Six miles south of Exeter, with its train station, M5 motorway and “international” airport, the outside world gives way to the coastal microclimate that is the Powderham Castle estate. From the battlements and park of grazing fallow deer there are views over the Exe estuary to the small town of Topsham, and beyond, along red sandstone cliffs, to the square tower of Trinity church in Exmouth.
Since the 12th century, and their arrival from the romantically named Château Reynard in Burgundy, Powderham has been the seat of the Earls of Devon. They have been bishops, even an archbishop of Canterbury, soldiers and politicians. But in many ways their achievement, given the bombing of Exeter in 1943, is to be there still.
Today the Earl and Countess of Devon preside over a number of activities at Powderham, which is open to the public in the summer months, including horse trials, pop concerts and vintage car rallies. Part of the film, The Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, was filmed here, and until he died in 2004, the Rose Garden was home to Timothy, at more than 160, the oldest tortoise in Britain.
But in the winter, the castle returns to being the Devons’ private home where, for up to six nights and days during the shooting season, they are “at home” for a dine, sleep and shoot for eight paying guns. “It’s not just a way of helping the shoot to pay for itself,” says Hugh Devon (pictured). “We both like entertaining here.”
Warmth, relaxation, informality and comfort would describe the atmosphere that greeted me as I met the guns who were staying the night to shoot the next day, mingling with their hosts. Some had been before, and one was due to have his first ever day’s driven pheasant- and partridge-shooting, having previously shot clay pigeons only. All had driven the three-and-a-half hours from their homes in London or the South East.
Drinks are served in the family’s private drawing-room, with dinner in the Great Hall, which has a roaring fire. Guests stay in a variety of comfortable bedrooms, very much in keeping with a family home, where miniatures of Bell’s whisky are by the bedside and, helpfully, a can of fly-spray is on the dressing-table.
Immediately apparent was the high level of success and business interests of the guns. That they had shot or were going to shoot this season at Lineham and Kitley near Plymouth and Conholt Park near Andover, showed that they were also in a shooting bracket marked “serious”.
Within an hour of their arrival, however, and in the guiding hands of Hugh and Diana Devon, the guns were visibly relaxing. With Veuve Clicquot as an aperitif, dinner was served by pretty waitresses, accompanied by a classic Bordeaux, Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou Saint-Julien (1999), followed by vintage port and a large seasonal stilton. It was a lingering dinner for the guns to review their year and talk about the day ahead.
I found myself agreeing with one gun who told me it was very important to have a Breitling watch which has a transmitter in case your helicopter goes missing. Another showed me his watch, a Patek Philippe Chronometro Gondolo (“one of my series of dress watches,” he emphasised). How could I have lived all my life without so much as a Timex?
What also became apparent is that these highly successful individuals, some of whom proudly told me they had left school at 13, live their lives in very disciplined compartments. They may have stayed up later than usual but all were down to breakfast and ready for their day of sport by 7.30.
Outside, the estate was already beginning to stir. The two game- and beaters’ carts sat ready, spotless, and Lord Devon was walking his two English springer spaniels in preparation for the day. He had gone to Orkney for the younger dog, to get some blood back to one of his successful lines. “She’s in her third season, so not at her best yet,” he told me. Lord Devon is president of the Westward Gun Dog Society.
For 16 years, the headkeeper has been Graham Durrant, known as “Dick”, whose elegant wife Christelle is always in the beating line, assisted by underkeeper Will Pratt. “This is not a steep-valley Devon shoot but we do have good rolling topography,” says Dick, whose youthful appearance belies his years and experience. “This allows for good-quality driven birds to be shown and we are prepared for bags of between 200 and 300 birds.”
Many of the beaters and pickers-up have been coming to Powderham for years, including the noted field trial champion Jack Davey, who had out both retrievers and spaniels. Which is better, I asked him, and he replied with great wisdom: “The retriever is for retrieving and the spaniel is for hunting.”
“Do I qualify as having all the gear – no idea?” the gun who had not shot driven-game before asked me as we assembled in the castle courtyard. You cannot answer a question like that until the day’s end.
Travelling with Hugh Devon during the day, he pointed out many people and points of interest. A sweet chestnut from the 17th century which had recently fallen was found to contain a cannon ball from the Civil War.
Of the day’s six drives, the first, Cookhouse, offered good birds for the guns positioned by the leat of the old sawmill. The second drive, named Frank Sanders, had been created on a Farm Woodland Scheme and produced an exciting mixture of pheasants and partridges. The guns were spaciously placed for high, fast birds which were presented in well spread and manageable flushes.
This saw some good shooting, notably from Harvey Alexander who shot well all day and took the highest bird of the day on this drive. “There’s one for my gamebook,” he said, rightly, referring to his high hen pheasant. Nick Richards, too, was consistently successful by taking his good birds early.
After this drive, fellow gun Gregg Govier produced a flask the size of a Serrano ham containing raspberry vodka and Richard Sullivan responded with some of his Dorset-matured, home-made sloe gin. Not least, this was to toast the avowed novice Peter Beaumont who had shot a brace of pheasants. How did it feel? “It felt fantastic,” he told me. “I wanted to shout and cheer.”
Most of the drives at Powderham involve getting into vehicles with perhaps no more than a 10-minute journey. But the third and fourth before lunch, Whitcombe and The Oaks, are a short walk apart. Whitcombe offers high birds within covert and here Carl Turpin and Trevor Pothecary were in the hot seats and the honours.
But it is The Oaks that regular guns favour and, if you shoot it well, you are bound to be seen by your neighbour. Mulligatawny soup is served by Lady Devon as the beaters move round to blank in this drive back to the guns.
It is here you notice the difference with a private shoot. The pegs are hand-painted and topped in the oxblood livery of the estate. All the gates, fences and stiles are in full working order –with stiles and dog flaps in the fences for the pickers-up – and I did not see a discarded cartridge or stray piece of release-pen wire throughout the day. “It makes all the difference to us to be shooting in a beautiful place,” Harvey told me.
At The Oaks, the birds come out at a good 90ft and then climb to clear the covert behind the guns, like a golf ball well struck from a driver. Gregg had a particularly impressive session here.
Lunch for the guns is in the Great Hall with the hosts while the beaters have their own hut down near the castle lake. Theirs is hard work and when I popped in to see them it was like encountering a nest of voles.
Over lunch Gregg took the opportunity to talk about a charity close to his heart, the Help for Heroes campaign to help those soldiers who have been wounded in Britain’s current conflicts. His father had been a brave soldier for 34 years, four of them spent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. “There is a great relationship between shooting, the City, the military and charity,” he told me. There and then he raised several thousand pounds among his fellow guests and hosts.
After lunch, the guns are on their pegs for 2.30. The first drive was the Rifle Ranges (estate land once used for military training). Again, this was a drive of high birds produced at inviting intervals, with glorious views towards the Exe estuary.
But it was the last drive, The Belvedere, which produced two triumphs. Firstly, Richard, who by his own admission had not been having the best of days, shot good high birds well behind him. Secondly, Peter accounted for five brace on his own.
Dick was pleased with how things had gone. “The weather was overcast with blustery showers and strong north-westerly winds. Conditions don’t get much better than that for a day’s shooting here.”
It was also a day when each gun could forget momentarily about the responsibility of his very serious businesses. Except one, who had his BlackBerry with him at all times, waiting for just one call. “What would you do if the call came through just as you were about to shoot a high bird?” a fellow gun asked him. “Take the call, so I could have many more days like these,” he replied, without hesitation.
The call did come through eventually. “I’ve just bought a ski resort in Bulgaria,” he told me. Not bad going for a man on his day off enjoying the sport and serenity of a fine and ancient Devon estate.
To enquire about staying and shooting at Powderham call the estate office on 01626 890252.
For information on Help for Heroes visit the website.
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