GUESTS and diners were forced to flee as one of the biggest thatch fires in the county for decades tore through a popular hotel.

About 170 members of the emergency services were called to the scene at the Potters Herron last night.

In total 120 firefighters and 25 engines from across Hampshire descended on the scene near Romsey.

Guests told the Echo they were enjoying a meal when they were suddenly told to leave immediately.

The fire is believed to have started in one of the hotel’s chimneys and spread to its thatch at about 6pm.

The road beside the hotel, the A3090, was closed in both directions and traffic bosses were advising people to avoid the area.

Chief fire officer Neil Odin described it as "the largest thatch fire I have attended in a 24-year career".

He praised crews for "working hard in cold wet conditions" who were trying to "save this lovely building".

Clive Tupin, who lives near the Potters Heron, said: “I have never heard so many fire engines in my life.

"I had just come back from church and followed the fire engines.

"It's such a shame because it's such an old building."

Witness Clive Allen, of Chandler's Ford, said: “I’ve never seen a fire like this.

"I was on my way home but I had to stop to watch.

"It is a landmark.”

One family, who asked not to be named, were sitting down for a meal with their children in the hotel restaurant.

Just as they ordered they were told to evacuate the building by staff.

The father said: "Staff were very efficient and said that we had to leave the building at once.

"We could hardly see any smoke at this point, so real credit to the staff.

"Fire engines came within minutes of us being evacuated. It was quite impressive.”

Cornelia Norie-Miller, who was tending to her horses close to the hotel, said: "I could hear all of the commotion, so I walked down there.

"I saw all of these fire engines, vans and blue lights.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.

"It was just shocking.”

Miss Norie-Miller, 27, a barmaid from Chandler’s Ford, has had horses near to the hotel for the last 15 years.

She said: “I go down there occasionally after I’ve finished with the horses.

“It’s a really nice place and a real shame.

“I feel sorry for the owners.”

Jack Allwood, of Chandler's Ford, is a customer assistant at the hotel.

He said: “Initially around five engines arrived at once.

"I had found out by going into the kitchen, and someone told me.

"I was the second person who knew about the fire and I helped evacuate everyone in the building.”

The hotel's boss, Ludovic Merleix, said he was "grateful" for the emergency services' work.

Police were giving out hot drinks and blankets to guests at the scene.

According to Hampshire Fire and Rescue, no one was injured.

The hotel famously burnt down in November 1966.

A clipping from the Echo at the time show the then owners, Maurice Hewlett and wife Audrey, escaped over the building’s ballroom flat.

They then climbed down a painter’s ladder, minutes before the building exploded into flames.

Sixty firefighters from Romsey, Eastleigh, West End, Sutton Scotney, Winchester and Twyford brought the fire under control.

According to another clipping from the Echo in January 1969, the rebuilding work was due to be completed by May that year.