A small Devon community was in shock yesterday after a couple are thought to have died in a fire which destroyed a lodge on the estate owned by the Earl and Countess of Arran.
Three fire crews from South Molton and Barnstaple were called to the devastating blaze at Filleigh, near South Molton, at 2.30am yesterday.
The intensity of the blaze, which is thought to have been burning for some time before a member of the public dialled 999, resulted in the collapse of the roof and the first floor.
It is feared that both Bob Rines and his wife Joan, who had rented Meadow Park Lodge on the 5,000-acre Castle Hill Estate for the past seven years, died in the fire. One body was quickly found by firefighters. A second was discovered during a search of the lodge yesterday afternoon.
Both Lord and Lady Arran rushed to the scene when the alarm was raised. Lady Arran said they were "completely devastated" that such "a hideous thing has happened to such lovely people".
"They were the most charming couple," Lady Arran added. "They were the face of Castle Hill because whenever you came in there they were in the garden. And when you went out they were waving goodbye."
Estate manager Paul Smalley said everyone on the estate knew Mr and Mrs Rines, who are believed to have five grown-up children.
"They were extremely nice people," Mr Smalley said. "They kept the place immaculately and they were always cheerful whenever you drove in and out. They would give you a smile and a cheery wave."
He said news of the fire had hit the community "like a thunderbolt", adding: "It is a tragedy that is going to hit everybody in the Filleigh area hard.
"All our thoughts and prayers are with their family."
Lady Arran's family, the Fortescues, have lived in Devon since 1454 and she is the 16th generation to live on the site. The main house burned down in 1934, when two staff lost their lives. Her husband, Lord Arran, is one of the 92 surviving hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
A Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said it had been a "severe" fire which had left the building in a "precarious state".
He said: "The investigation is taking time because officers are having to carry out a very careful search inside the building and lots of debris will have to be cleared."
A joint investigation between the fire service has been launched to establish the cause, although it is not being treated as suspicious.
Yesterday afternoon, Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed that two bodies found inside the building had been taken to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Post-mortem examinations are expected to be carried out later today.
"The cause of the fire is currently being investigated by fire investigators working with police scenes of crime officers," a police spokesman said. "At this time there are not thought to be any suspicious circumstances."