Very little interrupts the British lorry driver when he’s forking in his fried slice. But last winter truckers were left open-mouthed in an Edinburgh transport caff. They’d watched a small procession of long-maned girls troop into the loos, only to appear in spray-on shooting tweeds lavishly embellished with pink silk and crimson velvet.
This is a verified sighting of the Splendid Game girls loading team. Its existence was first reported a year ago but finding chaps who had actually shot with the team was problematic. Men who would abandon wives for a weekend’s shooting were oddly reluctant to be pictured in the company of these double-barrelled belles. But how could we prove that the girls were truly splendid when it came to feeding 12-bores to deal with a constant stream of birds? The solution was provided by West London Shooting School (WLSS), a place that knows exactly what’s required of top-class loaders and has a string of Arcadian estates providing some of the most testing simulated game days north of Zanzibar.
Jonathan Irby, the WLSS manager, had assembled a top team of guns that would be merciless in its demands. Jamie Russell, the Duke of Bedford’s brother, is a keen shot noted for his prowess with a pair of 1927 William Powells that has served four generations of his family without a glitch. Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall, a City lawyer, was one of the stellar team that won the City Championships clay-shoot at Highclere Castle with numbing regularity. And Andy Castle? Well, he runs West London Sporting Targets club (up the road from the School) and is considered a “top shot’s top shot” by Jonathan – and a methodical destroyer of driven grouse. The other guns are Nick Johnston, who is no slouch with a gun and whose family owns Great Tew, and myself.
Here come the girls
We have the team and we have the squibs – 3,000 of Hull Cartridges’ finest 24g Pro Fibre, the perfect load for high-volume shooting – kindly donated by David Bontoft. All we need now is the Splendid Game team.
The girls arrive halfway through our bacon butties, most having travelled down the night before from St Andrews University. Lexie Byrne, 20, is in her second year reading history, and is a seasoned stuffer on friends’ grouse moors. Gilly Kyle, 20, also a second-year history student, has trodden the familiar path of all-round helper at family shoots. Kirsty Playfair, 23, graduated from there last year and was the first St Andrews lady to be awarded a full blue in shooting after her team won the British Universities Sports Association shoot and she came third individually. Georgina MacIntyre, 21, is in her last year reading sociology at Durham and was the frontispiece in Country Life recently, a role in which she took a professional interest as she runs the fashion pages for the student newspaper. Beforeuniversity, she was captain of the girls’ clay team at Cheltenham College. Millie Davidson, 23, is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and now has a bespoke dressmaking and millinery business; she also has a striking line in cobalt-blue mascara.
It would be a struggle to find a more charming and intelligent group of young women. But can the girls actually handle a pair of guns competently? Their founder and manager has no doubts. Ruaraidh Menzies, 21, is in his second year at St Andrews reading Classics. His father is the Hon Lord Menzies, a Scottish Supreme Court judge and his mother, Hilary, owns and runs a bespoke textiles company, Pride of Lammermuir, which makes the Splendid tweeds.
Put to the test
Raised as a fieldsportman, Ruaraidh immediately joined the university’s clay-pigeon club. Then, two friends, Nick Webber and Darren Hobbs, who had been running an event company called Splendid Events for 12 years, were asked in 2006 to help a “major hedge fund manager” run his shoot day in Yorkshire. Ruaraidh, who worked for them, saw an opportunity to develop something from this, and the following year Splendid Game was born.
“Our aim is to provide not just loaders and lunches,” says Ruaraidh, “but immaculately turned-out loaders whom we have trained to load fast enough for the experienced shot and make sure that the novice is shooting safely, and the best shooting lunch in the land, from a simple picnic to a banquet on the hill with an on-site catering team providing whatever you want.” We are not interested in food, though, but in the loaders’ performance. To put them through their paces Jonathan has arranged two of the star drives that feature regularly on the WLSS simulated days at Great Tew.
The first is a mixed partridge and pheasant affair, not too testing. Jonathan decides we should use the team as stuffers initially, to see how it copes under pressure. I’ve got Kirsty, and she’s all that one could ask for at this stage. She’s fun and chatty before the drive starts, bumming a cigarette off me when she thinks Ruaraidh isn’t looking, but immediately shuts up when the clays start flying. Kirsty’s as good as any stuffer I’ve had and the gun is always full.
Then we switch to double guns and she manages well but there isn’t the forcefulness one expects from a seasoned pro. Changing guns is physically demanding, with the loader standing very close behind and almost slapping the second gun into your waiting hand during the change. Jonathan shows Kirsty how it’s done and she manages it well. Other members of the team find it more testing. Lexie is a petit 5ft and Jamie, her gun, is about a foot taller. The physical difference in height is making a smooth change difficult.
We move on to the grouse butts hugging one of Great Tew’s hills. Jonathan has controlled the pace so that the clays resemble the sort of flurry you’d expect on a 100-brace day: nothing for minutes then a “pack” of clays zapping over a 35yd horizon. I’ve asked him to make this a long drive, partly because it’s so exciting, partly to give the girls a real test. Not all of them pass. Some have found the physical work of changing 7lb guns rapidly and repeatedly just too much and their shots have reverted to single guns with the loader acting as stuffer. Kirsty and I keep going but there are one or two occasions when the birds are still coming but the filled guns aren’t. Well, that happens even with top-flight grouse-moor loaders who do it 50 times a season.
Eyes like a hen harrier
But what you also get from the old pros is their intimacy with the moor. In the past few seasons I have been privileged to shoot with Dennis, a retired hill farmer, whose life has been spent tramping the uplands. He has loaded for some 30 years and has seen every drive on most moors from most of the butts. If you feel like talking, he’ll respond and for a Southerner there can be nothing more interesting than listening about life on the hills from such a man. And when the grouse come, Dennis generally makes a Trappist monk seem garrulous. Yet he does speak sometimes, pointing out the bird you’ve never seen. He has eyes like a hen harrier, knows exactly where the birds are likely to come from, has a well-trained gundog and an uncanny ability to mark birds down even while he’s changing guns. Such a man is both an ally and a friend for the day.
On pheasant-shoots different skills are required from loaders. Usually, they’re not needed to provide firepower, and who actually wants to kill a low-ground bag so large that it requires double guns? So, they tend to act as general factotums and minders for the less experienced. But every now and then you have someone who really can see shot rather than just claim to have that skill. And having someone who can accurately describe exactly where you’re missing on high, curling pheasants is a huge boon.
So, when would one employ Splendid Game? Not when making a big bag is imperative. But the pleasure of a day’s shooting should not be tallied in crumpled feathers. The young women are very competent stuffers and would add charm to any simulated day or a special shoot for experienced guns. They also offer other services, such as the shoot lunch, dinner and transport. As we return to an era when smaller, amusing days again become the norm they add to the joy of the scene. Just so long as wives and girlfriends understand what, in our world, stuffing really means.
Get a load of this
Splendid Game Loaders cost £200 each per day, tel 0131 516 4555,
West London Shooting School tel 020 8845 1377, www.shootingschool.co.uk.
Special thanks to David Bontoft of Hull Cartridges for supplying the ammunition and to Nick Johnston of Great Tew for the use of his estate.
Learn to load Contact Jonathan Irby at WLSS (details as above).
Kevin Wissett-Warner runs courses on the art of loading. To find out more and book a place email firstname.lastname@example.org.