Robbers are understood to have set light to their getaway car within yards of a school - minutes before parents were due to pick up their children.

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The frightening scene played out this afternoon after three or four men - one wielding a sledgehammer - burst into Barclays Bank at Market Place, Aylsham, at 2.20pm.

They fled empty-handed in a silver Vauxhall Astra, which is now burnt out in the driveway of some empty flats on Hungate Street, opposite John of Gaunt Infant and Nursery School.

Staff and children were inside the school at the time, rehearsing for their nativity. They did not notice the incident, but saw the police cars and burnt out car when they left a little while later.

Police said three or four men forced their way into the bank and assaulted a member of staff.

They demanded money, but are believed to have been unsuccessful and fled the scene in unidentified cars.

Minutes later the car fire was reported at nearby Hungate Street.

Police have now left the scene, and a sign on the door of the bank reads: “Sorry, but due to circumstances beyond our control we are unable to open this branch at the moment.”

Inez Welton, who works at Barnwells in Market Place, said a couple came into the shop an urged her to dial 999 because a robbery was taking place.

She ran outside to look and said: “I could see a security guard in there with his hands up. There were three to four men in black wearing balaclavas.

“I came back to the shop and said to Gwen ‘you’ve got to ring 999. There’s a raid going on’.”

Mrs Welton said the robbers were “running about” inside the bank.

It is understood that they got into the bank through the back, near the car park, and witnesses reported hearing “lots of banging and knocking inside”.

Police are knocking on doors along Hungate Street to gather eye-witness information.

Another witness, who did not want to be named, said: “We came around the corner in the Market Place and when we looked in the window of Barclays Bank we could see a group of young lads leaping about.

“We thought they were larking around at first, but then we realised one of them had an axe in his hand and another had a stick.

“We rushed to the newsagents and told them to call the police as we realised there were security guards in there who were getting knocked about. It’s terrible. I’m still shaking like a leaf.”

The incident is being investigated by officers from Great Yarmouth CID. Witnesses, call them on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

● Did you see anything? Call Steve Downes on 01263 513920 or email steve.downes@archant.co.uk

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