A team of close friends gathers for a day of mixed sport and serious leg-pulling.
Mixed birds and serious leg pulling amongst friends.
In the final interview I conducted with the late AA Gill for this very magazine, he quizzically brought up the notion that people in cities rarely look up, look up at the skies during their everyday lives. They never consider the clouds…why would they?
Although describing the ‘complete narrative’ that is a day stalking on the hill, his suppositions on what was hugely important and relevant to him at that time, extends to the field in general, ‘being wrapped, cocooned in the day’. I tumbled snippets of our conversation over in my mind the last time I was in London’s West End, charging from tube station to my destination. In a city, one’s senses are…i don’t want to say assaulted, as the negativity jars, but tumultuously swamped with so many noises and smells, from the sublimely good and beguiling to genuinely gag-inducing. I wonder if our fatigue after a day in a city is just our struggle to process so much; we’ve yet to be fine-tuned to it all.
So with fresh, strong coffee intensifying our senses and the memory of smoked bacon rolls already sharpening our thirsts to an edge, I joined Rufina Pavry at her peg in the middle of the line for Pither’s Hill, the opening drive at Manydown, near Kingsclere in the Berkshire and Hampshire borders. The only sensory prompts and intrusions lancing the silence were the stubble-washed breezes, the keening of a distant buzzard and the crackle and rustle of the shoot host’s feet in the long straw stalks.
I honestly think that distillation of just a handful of sensory markers helps make our days so soothing and relaxing.
An accelerated ruffling sound heralded the arrival of the team’s quarry; a hard-flying covey of French partridge, sounding not
unlike a multitude of playing cards clothes-pegged to a multitude of bike wheel spokes. The guns were more than ready, guns up, keenly eyeing the skyline.
Now, I must declare an interest in that the headkeeper Kevin Rolls is a dear friend, but I did marvel at how his partridges had read a pheasant’s script in arriving in smartly arranged bundles of threes and fours all the way along the line. It was testament to an extremely well-disciplined beating line. The well-spaced individual shot reports echoed away across the vast stubble field, in a huge vale, resembling the most titanic game of pick-up-sticks any child could ever dream of.
Kevin has keepered and managed the shoot at Manydown since 2010, along with his friend and venture partner Angus Irvine.
At just 20 days, it’s refreshingly lightly shot, almost entirely by a syndicate. Interestingly, they’re just entering into another venture at the renowned estate Bagnor, nearer to Newbury. Manydown, an important part of the then GCT’S pivotal biodiversity study in the 1980s, is now at the core of a shoot taking in around 2,000 acres of barley, wheat roots and mature woodland.
Mrs Pavry was swiftly off the mark, taking her birds in good, clear silhouette above the seemingly endless shelter belt trailing away to our left; this style of shooting clearly suited her; nine from a dozen or so shots, nailed cleanly in front, at the central apex of that neat imaginary funnel shape emanating from her peg, to tumble neatly at our feet.
Rufina, shooting a fairly standard Beretta 20 bore, perhaps a nod to her illustrious Italian pedigree, seemed happy to leave any birds quartering to her right, her friend Jen Suman gratefully mopping them up neatly with her demure Englishbuilt 16 bore.
“The only sensory intrusions lancing the silence were the keening of distant buzzards and the crackle of the host’s feet in the straw.”
Chris Pask, accompanied by his little boy, was quite abstemious throughout the drive, picking out the birds that really stretched him; he had a great view of proceedings, slightly higher than the other guns on the far right of the line. This was no gentle loosener; the team were straight in to it, with over 30 partridges rolled into the dusty stubbles.
With some quick hedgerow pit stops squared away, the second drive, Nutwood, afforded me a slightly better view of the guns I hadn’t seen much of in the opener. Knee-deep in a rolling emerald sea of vivid green stubble turnips, Claire Sadler was first to shoulder her gun; reloading in a slick, well-honed movement, to the chortles and gentle sniping of her friend Victoria Knowles-lacks; both ladies were back-gunning Jen Suman on the sloping ground on drive one. There was a little light sledging from Paul Graham, who in fairness had taken plenty on the gunbus on account of his questionable whiskers, a lamé shooting suit of almost mythical reputation, a magnificently selected yellow silk pocket square (sadly, all too rare these days) and a dozen or so other points.
The initial wave of partridges prompted a united intake of breath from the team as the large initial flush of birds breasted the hedge line. Luckily, half of the large covey ducked the breeze or arced away to the flanks, as any degree of tidy shooting would have put a large question mark over the chance of a third and fourth drive. However, there was no cause for alarm as the remainder trickled through in restrained but inviting groups for the guns to pick out without haste.
Count Odon de Bellissen, Chris Thorpe, and a newcomer to the group, Piers Powell-shedden, were all busy taking the lion’s share of the sport. Thorpe, The Count and in a much broader, far hairier sense, Paul Graham, are that essential thing on a shoot day – social glue; they simply couldn’t stop with myriad observations and witticisms; a sort of gleeful incontinence of repartee.
Elevenses was robust, unfussy and plentiful; the chorizo and bean soup was inspired and quite superb, but it did come back to haunt one or two guns later in the day, with one end of the gunbus sounding not unlike a Year Five remedial clarinet lesson warm-up.
At the appreciably fresher end of the bus, I wriggled in next to the reliably more fragrant Claire ‘Sads’ Sadler, a London lawyer, to interrogate her about her season.
“How many days each season? Well, it has varied over the last few years due to work commitments but
the number of days seems to be growing, although this year I’ve had only had about six days as I was out in the US for two weeks in November shooting nearly every day, so I needed a bit of a rest when I got back. That was a trip with Victoria,” she explained.
“We first met when I attended my first ever Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club event at Royal Berkshire Shooting School a few years ago. We have since become very close friends. We really lift and support each other through everything we do. We’re very similar in that we love our clays and adore everything about our game shooting too. I practise hard during the close season and I take huge pride in cooking game for friends and family, particularly game I've shot. It’s about being part of something that is such an integral part of our country life and British culture and I am passionate about encouraging others to get involved.”
I love you really
The core of this team has shot together for a number of years now and it really shows in the casual, withering and unrelenting disdain they display for each other, generally. It’s wonderful to be around, that display of not daring to show just how fond of each other they really are. With the third drive approaching, they’d just nudged into three figures, not that it mattered a jot. As Paul Graham, a director at Pol Roger, poured the remnants of a bottle into his friend’s flute, he reflected: “My, I just love shooting really traditional partridges like that,” to a knowing nod of agreement from Chris Thorpe, an accountant…but a fun and interesting one.
“At, Paul, you really love shooting at those partridges,” corrected a friend with a twitch of an eyebrow. The slight was unfounded, as both Graham and Thorpe had really shot out of their skins on the previous drive, each wielding a hefty Browning and Beretta 12 bore, respectively.
Any racket was mercifully kept to a minimum for once as the guns were positioned by the chirpy shoot host Darran Ritchie at Hungry Hill, one of those problematic ‘big sky drives’ with no real discernible markers to help in taking some gauge of height and distance.
Once again, I took up a position with Rufina, who back-gunned the line at the base of a good slope, with us now squinting into a watery sun, Victoria, Chris Thorpe and Claire in front of us. And as no one in particular once said, partridges wait for no one taking a comfort break, so with one chap still shaking and one lady still dripdrying, at opposite ends of the line, the opening volley of little birds whistled through the interrupted line to a staccato ripple of snatched shots which touched not a feather.
Once the action started, it was brief but fast and furious and during a lull, a pearler of a pheasant came storming towards Chris Thorpe, only to be taken at 40 yards by Victoria
“The opening volley of little birds whistled through the interrupted line to a staccato ripple of snatched shots.”
with one shot off her left shoulder and an immediate apology, followed by hoots of laughter, pheasant earrings flashing in the sunlight.
With only 30 or so to find, the team assembled for Hutchins – the final drive of the day. As Kevin Rolls gave me a wave from a distance, one or two guns mentioned their rumbling tummies; the timing could not have been better. One of the guns, who affected a shooting stick, shot quite well once parted from it, they all did really. In fairness, the team were that wonderful thing of blissful restraint considering the opportunities afforded them.
It wasn’t long at all until partridges and then pheasants started rising, quartering across the line from the bottom right flushing point, with birds doing all sorts with myriad cover options. Without the need for blanking in, it was just one of those finales which suddenly unfolded without a slow build and walloping crescendo, it just bounced into the latter with so many shots and echoes at the end, it sounded like a double gun day at full tilt.
A pair of glossy black labradors, efficient enough to impress, but with plenty of character, mopped up with little correction from their friendly handler. Jennifer Suman, a vivacious City girl with a big heart in the Highlands, picked up her empties and her nearest birds, whilst pointing out her kills, further behind her, with her thumb-stick… ever the traditionalist.
They looked around for the remainder of the team as the birds were being braced together on a nearby truck. They smiled the smile of an unspoken mutual appreciation of a good day shared, and shared with friends.
Jen Suman pulls the trigger on Pithers Hill.
Chris Thorpe scans the horizon for signs of movement.
Headkeeper Kevin Rolls.
Chris Pask’s son Henry.
Jen Suman and Paul Graham compare notes between drives.
Sporting agent and Shooting Gazette contributor Robert Cuthbert.
Rufina Pavry acquitted herself extremely well during the day.
Darran Ritchie was the shoot host on the day.
Lunch was taken at The George & Dragon in Wolverton Tadley.