A DERELICT former school in Gainford, County Durham, is set to be demolished after a suspicious fire made it unsafe, police have confirmed.

A police spokesman said the four-storey former St Peter's School, on Main Road, is now "unsafe to enter" after the blaze took hold of the building in the early hours on Saturday (March 5).

"Following initial investigations the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service have notified police that they believe the fire was started deliberately," the spokesman said.

"The building, which has been deemed unsafe to enter, is due to be demolished.

"Officers are now investigating the cause of the fire and we would ask that anyone who saw anything suspicious in the area at the time of the fire, anyone who was in the building on Friday evening or the early hours of Saturday morning or who was present when the fire started, to contact us on 101 quoting incident reference 38 from March 5."

At one stage five fire engines and an aerial ladder platform were at the scene of the fire but it is understood no one was hurt during the incident.

Neighbours have told The Northern Echo that the building is frequently broken into by kids who believe the site is haunted.

Neighbour, Alan Henderson, who has lived next door to the former orphanage, school and nursing home for the last 30 years, said: “I was up at about 2.15am because I heard a loud banging which I thought was the usual burglars so I was in two minds to call the police but then I realised there was a fire.

“I have lived here 30 years and in the summer we always get young women coming round screaming their heads off because they think it’s haunted.”

The Northern Echo:

Fire fighters at the scene   Picture: Katie Richardson

Another neighbour, who did not want to be named, was also woken by the fire.

He said: “I just woke up and saw flames coming out of the windows – at one point they were billowing out.

“It wants knocking down – the kids play in it and take Ouija boards in because they think it’s haunted.”

The school has been empty for almost 20 years.

It was built in 1899 initially as an orphanage and then became a residential school for about 100 pupils but closed in 1983.

In 1986 it became a nursing home but shut in 1998 and has not been used since.

In recent years the Victorian red brick building has become rundown and suffered vandalism, leading to calls from villagers for action to secure and redevelop the site.

The community has repeatedly called for it to be used as accommodation for older people but despite such a scheme already receiving planning consent it failed to come to fruition.

Last year plans were approved to demolish part of the building, turn others parts into apartments and build new houses on the site.