On the death of Desmond Bliss’s grandfather, his father Thomas took over the running of the farm and re-established the shoot. The land is gently undulating with many woods planted for shooting and includes The Park as well as outlying areas of farmed land. Desmond attended the Royal Agricultural College Cirencester and helped his father run the farm. Thomas retired from active land management in the 1990s and Desmond has run the farm and shoot since then.
Arriving I park up in the farmyard, amongst the four wheel drives of my fellow guns and the cars of beaters and pickers-up. My father, as usual, is already there, having been one of the first to arrive. It had attempted to rain on my drive north and the cloud cover is low and gray, though usefully a decent wind is blowing. Ralph the keeper greets us and thrusts into my hand an old ice cream tub with money in it as well as a clipboard. “Can you do the guns sweepstake, please Tim?” This is an old tradition, where all the guns and beaters guess what the bag total will be at the end of the day. A few years ago Desmond decided to spice things up by insisting we then multiply our choice by the number of species shot. I guess 406, which means a bag of 106 made up of four species; I know we shall get pheasant and duck, but I’m hoping also for a pigeon and perhaps a fox.
Today, in addition to me, my father and Desmond, the guns include Jonty Bliss, Desmond’s younger brother and now a noted surgeon; Jonty and I used to spend school holidays wandering around the farm bagging rabbits, rooks and rats with his father’s Savage .22 rifle. Also along is regular gun Arthur Pinfold, who has shot at The Park for over 30 years and is an ex-boyfriend of one of my sisters; Mike Tolhurst and Scud Wells, farming neighbours of Desmond’s and lastly Minty Everard, daughter of one of Desmond’s good friends. She is using her 20 bore, all the rest of us use our side by side 12s. My father has his Beesley, I am using my great-grandfathers Henry Clarke, Desmond has a Holland & Holland Royal, Jonty his late father’s Stephan Grant side-lever.
We have a quick word from Desmond on the plan for the day and a reminder to pick up our empties, shoot cocks only and to shoot ground game if we wish. He then produces one of his collection of position finders; today it is a delicate silver fan of peg numbers that are revealed when the clam box it is contained in is opened. I draw peg number three. Then we mount up into the old sheep cart behind the equally old Fordson tractor, which has been the shoot transport forever. We sit on straw bales along each side; game is hung from a bar at the far end. We chatter away, catching up with each other’s news. Everyone knows each other and has shot together before. It’s chilly but not cold, the dogs in the cart are keen and we lean against our guns, snug in their leather slips, as we talk. It’s not long before we stop alongside a green gate set into the park wall, built of a lovely honey coloured local sandstone, where we debus and walk into a ploughed field. We have had a good deal of rain in the past months and Desmond has just been telling us about how he has had to plough back in his autumn drilling as the seeds became too waterlogged to grow. He’s not happy about it and we don’t really fancy the fact we shall be spending a good deal of the day tramping about in the plough.
As we often do the day starts with a stand around the lakes. There are three lakes built on three levels. They were used once to breed captive fish for feeding the halls residents and even now a local angling club has the rights to the fishing. We line up around the bottom lake, release our guns from the captivity of their slips and load up with bismuth cartridges for this drive. We wait for the beaters to push the duck off the top lake, where they like to gather first thing in the morning. At first it is quiet, with the occasional sound of a bird and the wind in the trees. We wait several minutes before two mallard come from behind us and fly, unerringly, straight over Desmond at peg five; he brings them both down and they fall with a splash into the water. He rarely misses. A couple of minutes later a group of a dozen duck fly over us, pretty much out of range, before Ralph blows his whistle to signify the end of the drive. Jonty is keen for his young Springer Spaniel Tess to do a retrieve from water and, with his unloaded gun broken over his arm, he paces quickly up to Desmond, indicates to Tess and watches her find the first duck. It’s always lovely to see Springers working and I miss mine terribly, even though it is now over ten years since I had my own put down. As Tess swims back with her proud retrieve, Jonty steps to the edge of the bank to help our out. To his dismay, the bank gives way under him and he finds himself up to his chest in the icy water. His boots scrabble for some footing and he raises his arm above his head to keep his gun away from the water. Desmond pulls his brother from the lake and makes arrangements for him to change into some of his own clothes for the remainder of the day.
As Jonty wends his squelching way back to the farm house, the rest of us move through the trees and back onto the ploughed field we had come in by, though this time we move up three pegs and onto our new numbers. I am on peg six for this drive, which is a maize strip running along the inside of the park wall. Desmond established it five years ago and it has become known as Hellfire. The beaters start at both ends of the maize and beat it in toward the centre. As they start to do so, a watery but none the less bright sun emerges from behind the clouds, in time to provide us all with an excuse for missing any birds, as it shines straight into our eyes. One of the beaters dogs is badly behaved and can be seen scurrying forward well in advance of the beating line. A lone pheasant erupts and flies upward and away to my left, to present itself nicely for Desmond, who is now on the left hand end of the line. He fires, the cocks head folds back and it lands on the plough in a burst of feathers, stone dead. By this time a refreshed and dried Jonty has taken his place on peg number one, having purloined a pickers-up car to hurry his mission. Now the birds start to come over the line and we all manage to dirty our barrels for the first time. A lone cock heads for me, making a nice, high overhead shot. I need my second barrel to hit it and it lands behind me, almost in front of one of the picking-up team. As the whistle blows for the end of the drive and we stow our guns back in their slips, I bend down to gather my empty cases and check the bird I hit has been gathered in to hand. It has and the dogs are doing their bit to make the day successful, by bounding around and finding all the birds we managed to get.
By now the sun is making sporadic appearances and the wind continues to blow in a reasonable way. As the beaters move off for the next drive the guns gather around the cart and I produce my hip flask for some elevenses. I made some sloe gin two years ago and it has matured nicely. I have a sweet tooth and like my tipple syrup-like; my father, who does not share my affliction, winces as he swallows the mixture. He’ll have his revenge on me later. No-one else complains and the flask is soon emptied. Desmond issues us with instructions for the next drive, which is outside The Park. For Jonty and me this entails a long trudge around the edge of another ploughed field and slight uphill pull for us to reach Gorse Wood. As number one peg I have to walk some 30 yards ahead of the beaters on the south side of the wood, as they push through. Jonty is away to my left covering the north side, where he will eventually move onto his peg to join the line of guns around the far edge of the trees. The cry goes up from Ralph and the beaters start to work their way eastwards. I am mindful of the two flag men away to my right flank, ensuring birds that attempt to escape are pushed back over the trees and onto the guns. A lone cock explodes from the undergrowth and reaches for the top of the trees, curling away over me. It is not a hard shot but I manage to miss with both barrels and I gently swear as I break my gun to reload. The next bird to get up flies over Jonty and he brings it down. We progress slowly forward and soon the other guns are getting in some shooting. I attempt a long shot at a bird getting up behind me, but miss again. Oh dear, perhaps I should have had a few more practice clays a few weeks earlier! I get to the hedgerow where I am to stop and act as a back gun whilst the beaters turn north to complete their work. Two grey squirrels make an appearance at the top of a nearby tree. I choose one and bring my gun to bear. As I fire the creature disappears around the back of the trunk. Fired four, missed three. I notice a small black crossbow bolt lodged into a branch at chest height. I pluck it from its rest and examine the steel tip. It is rusted so has been there a while, but it has also been heavily sharpened. It probably belonged to a poacher after deer. I take it to give to Desmond and let him know that there has been activity up on that hedge. The whistle blows and I make my way through the wood to where the guns had been standing. Jonty is off to my left looking for a bird. I meet up with Scud and Minty and we walk down back toward The Park wall, chatting about the price of lambs; Scud has just got out of sheep altogether and put his entire farm out to contract. He has trebled his profits as a result.
Back in the park and it’s time to gather around the cart again, this time for a nip of my father’s sloe gin; it is dryer and tangier than mine, no doubt about it. Time now to move onto Frogs Leap, which is one of my favourite drives at The Park. On peg four I know I shall be in the shooting. But the rain starts and we button up against both it and the wind, which turns things rather colder than either have been. We usually have to wait a fair time for the beaters to do their work before the birds start appearing, but not so this morning. We are soon stuck in to some wonderful high birds and I manage to bring down six. One very high bird off to my right was particularly rewarding, especially with just the one shot to it. Jonty is to my right and I can see he too is having a good time getting on to some high birds. The wind is bringing them to us just right and we seem to be in the pound seats; wonderful. At the end of the drive we disappear into the woods behind us. They surround the top lake and there are a couple of birds that have landed in the water. The pickers-up are getting them in before Jonty ventures anywhere near to the bank. I pick four birds myself but love to watch the dogs beavering away in the undergrowth, keen as mustard and willing to please. There is time for one more drive before lunch so we all hop into the cart, now with the bag swinging from the pole at the far end.
Moving up three for the Picket, I find myself at peg seven. This is a good spot as it is the lowest peg and the birds tend toward this end of the line to fly into the wood behind. However, with all the rain the ground under my feet is very heavy and I have large clumps of plough on my boots before the drive starts. Similar to Hellfire, the beaters move in towards the middle of the cover from both ends. Over to my right and on higher ground, stands a small sandstone covered cupola where the hall’s then owners stood to watch a famous civil war battle unfold in the distance. As the birds start to appear I find that my position, stuck in the mud, renders me incapable of effectively swinging around to my left so I chose the birds coming overhead. One high bird is hit hard but not dead. I stop to watch its descent, fortunately into the out flung arms of Chris the tractor driver, who gathers it in safe and administers a quick wring of its neck. Again Jonty and I have enjoyed a great stand and had a fair share of the shooting. Away to the right of the line Minty has been pulling the birds down too, a fact remarked on by many of us; she blushes. It’s certainly feeling like lunch now and we hop into the cart to return to the farmyard.
For as long as we have been going to The Park, lunch has been taken in the old estate carpenters workshop. It is the last of a line of lovely old brick built outhouses; the game is hung in the next door room and the beaters use the workshop beyond for their lunches. In the room the old treadle lathe still resides under the window and Desmond has already lit the log fire in the grate. Three wooden tables, that have seen much better days, are placed longitudely in the room, with benches along each side. At the fare end an old glass fronted bookcase acts as repository for glasses, wine and port. On the side away from the fire, up against the bookcase, is my father’s perch. He has always sat there. I slide in next to him and he produces lunch for us both. We start with a glass of dry sherry, followed by a mug of hot soup. Sandwiches are next, usually accompanied by Scotch eggs or cold sausages, as we have today. There are also some small cherry tomatoes. By now all the guns are sat around the table and we gently steam dry. Our caps and jackets are hung on the old metal hooks by the door. Tess lies under the table. The wine is circulated. We are warm, in good fellowship and pulling each other’s legs about the mornings shooting or the state of Arthur’s car. My father produces tangerines and a chocolate bar, Desmond offers us festive mince pies and soon, my favourite bit; the port decanter comes around. As is also traditional, a bottle of port goes to the beaters. Some of them have been beating at The Park almost as long as my father has been shooting there. It all adds to the timeless nature of the place. After he has finished his first glass of port, Desmond pops next door to see the beaters off to the next drive. He soon returns to tell us that we have six minutes before moving off and pours himself another port. It is with a degree of reluctance and stiffness of limb that we prise ourselves away from the warmth and comradeship of the table, don our kit and get back onto the cart.
Scud and I have lit our cigars and we puff contentedly on these as we rattle our way to the bridge over the brook that runs through the park. Here we stop and walk off to our pegs for Sheepfold Wood the centrepiece drive at The Park. The wood sits on top of a small hill and at its southern side Desmond always plants a cover crop. Large round straw bales at the northern side provide a wind break for the birds as well as a useful riser to get them up and flying. The pegs are lined along the brook at the bottom of the hill and by the time the birds are over us, they are stood tall, high and fast. Some curve away to the right or left of each gun, some set their wings to glide into the wood behind us. These are always testing birds, there are usually a lot of them and it is an exciting stand. Pulling these birds down is a satisfying achievement. I’ve accounted for five of them by the time the whistle is blown and the beaters appear out of the wood. The pickers-up dogs are having a wonderful time finding the birds and the guns feel that they have been well tested, as we walk across the plough to Old Teds, the final drive of the day.
I carry my father’s gun as it is a hard pull up the hill in the porridge-like plough and, at close to 85, he is entitled to some assistance. I’m on peg five, whilst he is out on the left flank at eight. Jonty comes up past me, puffing hard to reach his peg. Minty and Scud are chatting on his peg at number three. From up here we have a splendid view behind us, facing north, looking across the brook below and then the land rises gently to meet the next wood, with open grassland between. Away in the distance is the mainline railway, carrying trains from London to the north, on up to Scotland. In the distance I can hear a helicopter and see the tall Elizabethan chimney pots of the hall. The wind has died down somewhat now and the rain has held off. The beaters start to flush through Old Teds and soon we are getting into more birds. This time and despite being in the middle of the line, the birds favour the guns on each side of me, splitting as they approach me. I still get one and it thumps down behind me. I’m satisfied though as I have had another wonderful days shooting and as I walk back to the cart with Desmond and Jonty we agree that the weather has generally held good for us and the birds have flown well.
We return to the yard and put our kit away in the back of our cars. Ralph comes around to give us two brace each for the pot. We give him a tip and then pop in to thank the beaters for their hard work, before retiring again into to the warmth of the shoot room. In there hanging on a wall is a notice board. Attached to the top is a pair of gun barrels, one of them displaying a ferocious looking tear half way along. Those are the original barrels to my Clarke and a notice next to them describes the circumstances of their bursting when my father was shooting at The Park, back in 1975. Old copies from game books from The Park’s heyday in the late Victorian years are there and photos of long ago shooting parties. The sense of history, of time stood still is palpable and comforting. After a cup of tea from our thermoses and another mince pie, it is time to say goodbye. We part knowing we shall shoot together again and having enjoyed each other’s company, the fresh air and glorious countryside. We’ll sleep well this night, but before doing so, I shall replay the day’s highlights to myself, the better to remember and be able to recall when I see the entry in the game book. 90 pheasant, 2 duck.
Simon's note. The names and places have been changed in this account and for the photographs I have taken the liberty to use various from our library to attempt to illustrate a family day of shooting.