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Michelin-starred pub fire accidental

The suspect who stood trial on the charge of starting a fire that ripped through the Star Inn at Harome, North Yorkshire has been acquitted.

When the thatched roof of Andrew Pern’s one Michelin star pub caught fire in November 2021, more than £2 million worth of damage was caused. The pub, which dates back to the 14th century (and has been owned by Pern since 1996), was repaired and reopened, with a new thatched roof, a year later.

Last summer, it was revealed that Charles Birkett, the manager of a shooting estate, was due to appear in court on the charging of committing arson. He was charged on the basis of footage which North Yorkshire Police claimed showed Birkett, a family friend of Pern, planting a lit cigarette in the flammable roof while at the restaurant for a dinner.

Birkett’s family hired a leading fire investigator to prove his innocence. At last week’s hearing at York Crown Court, it was found that there was insufficient evidence that Birkett was responsible for the fire.

A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service said: “We have a duty to continually review cases, and after receiving further expert evidence into the cause of the fire, we concluded there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction and stopped the case.”

Judge Sean Morris shared the likely cause of the blaze: “This was an accidental fire caused by people dropping cigarettes into a metal candle bucket.” The bucket had been positioned next to a patch of dead, dry ivy that crept up to the thatch.

Birkett’s lawyers found CCTV footage that also proved that the fire started from the candle bucket. They also had footage that showed that Birkett did not leave his lit cigarette in the roof but discarded of it elsewhere, something corroborated by a member of staff who witnessed it. As it was common practice for cigarette butts to be left in the candle bucket, no suspect for (accidentally) starting the fire from there has been identified.

“You are not to blame for this,” Morris told Birkett. “You leave court without a stain on your character.”

A statement from Birkett, released by his lawyers, called the last two years “the hardest time of my life”: “I always knew that I was innocent but to go through what I have over the last two years has been extremely hard. I have suffered severe anxiety which I have never experienced before, knowing that I was facing a prison sentence of possibly six years or more.”

“I cannot thank Andrew Pern and his family enough, for all their kind words and support,” he continued. “We are extremely close as families and were it not for his decency, his kindness and his knowledge of me and that I would never have done what the police alleged, I think that this flawed prosecution would have ruined the relationship between our families.”

Birkett was also highly critical of North Yorkshire Police’s investigation into him.

“I am one of many who have been wrongly accused of something that they were never involved in. My name has been dragged through the dirt. My worry is that there are other people out there under similar circumstances who would not have had the support, financially and emotionally, that was needed to prove my innocence.”

Though the Star Inn was rebuilt and continues to operate (with its Michelin star), the road to recovery isn’t easy for every pub. The destruction of the Crooked House last summer sparked outcry, with one MP calling for it to be rebuilt, though it might be a long process for campaigners.

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