Devastated walkers watched on as flames leapt 25ft into the air and ripped through a much-loved beauty spot.

Fire crews worked for well over an hour to tackle four separate blazes which had been set deliberately at Friday Woods, near Friday Wood Green.

Nicky Collins, who described the Colchester woods as “her sanctuary”, was the first to dial 999.

“There were three separate fires in a small area but what really caught my attention was a loud crackling sound,” she said.

“I then saw a lot of smoke and flames which were about 25 feet high and moving fast through the dry gorse and up into the trees."


Blaze - the fire spreads near a path in Friday Woods

She added: “I immediately called 999 and stood helpless as I watched, waiting for them to arrive and could only stamp on the grass which had ignited to try and stop the spread.

“It was upsetting as the forest has been my sanctuary throughout lockdown.”

Russell Stubbs, 46, of Friday Wood Green, added: “The main fire that I could see was in the same location as another fire, which happened on June 22,” he said.

“However, this time there also appeared to be a couple of other small fires in separate locations, one of which was further into the fields under an electricity pylon."


Thick - onlookers could smell the stench of smoke

He added: “I didn’t watch it for too long as the smoke and ash became quite thick. I think the fire service must have arrived shortly after as I looked at the site again at about 11am and they were just packing up and dealing with some smoking areas.”

Mr Stubbs said the woods have proved to be a “very important” place for people to exercise during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve lived here for over 20 years and used the woods regularly,” he said.


Battle - firefighters fought for more than an hour to extinguish the flames

He added: “We’ve seen more people out and about over the past few months as it’s such a nice place to walk around. There are some stunning views and lots of wildlife.

“Anything like these fires threatening the area is a big concern.”

An Essex Fire Service spokesman said crews extinguished the fires by 11.10am yesterday with the cause recorded as deliberate.