Birds of Par­adise

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

Bill Smith, who res­cued Blue­bird K7, tells Char­lotte Cooper about his flock

Bill Smith is fa­mous for re­ju­ve­nat­ing Blue­bird K7 ( left), the wa­ter­craft in which Don­ald Camp­bell died while at­tempt­ing a new speed record in 1967. While that metal bird has been a pas­sion for years, the New­cas­tle res­i­dent is equally en­thralled by the feath­ered va­ri­ety. Char­lotte Cooper meets him

“If one can­not catch the bird of par­adise, bet­ter take a wet hen.” Those wise words are at­trib­uted to Cold War Rus­sian premier Nikita Khrushchev and, for most of us, it would be an easy choice: we would take a hen, wet or oth­er­wise, any day. But en­gi­neer Bill Smith is lucky enough to have them both.

The Northum­brian fa­ther-of-two’s bird of par­adise is a metal one as he is the driv­ing force be­hind the project to re­store Blue­bird K7 — the iconic wa­ter­craft in which Don­ald Camp­bell died while try­ing to beat his own speed record on Con­is­ton Water in 1967.

But when Bill comes home from the Ty­ne­side work­shop where he and the rest of the team are toil­ing on the 63-yearold hy­droplane, it is to a flock of Cochin ban­tams, the lat­est hens feed­ing his fas­ci­na­tion with birds and wildlife that started in child­hood.

“When I was a kid I was like Gerry Dur­rell,” says Bill, re­fer­ring to the au­thor and nat­u­ral­ist Ger­ald Dur­rell, whose books have re­cently been se­ri­alised as the TV se­ries The Dur­rells. “I was al­ways col­lect­ing frogs, newts and birds. I love to hand rear things and have kept mag­pies, kestrels and other birds of prey, as well as hedge­hogs. Quite re­cently I was sit­ting in my of­fice with hedge­hogs in a box that I was feed­ing af­ter find­ing their mother squashed on the road.

“I think I’m just nat­u­rally in­quis­i­tive. I lived on the coast for a while and was al­ways dig­ging around in rock pools. I’m the sort of per­son who likes picking up logs to see what’s un­der­neath. It’s amaz­ing what you can find.”

These days hen-keep­ing du­ties have been passed on to Bill’s daugh­ters, aged 10 and 13, who love to in­cu­bate eggs and rear the chicks. In fact, in Au­gust, the two lat­est ad­di­tions to the Smith’s flock had to ac­com­pany the fam­ily on the long jour­ney up to the Isle of Bute where Blue­bird K7 had her first pub­lic out­ing in 51 years.

“They hatched out the day be­fore we were due to drive up to Scot­land [for Blue­bird’s suc­cess­ful float­ing on Loch Fad]. We couldn’t leave them be­hind so they came too in a box in the back of the car,” laughs Bill. “It was lovely and warm in the car and then I set up the brooder when we got there. They were fine.”

Bill’s quirky home is tucked away on the edge of a for­mer pit vil­lage near New­cas­tle-upon-Tyne. It re­flects the multi-faceted char­ac­ter of its owner whose di­verse ca­reer de­sign­ing safety prod­ucts for the car in­dus­try, and as an ex­plo­ration diver and en­gi­neer, al­lowed him to re­tire at 40 and ded­i­cate his time to fam­ily life and, of course, Blue­bird.

The frontage of the red-brick house is smoth­ered in grapevines, which are heav­ing thanks to the heat of the sum­mer, and we walk into a hall dom­i­nated by huge or­gan pipes on the wall of the stair­case. “I wanted a book­shelf so I res­cued a pipe or­gan from a chapel in Wales,” Bill ex­plains as he leads me into the kitchen, Bor­der Col­lie Meg pad­ding along be­hind.

The open-plan kitchen is scat­tered with the de­bris of fam­ily life — cer­tifi­cates of good be­hav­iour, pen­cil cases and school bags. Home-made wines bub­ble away on the coun­ter­top — pineap­ple, straw­berry and some from the Black Ham­burgh grapes around the front door — and com­ing in via the pa­tio doors from the back gar­den are the chick­ens, who take free range very lit­er­ally, rush­ing over to eat from Meg’s bowl.

Get­ting his first chick­ens was a spur of the mo­ment de­ci­sion for Bill. He and wife Rachel had gone to a farm to pick up a Bor­der Col­lie puppy (Meg’s pre­de­ces­sor) be­fore the birth of their first daugh­ter and they came home with six Rhode Is­land Red hens as well.

“My wife is a teacher and used to tell me that many of the pupils had no idea where eggs came from. I didn’t want my chil­dren to grow up like that,” says Bill. “I think it’s a great thing to be able to do with lit­tle ones, to go and get the eggs each day. I wanted them to ex­pe­ri­ence the whole cir­cle of life and know that chicken nuggets come from a bird, not the su­per­mar­ket.

“Chick­ens are fun pets any­way. We’ve had some real char­ac­ters. I had one clever lit­tle brown hen who used to watch me dig­ging in the gar­den be­fore hoover­ing up all the in­sects I un­earthed. Our cur­rent lit­tle cock­erel — “Birm­ing­ton, named by my youngest af­ter the Mid­lands city, you

know the one” — eats out of the dog bowl. It drives Meg [the dog] mad.”

The orig­i­nal ‘Rhodies’ were soon joined by Boris, a golden leghorn cock who had been a show bird. He sired the next gen­er­a­tions of Bill’s birds for six years.

“He was so hand­some — a real Kel­logg’s corn­flake bird,” re­mem­bers Bill. He was fol­lowed by Vlad the Im­paler — “I’ll leave you to draw your own con­clu­sions as to his char­ac­ter” — and Squeak, be­fore Bill moved to ban­tams, which are much eas­ier on his gar­den.

“Now the chick­ens are the girls’ re­spon­si­bil­ity and we re­ally love these lit­tle Cochins. Next sum­mer I’ll let them choose a new breed. We like the look of Pol­ish Friz­zle ban­tams at the mo­ment, but it’s up to them.

“I’ve tried to en­sure that they know about the world around them. I used to catch and pin but­ter­flies for them. They can tell you the names of ev­ery bud and flower; or could do. Now they are grow­ing up all they want to do is go to FatFace.”

Bill’s back gar­den is where it all hap­pens, with cherry, fig, ap­ple and pear trees, hutches hous­ing pet rab­bits (“hor­ri­ble things, they be­long to the girls,” he laughs), a shed for the 10 turkey poults ar­riv­ing soon and his chick­ens.

It has also been home to pet lambs Dolly and Dim­ple — un­til they grew too big and had to be re­homed with a lo­cal farmer — a flock of quails (“bril­liant birds”), man­darin and mag­pie ducks and the orig­i­nal tur­keys, Sage and Onion.

Bill now buys poults in rather than hatch­ing his own tur­keys, fin­ish­ing them for the Christ­mas din­ner ta­bles of friends and fam­ily. “The farmer tends to give me the big ones. One year some were so big we couldn’t get them in the oven. We had to chop them up, which wasn’t great.

“I fin­ish them on corn and ap­ples from our trees. It’s a very nat­u­ral sys­tem and they taste great be­cause of it. Again, I think it’s im­por­tant for kids to un­der­stand the process meat goes through to end up on the ta­ble. They are a bit squea­mish at first, then fas­ci­nated and af­ter that it’s just what hap­pens.”

An­other of Bill’s in­ter­ests is sculp­ture. He uses alu­minium and cop­per to recre­ate wildlife, from del­i­cate car­na­tions, roses and grape vines, to a cut­tle­fish made from cut­lery and full-size repli­cas of birds. Re­cent art­works in­clude a Cal­i­for­nian pel­i­can with a 7ft wing­span, while his cur­rent project is a com­mon tern.

Bill first cre­ates a wooden ver­sion of the bird and then casts the head and makes the rest in alu­minium.

“I don’t have many of them around as I tend to make them and give them away to friends, but I was re­cently ap­proached by an agent who would like to sell some in his gallery. It’s rather ex­cit­ing. These will be the first I’ve ever sold,” he says.

“I do find birds fas­ci­nat­ing. While we were up in Bute there were ospreys ev­ery­where. Nor­mally if you see one os­prey it’s a re­ally big deal, but there they are as plen­ti­ful as the pi­geons in New­cas­tle. We were asked to be care­ful of them by the en­vi­ron­men­tal author­i­ties on Bute, but they need not have wor­ried. The birds could not have given two hoots for us; they were just lazily tak­ing fish and were to­tally unfazed by us. It was amaz­ing.”

So, from a Blue­bird to metal birds, rare birds and chick­ens and tur­keys, one theme that runs through the life of this man of many in­ter­ests and skills is a love of wildlife and the feath­ered kind in par­tic­u­lar. His hens may not be ex­otic, but they are birds of par­adise none the less.

Chick­ens aren’t Bill Smith’s only love — he en­joys mak­ing home-made wines too from pineap­ples, straw­ber­ries and from the Black Ham­burgh grapes that can be found around his front door

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