I met up with Shooter at his place in the far far 'burbs, by the time I arrived it was late so we both turned in. Shooter cant sleep the night before a shoot and I cant sleep at the temperature he sets his heating to, so each of us is up half the night trying not to wake the other. Several times I hear Shooter shuffling about, between my fitful sleeps and torrid dreams of being trapped, sweating, in a bed full of very fat women with webbed feet - seeing as we are going to Norfolk this perhaps shouldn't be surprising - between the over-upholstered, semi-aquatic dreams and being awoken by thirst I find the time to read most of the fascinating The British Boxlock Gun & Rifle by Diggory Hadoke. Great book, crap nights sleep.
Despite both being up over an hour before our agreed time somehow we still manage to leave late. We spend the journey discussing adventure writing, recipes, firearms and seeing as it's where we are going telling our Norfolk stories.
The most windswept of English counties, a place long known for its flat damp landscape, religious fanaticism, poor transport links, and inbred locals (I dont know if they really have webbed feet but its a commonly held belief) . It's also the home of the worst pizza I have ever seen. Tuna mayo UNDER melted Cheddar cheese. Not an experience I could recommend. Shooter seems to have enjoyed himself on his trips though. To him this is the fabled land of Partridge and Pheasant. Of driven shooting. A land he first imagined from the pages of books in his Grandfather's study back home in India. A land of dreams come true.
Driven Shooting. Nothing gets the Anti-Hunting brigade frothing at the mouth like driven game, so naturally I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. I've been to shoots a few times but this promised to be something very different.
The lads I have beaten for all chip in a couple of 100's per season to cover the grain costs, turn up for some fairly leisurely work days, and the more enthusiastic members of the crew spend a few nights shooting Foxes.
The beaters are either the guns themselves taking turns, or their kids. The bag is never impressive but a lot of competitive barbecuing goes on, a good time is had by all. There is no dress code, no one has a gun that cost more than a weeks pay. Most people have guns that were less than a day's pay. Simples.
Traditional Driven Shooting is something very different. All the numbers are much bigger. This is the other sport of kings, aristocrats the world over have this as a passion, it takes a lot of manpower for a very small number of people to shoot a very large number of what are essentially managed wild birds/ free- ranging farmed birds. Which perhaps has something to do with the strong feelings it evokes in the anti's.
To cut a long story short its a more expensive [and less hair raising] version of the French Battue, that most egalitarian form of hunting. Except it's big on pageantry and ritual, and is only egalitarian in the sense that anyone happy to drop the best part of a grand and up [way up] for a days entertainment can do it.
A line of Beaters 'Beat' (Battue) the cover and animals and birds break cover and come flying and running towards a line of people with guns, in France its Boar, Deer and Hare, here its Pheasant and Partridge with strictly enforced rules against shooting game on the ground. The only exception being that no gamekeeper can endure a Fox to live, so they're shot on sight by the Keepers and any armed beaters.
The French do driven shooting communally, the hunting committee dishing out the bag to all participants. Here the bag is sometimes the property of the shoot, sometimes belonging to the person who bought the day, the guns just get a token brace of birds to take home, and the rest goes to the game dealer to offset the days costs.
Driven game days are something of an anachronism, they take vast amounts of organisation and resources to turn a lot of birds raised, into comparatively few birds brought-to-bag. Over the season 40% of the birds 'put down' is good and 50% exceptional. The Pheasant and Partridge are raised in pens, defended from crows, stoats, weasels, and foxes. If and when they reach maturity there must be cover crops sown for them to mooch about in, they could be left to forage for their own food but need to be fed to stop them wandering off. When the season comes around a small army of Beaters are needed to get them airborne and another team, this time of Pickers Up, to collect any birds the guns have been able to hit and the dogs able to find. The whole spectacle takes place over a fair bit of countryside 'drives' are usually quite a way from each other so there must be a Beater's Wagon to move the troops about and everyone needs to be fed. All so eight 'guns' can enjoy a days shooting.
Everyone's money is good these days so you, or someone like me (except with money), can dress up as an Edwardian gent and be part of the fun. The estates, much like fine gun makers, are in the business of selling a dream. Just like Rolex they are selling a super-fine version of something quite basic. You can have a watch or a shotgun that does the job just as well for less than a days pay or you can have a superfine one that announces "I've arrived", letting you join the club of people who feel they need to let others know they've 'arrived'. If that's your kind of thing. There is a whole industry devoted to marketing this pagent of the edwardian sporting lifestyle with specialist driven shooting magazines full of articles about classic cars, fine wines and high end real estate. Their journalists have names like Tarquin and Arabella, they read like the society pages with coverage split between who was at whose house for a weekends shooting and how the latest oligarch and his stunning girlfriend have been welcomed into the local scene. Welcomed in the hope that Ivan and Natacha will bring some much needed cash.
The englsh class system is always entertaining to watch but I've never really felt I understand it well enough to explain it, to an outsider possibly the most puzzling part of the day's proceedings is the dress code. Why you need a dress code to stand in a field has never been adequately explained to me. 'Tweed and a Tie' was the instruction which kind of covers it but not really.
For the first outing I wore the only Tweed jacket I own, its grey and quite moth-eaten so wasn't really in the spirit of the thing. For part two I wheeled out my skip dived waxed cotton jacket, Shooter thought I'd had it from the year dot and that 'skip-dived' was idiom or understatement for 'I've had it a long time' nah I really did fish it out of a posh blokes rubbish bin next door to a building site. Its smell marks the wearer as a dog-bloke and it's proper dogeared, its the perfect way to blend in when visiting a world where history is everything - it really does look as though its already given several generations of service. No johnny-come-lately would ever stoop to such an attempt to ingratiate himself.
We manage to make up for lost time and rock up at a very handsome pile in the early Victorian style. The Guns assemble in their "shooting gent' outfits. Some people really going for it with the tailored tweed suits which vary from as older than me to brand spanking new razor sharp tailored tweeds. In patterns from subdued to clown-wear. I like the lairy ones myself.
The Guns are an interesting bunch, retired gents and farmers mainly, all greatly looking forward to their days sport. Tradition has it that a wallet of numbered sticks is passed round, the numbers drawn denoting the order in which the guns are lined up. Whatever peg the gun is one he'll be a peg further on on the next drive and so on.
On the other side of the class divide the Beating team wear the classic outdoor wear we'd all recognise, surplace Camo of more than one nation, mismatched with waterproofs held together with duct tape. While the Guns are having their fashion parade in green wellies, the beaters will be fighting their way through the cover in boots and gaiters. Everyone wearing a shirt and tie. Even me.
The Beaters wagon trundles off and we follow in another sport's 4x4's. There is a bit of tromping across fields to be done, Norfolk's thick clinging soil making us look like deep sea divers in leaden boots. Shooter and yours truly struggle to our 'peg' and the whistle goes to announce the start of the first drive. The rule is if the bird has sky behind it it's safe to take a shot. Shooter is very disciplined about this and exceptionally courteous in letting several which I would have shot, fly on to the shooting lane of the next 'peg'. At the next peg but one an older, and super petite lady in furs-and-wellies is a very tidy shot with a cloud of feathers in the airspace above her for most of the drive . Unlike myself Shooter is lethal with a shotgun. Pheasants and Partridge crash down behind us, twice delicious Woodcock fly past lamentably well out of range.
Each drive probably lasts about 30 minutes before the whistle blows. Trudge across the fields again and it's off to the next one. Sometimes the luck of the draw has us in the thick of it, sometimes were right out at the end of the line which dosent always pay off. The wind is like paint stripper, the mud is thick, we share a flask of Whiskey, and in the face of the wind attempt a shouted conversation about the aqua-dynamics of mud.
Four of these drives later it's time for lunch. Shooter and the other guns retire to the dinning room for their repast. I join the beaters and pickers up in a barn for a really sturdy soup and some sausages. The Beaters range in age from Twelve to late Sixty's and are drawn from all walks of life. Several of the young lads are in agricultural collage learning estate management and gamekeeping, the girls are very 'horsey'.
All kinds of people go beating, the common denominator seeming to be that they lived reasonably nearby. The day is it's own reward; a day afield, with the dogs, banter with the other beaters, and a couple of birds. Beaters dont get paid a lot for beating but its all part of the interconnectedness of rural life, deals are done, favours swapped and collected on. Once you've dressed for the weather beating is a lot of fun, and if you're a dog person it's a chance to see the dogs working which only the most cold hearted wouldn't enjoy. As one of the girls remarked it's "cheaper than the gym".
During lunch I met TBG (the boy genius) and TUK (Techno Under Keeper) both of whom were top company. TUK lives on the estate, gamekeeping at the weekends and running his IT business during the week. TBG is his mate's lad and the only person who has ever explained HTML to me in a way that even I could follow, and he's only twelve! Literally a boy genius.
TUK and myself wandered around the estate for a while, chewing the fat, and sharing our mutual fascination with shooting lore.
There are plenty of traditional anecdotes about the guns and keepers:
Famous Woman X (often Kate Moss or Madona) turned up at our shoot in Heels (I've heard this one so many times I doubt either of them actually ever spends a weekend doing anything else)
Eric Clapton is actually quite a serious shot although he is to be mocked for having guns engraved with his own likeness.
The keepers had to shoot the birds from behind the visiting americans/germans to flatter them that they were hitting any birds at all.
All scandawegens are lethal shots and have amazingly; well trained dogs and super hot wives.
Lord X [owner of the estate] is a hell of a shot, his father wasn't so keen, but you should have seen his grandfather, now that was as shot/sportsman!
Vinnie Jones is very polite and a very very good shot.
That woman from the posh shooting press is actually 'a rubbish shot despite what she says on her videos and £20,000 gun'. This view is to be seconded by one of girls adding 'The way she suddenly develops a slight lisp in whenever lord so-and-so is within earshot, tells you just what kind of woman she is'
At the shoot down the road the guns has a whip-round to buy Old Tom the beater a new jacket, never having taken the trouble to speak to him blissfully unaware that he sold one of his companies for 300 kergillian and is now holding out for a better price on the other one. Thinks the guns are getting the raw end of the deal, he just likes beating but wouldn't wear his good clothes to do it.
Then there's the ticklish subject of etiquette, you can actually pay to go on a course to learn this stuff. Mostly the advice is just "Try not to make too much of a ____ of yourself".
In London we just introduce ourselves by first name with the implication that anymore information would be a disclosure too far, but in the country that would be a serious breech of etiquette, some of the older guys [65+] still used the family name-first name form of introduction.
A shirt and tie must be worn at all times, no exceptions.
For readers overseas:
Toffs all know each other, or at least of each other; while gun nuts can give you chapter and verse on any obscure calibre you care to mention, football fans can give you a play by play reenactment of games that took place before they were born, toffs all know each others family, scholastic, and personal histories.
" 'Mayo' Pushbarrow-Handcart, Stowe, I rode Biggleswade minor to third in the nerd racing"
[Biggleswade minor denoting the younger of the Biggleswade brothers, Stowe is a private school, nerd racing is racing on nerd-back]
" Andy Maitland-Bell, Eton, weren't you the one in old Cruikshank's class who was caught with a jar of mayonnaise? Badger's brother?"
"Haw Haw Yes that's me"
Some of you will think I'm exaggerating, trust me, I'm not.
The second half of the day is another four drives, but we'll leave that and the rest of the tale for another post.