Summers in Italy followed by sporting adventures around the globe have impressed on Julia Mitchell, a freelance consultant, the value of good company
From cultivating land throughout hot, Italian summers as a child to chasing adventures across the globe, Julia Mitchell has learnt that nothing is more important to sporting life than companionship.
For more sporting Dianas, seriously sporting ladies offering advice and encouragement, Claire Sadler is BASC’s first female vice-chairman and is keen to encourage the next generation. And Anita North competed on the world stage and is now focusing on coaching others.
One word summarises my sporting philosophy: companionship. The word, synonymous with sharing food together – from the Latin com panis, literally ‘with’ and ‘bread’ – expresses a celebration of enjoyment, derived from spending time with others.
Etymology aside, this ancient ‘togetherness’ distils perfectly for me the joyful essence of sport and friends, conversation and mealtimes. A simple word, forged deeply into my DNA and shaping my family’s history.
I was raised amidst the warm embrace of an extended Mediterranean/British family. My sister and I spent long, hot, Tuscan summers with our beloved Italian grandparents and against the dazzling backdrop of Carrara’s marble quarries those holidays with Nonna and Nonno were a magical world away from dreary Cheshire school days.
Hunting, fishing and shooting were core to my family’s heartland, yet I never considered them as ‘outdoor sports’ or ‘fun’. They were an intrinsic part of daily life. Nourishment from nature was taken for granted. We cultivated whatever land we had, growing tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, fruit and herbs. Fig and olive trees were ubiquitous in our village and grape vines abounded.
We reared chickens and rabbits and I was probably seven years old when I skinned, prepared and was taught to cook my first rabbit stew à la cacciatore (hunter style). Each season wrote its own menu. Wild boar roamed across our hills and La Caccia (the hunt) equalled feast days, but this was dangerous hunting indeed. Tracking, encircling and shooting the cinghiale might take several days for the team, typically eight men armed with walkie talkies, rifles and camping gear. Naturally the women were elated when they returned safely, bearing succulent trophies of our favourite Tuscan meat.
With hindsight, I can appreciate the companionship and loyalty that entwined my family and friends. Back then, no one queried the duration of those hunting expeditions. We simply prayed for their safety. Meanwhile, those comrades would share rough bread around campfires whilst rekindling the day’s adrenaline in Carrarino dialect, toasted in banter and home-made grappa. I wish that I could have participated, too. When I shot my first stag on the Croick Estate in Scotland, I toasted my grandfather and his companions silently, with honour and love.
Back home in England, my father was a skilled fisherman who nurtured my love of tranquil riverbanks whilst instructing me on trout rods and reels, fly tying and casting techniques, plus tolerance of English rain. Our moments of companionship are tightly bound around my heart, echoed by Charles Orvis’s eloquent words: “More than half the intense enjoyment of fly-fishing is derived from the beautiful surroundings, the satisfaction felt from being in the open air, the new lease of life secured and many pleasant recollections of all one has seen, heard and done.”
Those gentle days we spent together on Lake Bala or the Derbyshire Wye gave way over time to more challenging adventures with my husband and friends: fishing for taimen, lenok, Siberian grayling, marlin, pike, perch, trout and salmon meant sporting experiences across Cuba, West Africa, Ireland, Bhutan, Outer Mongolia, Peru, the Danube Delta and Scotland. I treasure a rich archive of photographs preserving these destinations and sporting experiences. But it’s always the smiling group photos that mean the most.
As a child, Annie Oakley was a heroine and her advice still hollers in my ear as I approach my peg: “Aim at a high mark and you’ll hit it. Not the first time nor the second time, but keep on aiming and keep on shooting… for only practice will make you perfect.”
Yet what use is ‘practice’ without ‘people’?
I revere each passing season and can claim some (modest) proud shooting and fishing moments: sighting the rifle swiftly on target; bagging a clean left-and-right; wiping (rarely!) a few eyes; or throwing out a dispirited ‘last cast of the day’ then feeling a salmon’s dull thump rewarding the tip of my rod.
But none of this matters without people and companions: gillies, rods, guns, shoot captains, beaters and picking-up teams. Across ages and interests, familiar faces mingle with new acquaintances, my gratitude is always heartfelt for their smiles, gentle jokes, interesting asides and precious advice. A sporting life requires sporting companions.
TOP TIPS: Serendipity shines consistently I’ve found, so I always keep a notebook and pen to hand to jot down names of people I meet. I’m amazed at how far human connections ripple and spread and rejoin, so I take my cue from Dante Alighieri: “Remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always.”