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Articles on miscellaneous subjects written by Bill
Burning the chalet down - Print Email PDF 
Posted by wackywales 02/01/2008


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Sunday Times, January 27, 2002, Sunday

A warm welcome, then chalet went up in flames


A Shetland refuge seemed the perfect base for a relaxing bird-watching trip -until Bill Oddie raised the temperature

In 1975, I went bird-watching with a friend to a small Shetland island called Out Skerries. We had intended to stay on mainland Shetland, but when we arrived the airport had turned into the size of Heathrow and it was all rather noisy and unpleasant. We decided to go to Out Skerries, where I remembered a few birdwatchers had found some interesting species. A friend knew the owner of a wooden holiday chalet that was empty and cost only Pounds 50 a week. To get there, we had to get a fishing boat to the island of Whalsay and then charter a smaller boat.

It was a terrifying journey; there was a force-eight gale so we were lurching about in the rain. It was probably only a seven-mile trip, but because of the bad conditions it took us an hour and a half. When the skipper finally kicked us out at the quayside with our packs I thought, "Phew, we've made it".

We'd been given directions to walk to the middle of the island where our glorified garden shed was situated near to the church, moored at the top of a slope with big metal ropes to ensure it didn't blow away. We went inside and it was delightful - perfect for a couple of birdwatchers. It was very basic and all on one level with two bedrooms: a bunk bed in one, a single bed in the other. There was a little shower bathroom and the kitchen was along one side of the living room. An islander had kindly lit the stove fire, so it was hot and cosy when we arrived from our cold journey. There were a couple of easy chairs in front of the fire so we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed a relaxing evening.

The villagers said to keep the fire going because it was cold in the chalet. There were only about 60 inhabitants and they lived in big waterproof stone houses.

I remember waking the next morning, a Sunday, and looking out at the amazing view. It's a tiny island, only a couple of miles long and no more than half a mile across so you could see the sea from every side. On a clear day you could also see the other Shetland islands.

After breakfast, we set off for a walk; we were looking for all sorts of birds, including warblers and thrushes, as anything could turn up in May. About 11.30 we were coming back over the hill when we saw a wisp of smoke rising from the direction of our chalet. We thought it was rather weird that someone might be burning something there. At first we thought it was an optical illusion, but as we approached we saw that, sure enough, the billowing columns of smoke were coming out of our new home.

A line of villagers, dressed in their Sunday best, had come out of the church. They had formed a chain and were passing buckets of water along and hurling them at the fire.

By the time we reached them, the fire was smouldering rather than in flames so my friend and I threw ourselves into the chalet to rescue what we could. It was wrecked; my friend's binoculars had melted in half (he'd left them behind to dry out after the wet journey) and I have a half-charred notebook to commemorate the occasion.

The fire went down in local history as the most exciting event in years and was a big story on the front of the Shetland Times: "TV star burns down holiday home."

We felt awful, but when we phoned the owner he told us he was covered by insurance. Although it was gutted inside, the basic structure survived and the islanders were so resourceful it only took them a couple of weeks to rebuild the whole thing and fireproof it.

After the fire, the holiday looked like it was going to be a disaster until the crofters down the hill invited us to stay with them. The next day, the wife called us outside to look at a black and white bird on the washing line; it was a rare male collared flycatcher, from eastern Europe. At that time, it was probably only the fourth recorded one in Britain - so that was our reward.

Since that holiday I have returned to the chalet many times with fellow bird-watchers and my family and it has become a second home. It was refitted with an electric fire, which I always thought was never quite as cosy as a real one - but when the roaring fire becomes the actual building, then it is taking things a little too far.

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