The Star Inn at Harome: Family friend of owner of Michelin-starred Yorkshire pub is cleared of arson as case against him dropped

The case against a 28-year-old man accused of setting fire to Grade II-listed pub The Star Inn at Harome has been dropped after his legal team uncovered evidence the blaze started accidentally.

Charles Frederick Birkett was charged with arson after the thatched roof of the Michelin-starred Yorkshire pub was destroyed in a fire in November 2021. The business had to close for a year but nobody was injured.

Mr Birkett’s defence applied to York Crown Court for the charge to be dismissed and the Crown Prosecution Service have now offered no evidence against him.

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His lawyers managed to obtain CCTV footage that showed that the fire had a started in a candlestick holder which a number of people had used as a makeshift ashtray to dispose of cigarettes and smoking materials in the hours leading up to the blaze. A leading fire investigator hired by the Birkett family, who own the Rievaulx Estate game shoot, has proven that a discarded cigarette or match spontaneously combusted within the metal holder, igniting ivy running up the building and then the low-hanging thatch.

Charles BirkettCharles Birkett
Charles Birkett

North Yorkshire Police’s case against Mr Birkett rested on footage that they claimed showed him deliberately placing a lit cigarette in the roofspace, but the film further showed him discarding it elsewhere and he was witnessed doing so by a member of the restaurant’s staff.

Mr Birkett, who lives in Helmsley, was at The Star that night for a shooting dinner involving clients of his parents’ business. Both he and his brother Henry work as instructors at the highly-regarded sporting estate, and the family are close friends of Andrew Pern, the chef and owner of the pub. They have enjoyed a business relationship for many years, with guests of the shoot staying and dining at The Star.

Mr Birkett had never been in trouble with the police before the fire and is a county-level rugby player who captained the 1st XV at nearby public school Ampleforth College. He also plays football for local side Duncombe Park.

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His legal team described the entire prosecution as a ‘miscarriage of justice’ and said that around eight hours of CCTV footage showing events leading up to the moment of ignition had not been checked. Scorch marks on a bench next to the candlestick holder showed where the seat of the fire had been.

Charlie Birkett, left, with his father Justin, right, and the head keeper of the Rievaulx Estate. Photo courtesy of the estateCharlie Birkett, left, with his father Justin, right, and the head keeper of the Rievaulx Estate. Photo courtesy of the estate
Charlie Birkett, left, with his father Justin, right, and the head keeper of the Rievaulx Estate. Photo courtesy of the estate

Mr Pern, who holds a Michelin star, was set to appear as a prosecution witness but supported the Birketts and did not accept that their son had committed the offence.

The Crown Prosecution’s barrister confirmed during the brief hearing on Friday that ‘all other causes’ of the fire had been discounted after they had ‘carefully considered’ the expert's report and concluded it was ‘not only plausible but likely’ that material from the candle’s container had ignited the ivy.

He added that it was ‘not clear’ who had discarded the cigarette and that the presence of ‘live ivy’ sent the original fire investigator in the ‘wrong direction’until a layer of dead leaves was found. Cigarettes were ‘commonly placed’ in the candle holder by customers.

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Recording a formal not guilty verdict, Judge Sean Morris commended the defence for their preparation of a ‘detailed report’ and said: “It was an accidental fire caused by the dropping of cigarettes into the candle bucket. There was a burn mark on the bench indicating that they holder had got too hot. You are not to blame for this. You leave court without a stain on your character.”

The Star Inn at Harome's owner Andrew Pern is a close friend of Charles Birkett's family and the pub hosts their shooting dinnersThe Star Inn at Harome's owner Andrew Pern is a close friend of Charles Birkett's family and the pub hosts their shooting dinners
The Star Inn at Harome's owner Andrew Pern is a close friend of Charles Birkett's family and the pub hosts their shooting dinners

A spokesperson for North Yorkshire Police said: "Following a review of the evidence by a prosecution expert, it was agreed that there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case, and we supported the CPS decision to offer no evidence at court. In light of the outcome, we will be reviewing this case to identify any learning opportunities."

Statement from Charlie Birkett

A statement released through Charles Birkett’s lawyers read: “I cannot quite describe the last two years and what myself, and then my family, and friends have been through. I am extremely lucky to have had such an amazing family, girlfriend and friends to help me through what has been the hardest time of my life.

"I would firstly like to thank my legal team for all of their efforts. Sophie Cartwright KC, of Dean Court Chambers, has brought her immense forensic skill to this case, and has been simply outstanding with her kindness to both me and my family. Damien Morrison of M & A Solicitors has been there since I was first contacted by the police in December 2021, giving not just legal advice but great support to us all.

Mr Birkett speaking outside the court.Mr Birkett speaking outside the court.
Mr Birkett speaking outside the court.
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"Special thanks though, are due to Dr Peter Mansi of Fire Investigations UK, who is recognised as the definitive expert in the country, and who, within 15 minutes of being provided with the prosecution case papers, categorically could state that the prosecution case was entirely misconceived.

"North Yorkshire Police, following the entirely incorrect hypothesis of North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, alleged that I had deliberately placed a lit cigarette into the thatched roof of The Star at Harome, the premises of one of my family’s closest friends, Andrew Pern, causing the complete destruction of the Michelin-starred restaurant, and over £2million of damage.

"After Dr Mansi was able to view the material that North Yorkshire Police had collected, he was able to show that the fire started elsewhere, metres away from where the police alleged the fire had started.

"My defence team were able to secure the disclosure of the hours of video footage prior to the fire starting, which showed how the fire started, and that the fire was nothing to do with me.

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"From the very first interview with the police, I was fully co-operative, despite the incomplete and misleading disclosure given to my solicitor, and I gave my full explanation and denial. The subsequent investigation and the proper and full consideration by Dr Mansi, completely confirmed my innocence.

"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. For over two years, this has affected me as a person hugely, affected my job and income , and taken a massive toll on Hannah, my girlfriend, who has been a rock throughout this, as well as my family and friends.

"I cannot thank Andrew Pern and his family enough, for all their kind words and support; 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.

"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.

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"I do take some comfort that the expertise and intervention of independent prosecution counsel, Stephen Grattage, and the careful case management and fairness of The Recorder of York, Judge Sean Morris, acted as the effective checks and balances against what was an ill-conceived prosecution.”