Birds of Paradise
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-year-old 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 his 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 on 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 forms from the natural world, 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.
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
Bill Smith claims to have had some ‘real character’ chickens over the years. Two of the latest additions to the flock even accompanied him to the Isle of Bute during Bluebird’s trial