the building and protecting the new part, which is an operational gym and leisure centre.

"Their hard work and professionalism has meant that part of the site remains largely untouched."

Relief crews were called in and remained on site until late morning to monitor hotspots.

Ian Marlow, a photographer who was spending the night shift with the Metropolitan Police traffic division, was with the first emergency services to arrive on the scene having spotted the fire from the nearby M11.

He told the Guardian: “It could be safely said it had been going for some time. We had to climb over the fence to get down the drive because the gates were padlocked.”

He added: “There were flames everywhere and the roof started to fall in (just after he arrived). It was quite clear the whole building was alight, from one end to the other.”

A joint police and fire investigation into the cause of the incident is underway.