About 100 firefighters battled to save a 17th century Oxford pub after a fire started in its thatched roof yesterday afternoon.

The blaze at The Perch pub in Binsey Lane started just after 4pm and 14 fire engines and a specialist unit with a hydraulic platform were on the scene within minutes.

Two customers and six staff were in the pub at the time and escaped before firefighters arrived and began hosing down the roof and tried to salvage valuables.

Early this evening the fire had not reached the interior of the pub and firefighters were using pick axes to try to create a break in the roof to prevent flames from spreading further.

The cause of the fire is not yet known but Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service's Peter Cleary said an investigation had already begun.

He said: "We are undertaking extensive salvage operations to protect valuables in the property. Our work also involves stripping off the roof to try and prevent the fire from spreading and is likely to last through the night and probably into tomorrow afternoon."

The pub's French owner Johnny Mignon, who only took on the business last July, said it was devastating to see The Perch go up in flames.

He said: "The team and I have worked so hard over the course of the last year to get the pub up to scratch. I have been doing seven days a week and it was just beginning to pay off.

"It has been a big challenge and I thought I was doing really well working with the local community to get The Perch back on track. I just hope it can be saved.

"Fortunately there was hardly anyone in the pub at the time and everyone got out. It was lucky it didn't happen on a Sunday as there would have been 200 people inside.

"The thatcher only came last Sunday and said everything was fine. We did have the fire going inside because it was slightly cooler today, but I don't really know how the blaze started."

Bar manager Stephen Nakamura was working in the bar when the fire started.

He said: "We had the chimney checked out two days after Christmas. I did notice a lump of candle wax on the fire, but I don't know if that had anything to do with causing the fire."

There was also a fire at The Perch 30 years ago.

Farmer Nick Gee, who runs nearby Manor Farm next door, saw his barns go up in flames thanks to arson in November and December last year.

He said: "This is terrible for them. It is a horrible thing to happen and my heart goes out to the owner. I just hope they can save the pub."

Mr Cleary said there was a campaign to reduce the number of thatch fires in the county. He said: "We are trying to raise awareness to owners and there are a number of ways we can do that like fitting smoke alarms into the loft and making sure the occupiers have hosepipes at the ready."