Comedian, TV presenter and birder Bill Bailey talks birds, Brexit, paddleboarding the Thames and how he came to do the world’s most northerly gig
We enjoyed your new book, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds – it’s really useful for birdwatching novices.
That’s the intention. It’s maybe not for the hardcore birder. It’s more for someone who doesn’t really think about birds, yet if something catches their eye, wherever they are in Britain, that bird will be in the book.
What places would you recommend for the amateur birder to start out?
If you have a back garden, begin there. Put a feeder out. That’ll get some birds in.
If not, anywhere where there’s water is good: lakes, rivers, the coast. There are any number of wetland and RSPB centres throughout the UK. They remind me of my childhood.
You don’t even need any kit or binoculars; you can just borrow some while you’re there.
Marsh Tit (Dreamstime)
You travel a lot, even for a comic.
I’ve just done a tour of Europe and got a glimpse of the future. When I’m in the EU and travelling with all my kit, I breeze in and out. But going between [non-EU] Norway and the Netherlands, I had to declare everything. There’s all the extra queues and paperwork. This is what we’ve got to look forward to.
We saw some of your Twitter pictures of Scandinavia. It looked amazing.
Norway in particular was stunning. I would recommend anyone to try and get up to Svalbard. It blew me away because I didn’t know what to expect. I did a gig there – the most northerly on the planet – and expected about eight people shivering in a hut, but it’s a fully-functioning town of 2,000 out on the permafrost.
It was like doing an arts centre in Surrey, but halfway to the North Pole, and if you stepped out the door without a gun, you might get eaten, so there was an extra element of danger.
Did you see any bears in Svalbard?
We saw recent polar bear footprints, but no bears. We did see an Arctic fox, and lots of birds were starting to arrive, as it was getting into late spring.
The ice was starting to melt but it was still cold enough to ride across Arctic glaciers and frozen rivers on a snowmobile.
Is it true that you once rescued a bird from a restaurant on your travels?
Yes. We were in China and were directed to a restaurant. We walked in to see an owl. I thought they just had a pet owl, but clearly not. It was part of the menu – prawns, crab, eel... an owl? So we haggled and bought it. They wrapped it up in parcel tape and stuck it in a box, then we took it out to the woods and let it go. The usual sort of thing, really…
Boreal Owl (Dreamstime)
You’ve travelled in Asia quite a lot over the years. Where is special for you?
Indonesia is an amazingly unspoilt country in many ways. Yes, Bali has mass tourism, but that’s a tiny island in a vast archipelago that stretches some 2,800km from east to west. We’ve been going there for years and covered most of it, but there’s lots to see. It’s still fairly 'out there' when you want to step off the beaten track a little bit.
Where would you recommend?
There are parts of Central Sulawesi where you can just head off into the national parks, where very few people go. Sumatra, too, has some amazing parts, with Gunung Leuser National Park at its centre, one of the few places in Indonesia where working elephants still help to build bridges. It’s amazing to see.
There’s wildlife, too, with orangutans and leopards.Tthen there’s much further east, in the Moluccas. That’s somewhere we’ve been to quite a lot – both the northern and southern – and it has a rich history. The Portuguese were there for a while, then it was a stronghold of the Dutch East India Company and the spice trade. Wonderful remnants of its colonial past still exist and you can take off into the wild pretty easily.
By the sound of it, you go walking a lot.
Yes. Last year I walked The Ridgeway, which is the oldest road in Europe. It runs from near Tring in Hertfordshire down to the Avebury stone circle. It’s brilliant and has become one of my favourite routes. I often go up there now on the train to do a couple of sections.
You always seem to be on the move. How do you decompress at home?
I like doing Stand-up Paddleboarding. Whenever I’ve got a spare minute, I go up the Thames on my board.
Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds (Quercus; £25) by Bill Bailey is out now.
Main image: Bill Bailey (Kris Bailey)