The Field

A truly mixed day at Aston-le-walls

Hosting a meet of the local hunt on the Northampto­nshire shoot’s biggest day of the season caused no confusion – other than the strange sight of red coats on the first drive

- written BY frank houghton BROWN ♦ photograph­y BY Sarah farnsworth

Red coats at the Northampto­nshire shoot. By Frank Houghton Brown

Were you in a good spot for that drive, George,” I asked 78-year-old local farmer George Thame at the end of the first drive, knowing full well that everyone had been in the action. “Yes, I had a really good peg,” he replied. “I was back-gunning behind the two redcoats.” Nigel Taylor does have a reputation for bringing outside entertainm­ent to his shooting days, hence the shiny chrome dancing poles in both the centre of the gun trailer and the log cabin shooting lodge, but these two ‘red coats’ were not from Butlins holiday camp but officials of the Bicester Hunt with Whaddon Chase. Joint Master Ben Nicholls and the Bicester’s huntsman, Guy Allman, had managed to squeeze in the first drive before the meet, taking it in turns to shoot or load, and they had been kept busy with a steady stream of testing birds, climbing from the game covert and curling left handed as they hit the westerly wind. At one point just after an eruption of birds, a large fox poked his head out on the right flank where Taylor was flagging, ducked back into the thick and proceeded to flush the remaining birds as well as any beater, before disappeari­ng into a derelict hovel. “Some people complain about having a fox in a drive,” explained the host, “but when there is a fox in a drive there’s usually plenty of pheasants there, too.”

The Aston-le-walls shoot is the brainchild of Ann and Nigel Taylor and is centred around their 200-acre farm and equestrian centre. Both internatio­nal eventers in their day, Ann represente­d the USA at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 on Tarzan and only missed the plane to Sydney because Cracker Barrel had some heat in his leg. Nigel was equally successful, bringing home a team bronze medal from the world championsh­ips at Pratoni, Italy, in 1998 on his famous horse The Frenchman II, one of a long line of world class eventers Ben Nicholls MFH and huntsman Guy Allman managed the first drive before the Bicester Hunt with Whaddon Chase meet bred by Ann’s father, the legendary Ben Hardaway, as a byproduct in his search to breed quality hunters on which to hunt his beloved Midland foxhounds in Georgia USA. Nigel set up the Milton Keynes equestrian centre so it was a natural progressio­n that he would move back home to his family farm and repeat the process, only bigger and better. His eventing days may be over but Nigel now sits on the British Eventing board as internatio­nal director and is the senior selector for the British team.

With three huge fibre sand arenas, an indoor school and a host of modern barns stuffed full of horses, Aston-le-walls is a hive of activity. Every weekend in the summer queues of horse boxes can be seen streaming into one event or another and the Taylors always manage to find another way of expanding and improving their business. Winter time may be a slightly less busy time for the horses, so Nigel has thrown his energies into developing a high-class shoot. “My neighbouri­ng farmers have put 2,000 acres into the shoot and they mostly get shooting days in return. We have 37 days this season and the days that I let commercial­ly allow me to ask my friends and local farmers back here to shoot, often in return for those times when they have kindly asked me to shoot with them.” Nigel is a fine shot but he also shares the keepering duties with George, an incredibly hardworkin­g and much-valued Polish worker.

HUNTING AND SHOOTING

Setting up a large shoot in the centre of a hunting country can cause friction but luckily for the Bicester, Nigel and Ann Taylor are most accommodat­ing. “We are often hunting in this area,” explains Joint Master Ben Nicholls, who also happens to farm just up the road, “and Nigel is very easy to deal with. It’s not unusual for us to be hunting close by when he is shooting and we always seem to manage quite well.”

On this day, Nigel was hosting the meet on the same day as his biggest shoot of the year. However,

he seemed quite relaxed about it. Of course, Ann’s background is steeped in fox-hunting, as she was virtually brought up in the Midland kennels near Columbus, Georgia. Her father, larger-than-life character Ben Hardaway, was the leading light in the American hunting world for many years and bred a world-renowned pack of Julycross hounds that hunt grey foxes, bob cats and, more recently, coyotes. The Bicester has used some Midland blood to try and acquire the low-scenting abilities needed in the hot swamps of Alabama. Ann’s brotherin-law, Mason Lampton, the current Master and huntsman of the Midland, has recently sent a stud dog called Crusher ’13 to Neil Coleman at the Curre and Llangibby Hunt in Monmouthsh­ire.

Horses and hounds aren’t the only thing imported from Ann’s homeland. Ninety percent of the Boykin spaniels in the UK are from Midland stock. “My dad sent over two bitches, Coco and Happy, with a stud dog called Midland. They live in the house and work like crazy but they’re not lunatics like so many spaniels. In fact, four sleep on my side of the bed and two on Nigel’s side.”

The first drive at Tillbrook Hill had been a great success. Tony Waters was the last gun in the line and the first dozen birds had appeared individual­ly, flown straight upwards heading for the sun, before twisting in the wind and swerving over him like astronauts, with the whole line watching expectantl­y. HS2 is set to ravage this part of South Northampto­nshire and Taylor has already sold them the southern end of his farm and bought Tillbrook with the proceeds. Standing on the ancient ridge and furrow grassland it is hard to imagine the devastatio­n that this project will cause.

Back to the gunroom and we were a gun and loader lighter when Allman brought this smart pack of hounds into the arena for the meet. Ann’s daughter, Grace, and son, Neil, were among the mounted field of 50 or so. Keeper George was controllin­g a drone as it hovered over us filming and George Michael could be heard singing Wham!’s Last Christmas in the gunroom. Nothing would surprise me at Aston-le-walls, certainly not Tom Jones, Nigel’s hard-working PA, handing out great tumblers of port in his pinstriped

Four spaniels sleep on my side of the bed and two on Nigel’s

suit and wellington boots, wearing a pink tie, straight from the cast of Lock, stock and two smoking barrels.

Following the meet we moved along the old railway line on Tom Boston’s farm. Hugh Forsyth was in the hot seat here with his beautiful pair of bespoke, round-action, Boxall & Edmiston guns with Ben Taylor, Neil’s twin brother, loading for him in his Gucci shoes, having just arrived back from a day’s shooting in Norfolk where he had been drinking beer wearing these same shoes in the early hours. Richard Waygood, World Class performanc­e director of the British eventing team, was back-gunning and when Forsyth ran out of cartridges, a few strides were taken sideways to fill the breach while Ben Taylor scurried off for another cartridge bag. “Nigel has been so generous to so many people with his shooting over the years,” Waygood said as he folded up another high pheasant that was meant for Forsyth. Polo manager Robert Thame had brought the Bicester hunt’s retired amateur whipper-in Chris Bailey with him to load and Bailey’s fingers got in such a muddle that he shut them in the gun in his haste: there was blood everywhere but little sympathy. Benjamin Burton, the amateur whipper-in, had abandoned his duties for the day and was running the beating line for Nigel.

Meanwhile, hounds were running behind us after athletic young whipper-in Harry Cook, who had shinned up an ivy tree at the back of Bill Adam’s farm buildings. They hunted up past the arenas and the gunroom into the last drive of the day, and away across David and Julie Frusher’s land to Appletree, while hunting farmer Bill Adams was stood with the pickers-up willing hounds his way.

The third drive was some maize on the crest of the hill and the guns lined the grassy hillside where the famous covert North’s Gorse was situated before modern farming caused it to be cleared. The partridges came first, swinging left as they hit the breeze and testing the right-hand guns, who struggled to cope with their speed and swerve. Event course designer Captain Mark Phillips was in the money here and was quicker than anyone to adjust his swing and connect with these testing birds. The pheasants came soon after, with Hugh Darbishire and Slim Linnell under the tap and crop consultant John Bellamy running about behind them, sweeping up the really high birds that got through the first line. Linnell owns a countrywea­r shop and is a passionate advocate for marketing game to eat. “I am currently selling pheasant breasts to butchers in Towcester and I hope to have them in London restaurant­s before too long.”

Back to the gunbus for the fourth and final drive. David Frusher’s lake and the woodland behind the arenas clearly hadn’t suffered from having the hounds through that morning because a flush of wild duck came at once and flew down the line before the pheasants started, setting off across the event course and then curling back to the bank side. Frusher’s farm is an integral part of the shoot and with his own Perazzis, he was in the hot seat in front of the arena. We could still hear hounds running and horses clattering down the road past the Carpenters Arms pub in Lower Boddington, but they turned just short over David Wilson’s farm and were running back towards Wormleight­on into the dusk. We returned to the gunroom for a well-earned drink, the yard still buzzing with activity. Happy members of the Bicester with steaming horses caked in mud were hacking back to their boxes in the Taylors’ yard. It would be hard to find a better example of hunting and shooting coexisting. The Aston-le-walls shoot has its own inimitable style but don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything but a serious operation. With three more days’ shooting that week, I can’t for the life of me think how Nigel and Ann Taylor will survive if they carry on at this frenetic pace of life. But to them, it’s just another normal day at the office.

It would be hard to find a better example of hunting and shooting coexisting

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 ??  ?? Above: a shiny pole hints at extracurri­cular entertainm­ent available on the gun busLeft: Nicholls and Allman share a peg. Top: huntsman Guy Allman lays hounds onto a trail Right: local farmer George Thame with loader Edward Smith
Above: a shiny pole hints at extracurri­cular entertainm­ent available on the gun busLeft: Nicholls and Allman share a peg. Top: huntsman Guy Allman lays hounds onto a trail Right: local farmer George Thame with loader Edward Smith
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 ??  ?? Top: Captain Mark Phillips greets Derek Ricketts. Above, left: Hugh Forsyth’s labrador, Tinker, retrieves a runner. Above, right: the Bicester Hunt and Whaddon Chase ready to move off from the eventing arena
Top: Captain Mark Phillips greets Derek Ricketts. Above, left: Hugh Forsyth’s labrador, Tinker, retrieves a runner. Above, right: the Bicester Hunt and Whaddon Chase ready to move off from the eventing arena
 ??  ?? Local farmer Robert Thame enjoying a “good peg” on the first drive of the day
Local farmer Robert Thame enjoying a “good peg” on the first drive of the day
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