The Brownstone shoot in South Devon has its own pub. Reason enough to look forward to a day's pheasant shooting. One even gets to shoot from an island, and walk on water...
Every shooting day taken by an individual, where others are guests, is a reflection on the host. For all the sport, hospitality, lunch, wines, woodland, silence and orderliness of the beaters, those of us grateful for our invitation should always keep an eye on the person who made it all possible.
Often hosts wish to take a back seat on their days, wanting nothing more than that their guns should have fun. Not infrequently, I have been on shoots where the host, despite being a good shot, does not raise his gun all day.
When, however, the host’s entire family home has been created with the pheasant shooting around it in mind, complete with an authentic pub, lakeland and woodland landscape, then even more attention must be paid. For the shoot has been created in the very image of the man.
Such is the case on the Brownstone shoot near Yealmpton (the location of Old Mother Hubbard’s cottage) in South Devon, which has become the realised dream of successful Westcountry businessman, Michael Hockin. It nestles not a mile from the sea, between the famous Kitley shoot – where I have shot several times – and the Flete estate near Mothecombe.
Once, Brownstone formed part of the estate of the first Lord Revelstoke, one of the many titles accorded to the Baring family of bankers who began their success in Exeter in the 18th century. He built nearby Membland Hall in 1877 but sold it after the banking crash of 1895. It was demolished in 1945.
But as you approach Brownstone nowadays, before you is the old lodge with an enormous carved bull on one side and a bear on the other. It is said that this is the origin of the trading term “bull and bear market”, the bear being a pun on the family name of Baring.
Michael Hockin’s purchase and creation of Brownstone for pheasant shooting has been all about his own trading success. He was brought up in the dereliction of bombed-out, post-War Plymouth and yearned for the countryside. The success of his commercial property business, which he started with his wife Diane in 1983, has allowed him to achieve this by creating the shooting estate at Brownstone.
To begin with, the Hockins, who came to Brownstone in 1991, lived in a pretty, pink bungalow. They then set about adding bow windows and pillars to the main former farmhouse which, on my visit for a sunny and fairly still private day of family and friends, also boasted a tall flagpole and a fluttering Union flag in the garden, so there is no questioning Michael’s pride or patriotism.
“The pheasant shooting at Brownstone is Dad’s creation, his privacy, his refuge and his pride and joy,” his daughter Annamarie told me.
“He has worked all his life to achieve this.” The farm buildings are immaculate, the landscaping faultless and, as we assemble for a 9.30 start, I see the Hockins’ own Brownstone shoot pub The Dog and Duck, where lunch will be served. One also senses that Annamarie, an Edinburgh University graduate and now a successful private banker in Bristol, is something of her father’s “pride and joy”, too. As we get into his Range Rover to go to the first drive, I notice a silver frog on the bonnet. “Frog”, he tells me later, is the family nickname for his daughter.
Brownstone is not so much an estate with a shoot as pheasant shooting with an estate. “I have planted 8,000 more trees to go with the 10,000 planted in the Nineties,” says Michael, “and I don’t mind saying I’ll take on any further land that might come up.” There are 12 drives and the shoot takes place every 10 days. We were there to shoot five drives with an expected bag of 150 pheasants as well as the odd partridge.
Fellow guns included Michael’s son Christian and daughter Annamarie, a Jethro-like joke teller, a brace of businessmen, a district councillor and a film producer. Jethro’s friend, Peter Inch, told me that he will sometimes ring in the middle of the night with new jokes or song lines. One recent one was, “If you leave me, walk out backwards so I’ll think you’re coming in.” This humorous decency rather typified the day, I thought.
In the first drive at the Brownstone shoot, Alston Heights, the birds came manageably off gorse with the sunscape of the coast a mile away behind them. I was struck by the grassed, hard tracks and flat standing for the guns. “All these were only put in five years ago,” Michael told me. “In my line of work, I’ve got plenty of people who want to get rid of rubble.” I was also impressed by the shooting of John Verney. “I only ask him because he’s such a good shot,” joked Michael, whose younger brother David and his partner Christine White were beating. “I love the earthiness of it all,” Christine told me.
For the second drive, the Tennis Court Main Drive, birds were pushed towards a release pen behind the guns and were produced in good numbers by the keeper Neil Rodgers and his team of 10 beaters. They were also of a testing height. This is a lovely valley, looking towards the left to the outer reaches of the renowned Gnaton Hall shoot.
I have to admit my heart sometimes sinks when I am next to a lady gun but Annamarie Hockin, with a very straight and steady swing, did splendidly, as did her father back-gunning behind us. There are no pegs and Michael places the guns on each drive according to how much sport they are getting.
Another back gun in on the action was film producer Nick Napier-Bell. If that surname seems familiar, it might be because his brother Simon managed the pop group Wham! in the Eighties. Simon also co-wrote the Dusty Springfield hit You don’t have to say you love me. Both boys were brought to Devon from Ealing as children during the War and, for Nick, that affection for the Westcountry has remained. “You could say I’m the respectable one of the two of us,” he laughed.
The Main Drive is the finest at Brownstone and produced some pretty good shooting from all the guns. There is plenty of space in front of you to see the birds coming and they have the height to test any gun. There was little wind throughout the day and the Brownstone shoot gamebook records only two days of rain on a shooting day in the past 15 years.
The third drive before lunch, after a break for soup, is the Lake Drive and guns are placed in front of the house around an upper and lower lake. The bottom one has a heart-shaped island, which Michael created for his wife as a 25th wedding anniversary gift.
I was placed on a small island on the upper lake, as pretty a stand as you could wish for.
While the birds did not overly oblige here, there was good pheasant shooting on the edges of the drive from both Basil Cane and Duncan Currall, one is a councillor and the other runs the Western Morning News – two important allies for the shooting world.
It was time to enter The Dog and Duck, with its roaring woodburner upstairs, bar area and a delicious lunch cooked by Sandra Vallance of Kilworthy Catering. Her family-run team is a good example of a diversifying Devon farming family who do B&Bs and catering, everything, in fact, so that they can stay on their pretty Dartmoor farm. They use their own meat where possible and treated us to excellent steak and kidney pudding.
Two drives were offered in the afternoon, the first being Nissen Hut. This involved the beaters taking a long wood at a steady pace and there was some good shooting from Christian Hockin who shared his father’s peg. Both Nissen Hut and the last drive of the day, Creacombe Stroll, are akin to drives you would find on a medium-sized, family-run shoot. They require alertness as the birds may not fly in an altogether predictable trajectory.
On Creacombe Stroll I was a walking gun and fell into the company of beater Geoff Lambert who, for many years, has taken his holidays in the Lake District following the Fell packs. When putting up a bird, I asked him to alert me by shouting out the names of famous Fell huntsman.
In this way, I claimed one Peel (cock), a Todhunter (hen) and a Richardson (hen). I hope this is not considered unfair, but it was a marvellous way of knowing that a bird was coming my way and I could distinguish his information above the general cacophony of voices which so often accompanies beaters’ finer efforts.
As well as being a councillor, Basil Cane farms the land at Brownstone. The 100 acres of arable land are used for cattle and sheep grazing but the stock doesn’t arrive ’til the spring and is taken off in the autumn, leaving it as peaceful as possible for the birds. “If you don’t make it happy for the birds, they won’t stay around,” keeper Rodgers told me. Amaz-ingly, for such a well-run shoot, he doubles up his keepering duties with a pretty full-time job as a builder. Always with him is his 12-year-old daughter Elleisha, who is serving an ap-prenticeship of the countryside, as is Carl Wrightson who helps with maintenance.
Also beating are teenage brothers Aaron and Connor Clegg; the former has finished at Sparsholt College and is now an underkeeper for a local shoot and the latter hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Neil teaches them all about pheasant management and he also ex-plains to them that the shot birds are immediately sent to local restaurants.
“The Brownstone shoot is a work in progress,” says Michael modestly, yet this has clearly been a real achievement. “I shoot all around and at Brownstone have encountered some lovely birds and an atmosphere without airs or graces,” Duncan Currall told me.
Days will be available to let for nine guns at Brownstone. What they will get is a lovely setting and plenty of manageable, high-quality birds. Guns travelling from farther away can stay the night at Kitley House, now a hotel. When I stayed there, often as a guest of the Bastard family who still own the house, it was not always easy to find the way upstairs after dinner. I hope things have not changed.
To shoot at Brownstone, call Michael Hockin on 01752 208844 or 01752 830231.
And when you have returned with your bag, be sure to make use of The Field’s top 10 best pheasant recipes.