As many commuters made their way home last night they were met with the sight of black smoke billowing into the air, visible from miles around.

The blaze started shortly before 6pm, during the middle of a firefighters strike, when a large pile of household rubbish caught fire at Averies Recycling near Greenbridge.

Many onlookers said they were shocked at the scale of the fire and the speed at which it spread.

Those who were nearby when the fire broke out spoke of frantic attempts by workers to put out the flames but to no avail.

Mark Williams, who works at The Car Shop adjacent to Averies Recycling, said: “I first smelled smoke at about 1.30pm and it was like plastic and rubber so I thought something wasn’t right then.

“The pile of rubbish is easily visible from where we work so we could see the fire start at around 5pm. There was a man in a digger in a panic trying to keep the fire under control but it spread really quickly before he could do anything.”

His co-worker Ahsan Ali said: “It spread really quickly. Within about ten minutes the whole pile was smoking.

“We called the fire brigade and they got here quickly so I’m guessing we weren’t the only ones. The smoke really stinks so I feel sorry for anyone who lives near here.”

The fire at Averies attracted large crowds of people eager to see what was going on. For many, they had never seen a blaze on this scale.

Evie Noall , of Gorse Hill, said: “We were driving to Boots at Greenbridge when we looked up and saw the smoke in the air. I used to live in Australia and saw some big bush fires but since I moved to England this is the biggest I’ve seen.

“The smell of the smoke is really bad. When there was the fire at Swindon Skips last year our house was affected by the smoke so I feel for the residents. The smell of the smoke got quite bad even though we weren’t that close.”

Her daughter Olivia, 15, who was in the car at the time was one of a number of people who called the fire brigade.

She said: “We all looked up and saw loads of smoke just going up into the sky. We came over to have a look and saw all the fire engines.

“It smells really bad and at times the smoke is quite thick so it makes it harder to see.”

The police have asked residents to be aware that emergency services may be on the scene for a number of days so have asked people to give them space.