Published: 14:45, 31 October 2019
| Updated: 10:53, 04 November 2019
Irreplaceable artefacts and £15,000 worth of equipment have been completely destroyed in a fire at a heritage railway.
Police are investigating and forensic teams examined the burnt-out scene this afternoon.
Matthew Plew, who took over the running of the historical railway four years ago, says the site's education and ranger station are now non-existent.
"This is a huge financial burden to bear," he said.
"We are a charity reinvesting all the money into the running of the railway - this loss is just horrific for us.
"To have hundreds and hundreds of hours of work go to waste is absolutely gutting.
"Artefacts from Canadian Second World War troops who were based here have totally gone.
"Bottles, pen knives and tools which they left behind were excellent items to have. They are inreplaceable."
Following last night's fire, which started just before 10.30pm, a fundraiser started on the railway's Facebook page has already raised an impressive £3,000.
Mr Plew, 37, said: "When we arrived during the night I could sense things weren't how I left them. Things had moved and a gate was forced open.
"We realised what was going on and called the fire service but it was too late. There is no doubt about it - this was 100% done on purpose.
"Thankfully, we will be able to continue operating the railway as usual over the winter.
"But when we get into next year there will be a big impact.
"Our volunteers come here to help keep the track operating but we've now lost all the tools.
"We cannot equip the workers - whether it be safety goggles, a screwdriver or power drill, we've lost them all."
Kent Fire and Rescue Service says that one outbuilding was destroyed.
A brigade spokesman said: "We were called to reports of a fire in a timber outbuilding on the site of East Kent Railway.
"Four fire engines attended and crews used two main jets to extinguish the fire."
Firefighters were at the scene until just before 11.40pm.
A Police spokesman said of the fire: "Although its cause is not currently known, it is believed to have been started deliberately.
"Kent Police officers have visited the location and are conducting ongoing inquiries to establish the full circumstances."
The East Kent Railway was constructed between 1911 and 1917 and carried passengers up until 1948. It was still a thriving industrial line until 1987.
In 1993, a light railway order was obtained, allowing regular passenger trains to run after an absence of more than 40 years. A new station has since been built at Eythorne, and the railway became a charitable trust in 2003.
A four-mile round trip now takes passengers on a scenic route between Shepherdswell and Eythorne.
Mr Plew added: "Everything has been going so well recently. The reviews have been improving and the railway has never looked better. But this totally ruins that and sets us right back. It's going take months to recover."
Dover MP Charlie Elphicke tweeted to describe his shock at the fire.
"I have seen first hand the amazing work of their incredible volunteers," he said.
"Every effort must be made to find the perpetrators and throw the book at them."
Police, who are treating the blaze as suspected arson, are urging anyone who witnessed suspicious activity to call 01843 222289, quoting 30-1712.
To donate to the fundraiser, visit the East Kent Railway Facebook page.
More by this authorJoe Wright