A newly updated, sumptuously illustrated and elegantly written survey of Britain’s grandest shooting estates hits the mark, says Rosie Whitaker
The Great Shoots isn’t just another one of those outsized coffee-table books which you might occasionally flip open to peer at the pictures, but never actually read. Impressively glossy and chock-full of photos, it is a good size, but still small enough to take on holiday.
Its most overriding feature is the fluent, anecdotal quality of the text, which makes it immensely readable. I challenge anyone, regardless of their interest in shooting not to find it both entertaining and informative.
A revised version of the original by the same name, first published in 1987, it has been completely re-set with lots more colour photos and the opening chapters have been re-structured and updated. You would be forgiven for being surprised to find that all the 32 ‘great shoots’ selected, were identical to the ones in the earlier edition. But then once you work out the criteria for choosing the ‘great shoots’, you understand why this is.
The shoots chosen to feature in the main chapters have, in most cases, been selected not so much for the adrenalin-inducing challenge of the birds, but more for the shoots’ historical greatness, their grand houses and their links with nobility and royalty. The book could equally well have been named ‘The Grand Shoots’, which might have been a more appropriate title.
The Great Shoots is an enjoyable scenic tour of some Britain’s great shooting estates, by an amusing and well-informed guide with a penchant for anecdotes and history.
There are lashings of quotes both old and new, and the pages are peppered with fascinating titbits of information about shooting past and present. It isn’t, nor does it purport to be, the ultimate up-to-date guide to where the most challenging shooting in the UK can be found today.
The photo on the cover tells all: a group of guns assembled outside Holkham in Norfolk, which has over eleven pages in the book devoted to it. Holkham is famed, apart from its monumental stately home, for its bowler-hatted keepers and its wild partridges. I know many guns would adore to shoot here, among other things, just to feel part of the history of the estate, and to learn more about its renowned wild partridge shoot. However, I doubt a discerning Gun wishing to sniff out some seriously testing birds would put Holkham at the top of his list.
The same could probably be said of Sandringham, Elveden and Blenheim, all of which are in the main listing of 32. These grand shooting estates certainly make fascinating reading, with the interest in the royal family at Sandringham, the previous owner of Elveden, the Maharaja Dhuleep Singh of Lahore, was a colourful character; and of course Blenheim was a magnet for all the top nobs and Churchill was a frequent shooting guest.
As is perfectly fitting, these shoots are listed in the main chapters. But much as there might be huge snob value about shooting there, and some lovely days can be enjoyed, true shooting fanatics are left ambivalent by the quality of the birds.
What makes these entries particularly interesting is that the author hasn’t just updated the 1987 entries by talking to the current owners, he has also shot there, had a good nose around and interviewed the keepers. It is commendable that the keepers are often afforded as much space as the owners, and it is genuinely interesting to hear the latest about what is happening at these grand estates today.
Some of them are unashamedly commercial, luring hundreds of UK paying guns and foreigners to shoot there: others have swung the other way, such as Broadlands and Stratfield Saye, which are ‘going wild’ and no longer rear birds at all, only employing one keeper.
What is going on in the management of these great estates is pretty much a true reflection of the diametrically opposed movements taking place in the shooting world in the UK today: on the one hand, demand has never been greater for good-sized bags and the sheer quality of the birds, but there is also a retrograde movement back to a bygone era when no birds were reared, and only a few days shooting, stocks depending, can be enjoyed.
The nearest the book comes to listing the kind of shoots guaranteed to set a discerning shot’s pulse racing, are those to be found in the ‘Mixed Bag’ chapters, which follow on from the main choice of ‘Great Shoots’. These are afforded a few lines, or sometimes more, but in my opinion some of these should have made it to the main listing.
Hence you have Castle Hill listed in the ‘Mixed Bag’ section for the ‘Wales and the West country’ and Wemmergill listed in the ‘Mixed Bag’ section for Northern England. Both of these shoots would score highly on a keen shot’s wish-list; the birds are seriously sporting and in terms of challenge and exclusivity it would be equivalent to hiring a private guide for a week and going heli-skiing in the Rockies.
It was disappointing to see that some factual information in the ‘Mixed Bag’ listings was out of date and in one particular case, I was amused to see one entry riddled with inaccuracies. Unfortunately for the author it happens to be our family shoot! He not only got the decade wrong for when the world record of wild partridges shot was achieved at Rothwell, but also the number of guns.
He goes on to query the validity of the record, casting aspersions on whether the birds were actually wild! So one must bear in mind that a book such as this is first and foremost very subjective, and by its nature, bound to contain inaccuracies.
On the whole though, The Great Shoots is a great read, one of the reasons being that as a nation we are fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous and the rarefied, secluded worlds they inhabit. So naturally, any chance to peep into the elite worlds of the great shoots mentioned in the book, such as Sandringham and Floors Castle, and hearing the likes of the Duke of Wellington and Duke of Westminster talking about their beloved estates is, for the shooting brigade any rate, as fascinating as the latest issue of Tatler for a society ‘It’ girl.
This is where the skill of the author lies: in furnishing us with juicy morsels and quotes from both the past and present. The book’s 280 pages contain a wealth of information gleaned not just from years of research but also a lifetime of shooting enthusiasm. Brian Martin, the author, a keen shot, spent almost 20 years at Shooting Times and is regarded as one of Britain’s most successful country and natural history writers.
Above all, the forte of the book is in its historical element. Readers cannot fail to find it interesting to ponder over the actual entries reproduced so clearly of lord Carnarvon’s personal game book from 1895. I found it fascinating to learn that in 1831 the mandatory game licence cost the equivalent of £1,600 in today’s money, when up to August 2007 it cost a mere £6 and has in fact now been phased out.
The early chapters which have been re-written and re-arranged, are hugely informative, charting as they do such topics as ‘Society’s view’ and ‘Mainly economic’ but they could have made more of the fact that nothing short of a total explosion in popularity has occurred in the world of shooting since the late 1980s, when the first edition was written.
Once you’ve read it, I can guarantee that if you’ve got a head for recalling facts, anecdotes and historical details, you will never be stuck for conversation on the field or at a shoot lunch, as there is quite literally an avalanche of memorable information on offer, which I for one, found totally absorbing.