POLICE are investigating a fire which destroyed a van parked near a building full of sleeping children.

The blaze broke out at the headquarters of the Beaulieu-based Countryside Education Trust, a farm and educational centre where youngsters learn about rural life.

At least 30 children were asleep in a residential centre when the fire started just after 4am.

Daily Echo:

Picture: Beaulieu Fire Station

Flames engulfed a former minibus that was used to transport tools, animal feed and anything else which was too big to be moved by car.

The trust's deputy chief executive, Anna Barnard, said: "The van was next to a building full of woodchip - and that building was next to a residential facility where around 30 children and their teachers were asleep."

Daily Echo:

Police officers have visited the scene of the blaze and say enquiries are ongoing.

Mrs Barnard said: "It's hard to say what caused the fire but we think it was most likely arson. It started in the middle of a cold, wet night and the van hadn't been driven since the day before."

A post on the trust's Facebook page added: "We are terribly sad to report that someone destroyed one of our minibuses.

"We're very thankful no-one was hurt as a result, especially as the fire occurred next to our residential centre, which was full of sleeping children and teachers.

"This is a real blow to our little charity. Huge thanks to the fire service, who did a sterling job."

Daily Echo:

The trust is based at the Out of Town Centre in Palace Lane, Beaulieu. Firefighters from Beaulieu and Hardley were sent to the scene after Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service was alerted at 4.14am on Tuesday.

Daily Echo:

Several people have taken to social media to voice their anger and dismay.

One woman said: "So sad that someone would try and stop the amazing opportunity you give so many people to enjoy and learn about our beautiful countryside."

The trust is based on land owned by the Beaulieu Estate.

Last night a statement issued by the estate said: "A fire service spokesperson said the fire was not in close proximity to the building where the children were staying. They were not awoken by it, or aware of it, and were at no time in any risk.”

Anyone with information about the fire can contact Hampshire police on 101, quoting reference number 44200008357.