CRICKET ST THOMAS, SOMERSET
High birds and other halves unite for an entertaining day in the South West.
High birds and a wonderful atmosphere hit Guns for six. By Simon Peniston-bird.
January 3 dawned bitterly cold with ferocious winds gusting up to 80mph. To be honest, I was dreading a call from James Mouland, our host and the shoot’s headkeeper, telling me that the day was to be cancelled, but hearing nothing, my wife Celine and I made our way to rendezvous with the rest of the team at the Windwhistle Inn in Cricket St. Thomas. On arrival, I asked a slightly pensive James whether we were still on for the day. He confirmed we would go ahead but the birds might prove “interesting”.
Having had a coffee and a chance to catch up with friends old and new, James asked us to draw numbers. This was done with a very smart set of numbered cups which, having downed the tot inside, revealed our peg for the first drive. I had drawn No.5 – an auspicious start, I thought to myself. After a brief safety talk, we went outside to kit up and mount the Guns’ trailer.
Blowing a hooley
As we set off, most of the Guns were eager to get on the peg but a little anxious that the weather, which was blowing a hooley, was going to wreck the day’s sport. The first drive was to be the aptly named Wind Whistle. It was at the top of a ride through some ancient woodland. As we moved to our pegs, I surveyed the lay of the land. We were in a smallish grass field which sloped up to a hedge, with a decent woodland behind us. Expecting the birds would clear the trees behind us, I assumed this would be a warm-up drive. Well, we all know what assumptions can do to you. As the birds started to flush in ones and twos and occasional little bouquets, it became clear that this was no gentle easing us in – this was in at the deep end. What the birds saw behind the guns I don’t know but they climbed and climbed, hit the wind and shot over the line in the blink of an eye. With the crossing wind causing them to slide sideways, they were tall and fast, twisting and turning. By the time the horn went to signal the end of the drive, most of us were scratching our heads wondering what had just happened.
The second drive, Shave Pinch, was at the other end of this large woodland. The Guns were lined out along the ride at the bottom of the wood and out into a grass field. I had peg No.2 this time as I had persuaded James to let me try the Durnford Wheel instead of just moving up two or three. It is well worth a try as it moves the Guns about a bit more randomly and means you don’t end up shooting next to the same two Guns all day. This is nice if you would have ended up next to Mr Greedy all day, and it also means you end up chatting to more of the team as the day wears on. The
beaters came from the far left and right, gradually squeezing the birds up and out from the cover high above the wood. The birds were spread right along the line but the best were over the Guns pegged on the track inside the wood. Sailing high above the massive oak and ash trees, they made difficult targets again made even more challenging by the wind-borne sideslip.
After a champagne break we moved on to Whyats Wood. Most of the Guns were pegged in front of another large block of native trees. I was now No.7, which left me double banked below the wood with Mike Whitfield and his wife Sarah. As the drive started we saw birds coming forward, but many were expertly dealt with in front. By the time they got out to us, they were completely out of range. I spotted a wonderful bird coming over Mike. It was clear he hadn’t clocked it at all and Sarah was shouting “Michael, Michael!” in that special tone of voice that wives reserve for their husbands and has so many more meanings than just “look up dear, there’s a bird coming over your peg”.
When the drive finished, the Guns congregated back at the trailer and were joined by the beaters and then the picking-up team. James busied around serving drinks while Hannah, his partner, served elevenses. After homemade soup and bread, we had local sausages and then pheasant burgers, a speciality of the shoot. James
told me that as the prices offered by the game dealers have plummeted, he has looked to ways of using their produce themselves. The food was delicious and was wolfed down by everyone with great enthusiasm. I got talking to Joe, the gamekeeper, and he hopes to offer oven-ready birds as well as breast fillets to the Guns this season. It was so nice to see everyone mixing together and enjoying their day together – it gave the day a feeling of being a family shoot rather than just being a Gun on a let day.
Once we were suitably replete, we mounted the Guns’ trailer and crossed the road to the park. Cricket St. Thomas is a beautiful old estate set in Somerset on the Devon border. It has steep wooded valleys, with rolling parkland below and set between a series of ponds and lakes. The internal roads lead you past the old manor house, once Grantleigh Manor in the TV series
To the Manor Born, and the cottage to which Audrey Forbes-hamilton, played by Penelope Keith, was relegated after selling the manor. I cannot think of many more places more quintessentially English than here – it is absolutely gorgeous.
We debussed for Blackmore, the next drive, and after a walk across a field we found ourselves pegged at the bottom of a steep bank in front of a thick pine wood. The birds came thick and fast and despite a heavy shower – as if the howling gale wasn’t enough – the Guns coped well. Pete Gray on No.6 missed with his first few cartridges but then found form, hitting the next 11 birds straight – much to the distress of Howard Taylor and his wife Anna, the pegged back Gun.
After another motor tour of the park we unloaded for Badgers, the final drive of the day. Pegged in
a semi-circle in front of the lake, the ground rose steeply in front and was topped by a larch wood. After a short wait the birds began to come – and kept coming. Joe seemed to manage to fan them backwards and forwards, providing a constant stream of shooting the length of the line. By the end everyone had had their fair share. Returning to the Windwhistle for a drink and a meal gave me a chance to catch up with James. It is only his second season on Cricket, though the old shoot, which runs alongside Cricket, has been under his stewardship for much longer. They manage to provide 26 days of shooting for teams of eight guns and have 15 main drives. James and Joe are keen to develop a few more drives, and possibly try some partridge days. They would also like to develop a gunroom, but James is prudent and doesn’t want to overextend himself growing the shoot sustainably over the next few years.
Badgers sits in a bowl at the heart of the shoot andshows challenging birds.
Admiral Seats is one of the most picturesque drives on the shoot.
Guns take a moment to compose themselves following a busy period.
There was plenty of action to be had at Whyats Wood.