Until that first shot, their chat was louder than a Home Counties country wedding two hours into the champagne. Then came a moment of shocked silence, the roar of wings as deafening as a US tank-buster, and the grey geese rose in their thousands from the sugar beet behind us.
Wed seen them earlier, spiralling up like lazy smoke over the Holkham marshes as we ate our eggs Benedict in the luxury of The Victoria. The last time Id been there, it had been a fowlers pub, with good brown beer and sandwiches crammed with Cromer crab. Wed needed it, after hours of lying on the marsh, waiting for geese that never came until it was too dark to shoot. Now, The Victoria is more a boutique hotel, sending London food critics a-swooning with its menus and décor. And the geese? Well, they agree that Holkham is a pretty special place too.
Covering 25,000 acres, Holkham has been the home of the Earls of Leicester since the 1750s, the whole dominated by the Palladian pile. Its undoubtedly one of the grandest houses in Britain but always manages to escape being a palace, being anchored firmly in the centre of quiet parkland and honest farming. And its this combination of privacy and agriculture that makes it a haven for geese and game.
Holkham has been at the centre of English game-shooting since we borrowed the concept of the battue from the French and turned it into our own art form. The coverts were laid out in the 1800s, and it was said of the first Lord Leicester that his knowledge of game was so great he could drive them into his billiard room.
One of the more famous coverts is Scarborough Clump. Its not much bigger than a couple of tennis courts but it was the showpiece drive in the 19th century. While guns ate a frugal lunch (and a raw onion is still part of the Holkham guns lunch), the keepers marshalled the beaters and coaxed the pheasants into the Clump. It was sensitive work with flighty, wild birds: one over-enthusiastic beater and a thousand birds would be over the guns at once and not even the great shots of the time, using triple guns, could salvage a bag from that. But when it went right, as it did under the stern gaze of Lord Leicester, the bag could be prodigious: on one royal occasion in December 1898 it was more than 1,000 head, of which 760 were pheasants.
Today, Holkham remains a premier wild-game shoot under the stewardship of Simon Lester, the headkeeper. Hes gathered round him a keen young team of eight beatkeepers and underkeepers, who still sport the traditional bowler hats, or Cokes, adopted in the days when conflicts with local poachers were frequent and violent. Occasional driven days are let, and theres enormous demand for walked-up days averaging 40 head. But we were here for something very special indeed.
Too often the modern shoot captains instructions include, No woodcock please, a dictate long on sentiment and short on science. But we were here solely for the woodcock, on a day organised by Chrick Verhey van Wijk, a charming Dutch game dealer who handles much of the produce from the North Norfolk shoots. He comes every year with a hand-picked team. But success all depends on the weather. Thats why I love wild-bird shooting nothings predictable! he said, as we drew our pegs. Nothing, perhaps, except the guns.
This team were old hands whod shot since boyhood, a point not lost on the keepers who were acting as beaters. Woodcock swerving can be unnerving, an old Devon picker-up once remarked, with more than a hint of edge. Hed just seen a local solicitor given his marching orders in the days when unsafe shots really were sent home. But with these guns we could relax, at least in terms of safety, though wed need the concentration of a Le Mans racing driver to make a bag.
The cars clipped past the Hall, through the fallow herd and drew into a mass of bramble, willow and soaring Scots pines. Cockers and springers tumbled out, marked the car wheels and disappeared into the dappled depths at the keepers heels. Well whistle when we raise one! called Simon.
January woods are usually as quiet as libraries but the constant wink wink of grey geese passing seduced our concentration as we kept guns at the high port, both for safety and for speed. A succession of hen pheasants, long-tailed and hard-feathered, stormed over on the freshening wind. Each would have made a satisfying shot but they were ignored, together with the clouds of pigeon raised by the unseen beaters.
No whistle, though, to announce the show had started, and yet there was a woodcock, twisting between myself and my neighbour. No chance of a shot in front too low, too dangerous but I caught him 25yd behind.
Ten minutes after the drive started, a cocker bustled past me and collected the cock. Weve picked another two, so thats not a bad start, is it? said Simon, as we gathered for the next drive.
I doubt the wood covered more than 15 acres, but we squeezed 16 drives out of it, all taking about 15 minutes. The shooting was short, sharp work; a cock would appear, brown and as soundless as a falling oak leaf, giving a couple of seconds for the shot. Cries of Mark cock! followed birds too dangerous to shoot but possibles for the guns on the flanks. But it wasnt a game for high etiquette. If the shot was safe it was taken, or the chance would be lost as the cock twisted earthwards or shimmied behind a stand of hazel.
It was also an infuriating business. We all primped our feathers when the headkeeper noticed some smart work, and after a couple of drives I was far too peacocky when Simon placed me in a short ride opposite a wilderness of dead grass, hazel and alder. Youre in the kings seat there, Jonathan, he grinned, fatally. Five minutes later a cock materialised exactly where expected. If the bird had been dyed pink and sitting it could not have been easier to see or shoot. I missed it with both barrels, and the one hot on its heels.
I had a Munch moment a silent scream and recalled the most famous right-and-left at woodcock in the world, right here at Holkham. On November 20, 1829, Sir Francis Chantrey was shooting in these very coverts. Considered one of Britains greatest sculptors and knighted by William IV in recognition, Sir Francis had only one eye and used a cross-eyed stock flintlock. Despite these handicaps, he managed to shoot a pair of cock with one shot (so technically a cannon rather than a right-and-left). The feat was so remarkable that he celebrated the birds demise in a marble tableau thats now one of Holkhams treasures.
That then prompted an outbreak of contemporary sporting doggerel, eventually published in a tome entitled Winged Words on Chantreys Woodcocks, edited by James Muirhead and including this contribution by himself:
The hand of Chantrey by a single blow
At once laid these united woodcocks low
But the same hand (its double skill so great)
By single blow their life did recreate.
Inevitably, while many people agreed that Chantrey displayed enormous talent with classical monuments (visit his sculpture of George IV in Trafalgar Square), immortalising his sporting feat in stone was bound to attract waspish retribution of the sort provided quickly by anon:
Luckless our fate a doubly luckless lot!
A sportsman carved us whom an artist shot.
Happily, our team included some true artists with the gun, such as David Clark, the headkeeper at Sandringham, and by lunch 17 woodcock were laid out to cool as we ate game pie in the woodland ride.
Like many Europeans, Chrik is fascinated by woodcock. For me, it is one of our most wonderful birds, and Id rather share a small day with friends hunting these wild game than a big day with reared pheasants. But should we shooting them at all?
Common sense points to them staying firmly on the quarry list. Great swathes of forest remain undisturbed in the Westcountry, Wales and west Scotland, their traditional wintering grounds. Add the myriads of rough, tussocky places countrywide that seldom see a beater and it would appear impossible to place high shooting pressure on such an elusive bird. But common sense isnt science and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (G&WCT) is now conducting research into the woodcocks population and migratory patterns.
We are currently undertaking two important studies a stable isotope study with Oxford University to determine the origins of the migrant population, and a repeat of our earlier breeding woodcock survey to discover the current breeding population, says Dr Nick Sotherton, G&WCTs director of research. There are concerns about woodcock numbers but if they are in decline there is not enough evidence to support this view either way. Indeed bag records from the Trusts National Game Bag Census indicate that the levels are the same as 15 years ago. Between 1900 and 2002 a total of 1,290 shoots provided data on woodcock. The average bag during the last 30 years of the 20th century is similar to, or even higher than, during the first 30 years. This may indicate that the status of woodcock in Europe has changed little over the past century, and that the conservation status of this secretive bird has been misjudged. However, we do recognise that shooting pressure has gone up on some estates and we would advise estates to be careful not to overshoot.
At Holkham wild game is husbanded carefully. Theres only one woodcock day a year and we were covering fewer than 100 acres of the 25,000. So, with clear consciences we drew a dell within sight of the famous Scarborough Clump. High against the ebbing light, the grey geese skeins yapped towards their roosts on the Wash as the spaniels quested through bracken and bramble, the scent hot in the cool air. A pair of woodcock swung past towards the left-hand gun, an easy right-and-left if he didnt mind chopping down his neighbour with an ounce or two of Mr Eleys finest. He grinned at me ruefully, then killed a singleton that rose just high enough for a safe shot.
And with that Simon blew the final whistle and we drove home through the serene parkland. We shared out the bag in the pub: 45 cock, enough for each gun to celebrate at home with a bottle of burgundy. But at that moment nothing could beat a pint with the keepers, the custodians of a very special place in Englands sporting annals.