If you could construct a day composed entirely of the top drives on several different shoots – and then, perhaps, end it with a lunch of real quality in one of the finest houses in England – you would surely have a shooting experience beyond price. Yet last season a team of eight guns enjoyed just such a day for a mere £200.
The day, the “Wiltshire High Four” was the idea of John Tremlett, who owns the Ballington Manor estate and whose enthusiasm for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust knows no bounds. He persuaded three near neighbours, also owners of fine shoots, each to donate his best drive to raise funds. One of them, Lord Margadale, suggested that they raffle the day at £200 a ticket rather than auction it. The other drives were donated by Barney Stratton, who runs the Stockton Shoot, and George Stephenson of Hurdcott House.
All four estates are situated in fine country west of Salisbury, where the views from the hills are long and the November winds blow uninterrupted over well-wooded downland farms. With plentiful valleys, ideal for presenting pheasants and partridges, most of the area is managed for shooting. Established estates such as Fonthill and Hurdcott rub shoulders with the newer but equally well-known Stockton and Prescombe.
William Gascoigne, a Field top 50 shot from Oxfordshire, won the raffle. He and his fellow Millennium Syndicate members had cunningly increased their chances by each buying a ticket and pledging to invite the rest of the gang if he won, so Gascoigne’s team was predetermined. In the event, two syndicate members could not be present (one was shooting buffalo and the other nailing a business problem) but other friends were easily recruited. Syndicate member David King, who by chance lives at the epicentre of the four shoots involved, put up most of the guns the night before and, having woken at 4am on the big day and been unable to sleep again for excitement, provided a thumping good breakfast before the party set off for Fonthill House.
As Alastair Margadale gave a relaxed briefing to the guns, four headkeepers were fretting about putting on a particularly good show. Shoot gossip in the area for a month beforehand had all been about this day. The competition between the keepers, though largely unspoken, was keenly felt. First up was to be Mick Lewis, whose Fonthill beating team had been out since 8 o’clock, slowly bringing birds into the large wood from which they would be launched off the side of Cow Down for drive number one.
Expecting a heavy battue, the pegs were double-banked in the shade of a deep grassy valley below the flushing point. As guns were unsleeved and pickers-up moved into the woods behind, there was a moment of calm to appreciate the late autumn colours, the dew on the grass and the fine morning sun after a week of wild rain. A light south-westerly sent an occasional leaf spiralling but otherwise all was quiet.
The first pheasant of the day, a lone hen,spectacularly backlit by the sun out of which it was flying, was so high it was either not seen or given best. The first shots came as more birds followed, singly at first, then in twos and threes and eventually in a steady barrage of flushes, each of at least a dozen, sometimes many more as the drive gathered pace. Every pheasant was a
good one and the best were exceptional.
Several guns struggled to start with, for it was a true baptism of fire – the sort of drive usually reserved for late in the day rather than presented as a wake-up call. Slowly, however, the ratio of bangs to bumps improved. William Gascoigne found form in the middle of the line, alongside Johnny Glaister. Back gun Geoff Button had plenty to do behind them and made the most of it. Colin Hargreaves meanwhile, on a particularly tricky peg at the left end of the line, unravelled the degree of curl on the breeze and ended the drive with three very high birds, each for a single shot.
“You couldn’t have a better drive anywhere in the Home Counties,” enthused David King as he sleeved his gun. “A truly humbling experience,” responded Nick Allot – who, as MD of Cameron Mackintosh, had chosen to miss the US opening of its new Mary Poppins musical to be present. Fellow guns Rupert Dickinson and Sir John Mactaggart readily agreed. Mick Lewis, grinning like the Cheshire cat, led his delighted team of beaters out of the wood. “They couldn’t have flown better,” said one regular and, with 87 pheasants picked, it was agreed to be a hard act to follow.
Different shoots have different topography and differing approaches. Whereas long-established Fonthill showed its pheasants from a traditional woodland drive, Barney Stratton’s Stockton Shoot, which was next, is more typical of the game-crop approach that became widespread about 30 years ago. Before the guns arrived the birds had been tapped into a block of maize hidden by a narrow belt of trees. The pegs, changed at the last minute to accommodate an increasing wind, were in a well-spread line along the bottom of an attractive downland valley. The moment the guns were on them, redleg partridges began to appear, whipping over the trees on a stiff breeze and then crossing the open valley, which was just the right width to make them really fly.
It was fast and furious shooting; little time to think and often only one chance to get it right. This was not so much about height as quick reactions and decision-taking. The pheasants began to follow,reintroducing height to the equation, the contrast causing some to miss. Encouraged perhaps by the need to show their best in just one drive, it seemed that Kevin Barnard and his underkeepers had brought half of Wiltshire into the beat. The guns were sent scrabbling for more cartridges and it was clear that this show of birds could easily have justified double guns had the rules permitted.
As the horn sounded, John Mactaggart summed it up, “Superb – just like a Rodger McPhail painting.” The pick-up was 47 partridges and 27 pheasants.
After champagne and canapés, enjoyed within the ring of an Iron Age hill fort and accompanied by stunning views of the south Wiltshire countryside, the team was marshalled once more, this time by John Tremlett, for the short journey to his estate. Smaller than the first two shoots in terms of acreage, and with only a few let days, Ballington Manor nonetheless has a fine reputation locally, based not least on the expertise of its headkeeper, David Dillistone.
John had selected the Rookery drive for this special day and it would be shot for the first time in the season. “It’s ready now but you should really see it in January,” he confided. I would like to, for even in mid November it was spectacular. Another valley drive, with cover-crop feeder strips on either side leading into a maize block hidden behind trees, it began with shooting for either end of the line as the flankers came in. Then the main course arrived, with partridges pouring through the centre, spreading as they came, mixed in with many good-quality pheasants that kept everyone busy.
By now, the spectator numbers had grown appreciably. As each shoots’ contribution ended, its keepers followed on, together with the co-hosts and their guests, to watch the sport. So at Ballington not only were there 16 onlookers but the guns had to cope with bright sun in their faces and a running commentary from jocular New York resident, Johnny Glaister, who was shooting at the top end of the line and could see most of the action. His catch-phrase, “Come to Daddy,” was addressed to any birds approaching his peg.
David King was in fine form here, too, shooting with his 28-bore on peg 5. To his left, Geoff Button matched him with his Browning 12, while Rupert Dickinson and Colin Hargreaves held their own on the right. The pick-up, after 35 minutes of shooting, yielded 66 partridges and 58 pheasants, mostly of the very attractive Japanese Green variety.
The final drive of the day was Ivers on the boundary between the Hurdcott estate and Wilton. It was originally developed by the late Earl of Pembroke, who loved it so much that when he finished shooting at Wilton he wanted this drive to continue and effectively gave it to his neighbour, George Stephenson. It consists of a wood, supplemented by some game crop, on top of a north-facing chalk scarp slope. The wood extends down over the slope to provide a typical southern English hanger. The birds, mostly pheasants but with some redlegs, flush well back on the top of the hill. Most then fly in disconcerting and variable curves along the line of the hanger, while others break out and head for the farmland below. They are high, fast and far from easy.
By now, however, the guns were up for their final challenge. Double-banked once more, six forward and two back, all signs of tension were gone. And with relaxation came form. Bird after bird tumbled down through the fading light, although a solitary woodcock managed to instil enough panic to survive eight shots. The big flushes of fine pheasants made a grand finale to the day and the bag for the drive was 101, with nine partridges in addition. “I’m glad it went really well,” said picker-up Charlie Maidment. “There were quite a lot of nerves here before you all arrived.” Apparently the headkeeper, Darren Mills, had been marshalling his troops since 12.30.
With all the keepers thanked – 12 were involved in all and they went on afterwards to eat together in a local hostelry – the guests removed to the splendour of Wilton House. Guns were cleaned for them, vintage champagne flowed and Lord Pembroke, who was kindly hosting this element of the day, joined the party with his fiancée, Victoria Bullough, for a late lunch in the incomparable Double Cube room. The lunch was very generously provided by Lord Sharman, chairman of Le Gavroche, and cooked by its head chef, Monica Galetti. The wines, including a premier cru Chassagne Montrachet, were from Lord Sharman’s cellar.
John Tremlett’s exceptional organisation had ensured that from the moment the guns drew their peg numbers to the draining of the last glass of Dow ’77, everything ran like a well-oiled machine. To achieve as much on one shoot is not given to everyone; to achieve it on four requires a rare talent and the guns and fellow hosts were generous in their thanks. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and a suite of local charities shared the proceeds of the raffle. In that respect it really was a £50,000 day.