Victorian shooting boxes

shootingboxes_mainPart and parcel of the northern grouse moor scene since the Victorian era, shooting boxes continue to serve an important purpose. David S. D. Jones takes a closer look at their history.

Commonly found on grouse moors throughout northern England, the shooting box not only serves as a luncheon venue and provides a refuge in foul weather, but in some cases also acts as a meeting point for the Guns. Boxes can range from a substantial stone-built structure in a remote and exposed location to a sturdy wooden ex-army hut or a corrugated iron shed in a fairly sheltered valley. Some innovative moorland proprietors or lessees now use mobile luncheon boxes for their guests or have built luxurious lodge-type boxes with central heating, comfortable furnishings and toilet facilities in order to cater for the needs of modern day sporting clients.

Shooting boxes, however, were originally constructed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries- to provide basic overnight accommodation for sportsmen when shooting over distant grouse moors that could not be reached on horseback or by horse-drawn vehicle from a country house on a daily basis. Some boxes at this time were built by landowners to accommodate sporting tenants, and others were constructed by newly rich businessmen who had purchased or leased moors but lived in towns or cities outside the shooting season.

shootingboxes_4One of the first purpose-built shooting boxes, Kielder Castle in Northumberland, was erected in the 1770s by the 1st Duke of Northumberland at a cost of £1,300, specifically to accommodate himself and his guests when shooting grouse on the Cheviot moors. Other early residential boxes include Grinton Lodge in Swaledale, a castellated mansion built in 1817 by John Fenton of Doncaster as the shooting quarters for Grinton Moor; Longshaw Lodge in Derbyshire, constructed around 1827 by the 5th Duke of Rutland as a base for his Peak District grouse moors; and Bransdale Lodge in North Yorkshire, erected in 1828 by the 1st Lord Feversham as the shooting box for the Bransdale moors.

Grouse moor owners and lessees continued to build substantial shooting boxes until the late Victorian period, some of which boasted hot and cold water and bathrooms for the benefit of discerning British and American guests. Holwick Shooting Box in Teesdale, for example, erected in the early 1890s by Henry Bonsor, M.P. - a director of the Bank of England who had just taken a 21-year lease on Holwick Moor from the Earl of Strathmore at an annual rental of £1,300 - was, apparently, the height of luxury with the latest cooking, heating and indoor sanitation systems!

shootingboxes_3Edwardian sportsmen, however, unlike their forebears, were not prepared to spend the grouse shooting season living along Spartan lines in a large, draughty shooting box in a remote and exposed location, if they could possibly avoid it. Instead, many chose to stay in a comfortable country house, a homely village inn or a fashionable hotel in towns such as Buxton, Harrogate or Skipton, and travelled to the moors on a daily basis by motor car, horse-drawn carriage or railway train, making the final leg of the journey on horseback. Shooting boxes were only used as a last resort by fashionable Guns, or by the more traditional sportsmen who shot over remote moors not easily accessible by road or rail.

The first non-residential shooting boxes, built solely for dining and shelter purposes during cold or inclement weather, started to appear on northern moors during the mid-Victorian period following the introduction of driven grouse shooting. Prior to this time, when walked-up grouse shooting was the order of the day, it was the custom for sportsmen to carry sandwiches and a flask of brandy in a coat pocket and to eat their lunch 'on the hoof'.

shootingboxes_5On large, prestigious moors, shooting boxes were constructed within easy reach of each line of butts. Such boxes were often built of stone, with a wooden floor and wall lining, and might have had oil lamps for lighting, a peat fire and a peat- or a coal-burning cooking stove, a dining table and sets of benches for seating. Some boxes had two compartments; one for the Guns, the other for the gamekeepers, loaders and beaters. One Edwardian box in upper Swaledale in Yorkshire even had a secure upper storey for storing beer, wine and spirits!

Landowners who did not see the necessity of providing shooting boxes to complement each line of butts, or preferred walked-up shooting, usually just built one or two boxes at strategic points on their moor. On some moors a couple of strong wooden sheds made by the estate carpenter were considered to be sufficient for luncheon purposes, or a portable corrugated cabin was used in preference to a permanent box.

Some thrifty grouse moor owners used a barn or a room in a tenant farmhouse for luncheon or refuge purposes instead, even if it involved a longish walk from the nearest beat. Others used an inn, a shepherd's hut or a local cottage to provide dining facilities, or expected their guests to eat a simple sandwich lunch under the lee of a drystone wall, sheepfold, or outcrop of rock - even in harsh weather.

Shooting box catering arrangements, of course, varied tremendously from moor to moor. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, it was not unusual for a pre-prepared three course luncheon, fine wines or Champagne and a supply of cigars to be transported by spring cart or pannier to the luncheon box on an easily accessible moor, on the morning of a shoot. After the box had been cleaned and dusted by a footman, a fire would be lit, food would be heated on a small stove, and the dining table would be laid in readiness for the arrival of the Guns. Lunch itself would be served by a couple of footmen, who would also clear up afterwards and take everything back to the kitchen of the main house.

shootingboxes_6On smaller moors, it was not uncommon for the Guns to be provided with a lunch pack made by the kitchen staff at the main house, consisting of sandwiches or game pie, cheese and biscuits, a slice of cake and a bottle of beer, which they ate either in a shooting box or out in the open, depending on the weather conditions. In some instances, particularly on a number of small Yorkshire estates, guests were even expected to make their own ham sandwiches at the breakfast table, carry them in their pocket throughout the morning and consume them in a primitive box at lunchtime, washed down with a slug of whisky from a hip flask!

Sadly, many shooting boxes fell into disrepair in the aftermath of the First World War, largely because landowners were forced to make economies due to high levels of taxation. Some reduced the numbers of boxes in use, keeping one or two for an entire moor rather than one for each line of butts. Gamekeepers often became responsible for maintenance of boxes and somehow found time in-between their other duties to wash down and paint the interiors prior to the start of the shooting season each year. Catering was scaled down on all but the most prestigious of moors, with lunches frequently being provided by a local public house and taken up and served in a box by an innkeeper and his staff.

shootingboxes_2Other than on large and highly productive grouse shoots, where well-off landowners continued to maintain and operate shooting boxes to a high standard for the benefit of  VIP guests, boxes on smaller moors were kept ticking over or mothballed for the next half-century or so. Some owners even abandoned boxes entirely during this period, instead using a nearby farm building, a youth hostel or an ex-army lorry as a luncheon venue and shelter point. Indeed, it was not until the early 1980s when commercial grouse shooting really started to take off that shooting boxes began to come into their own again.

Shooting boxes have now been part and parcel of the northern grouse moor scene since the Victorian age and continue to serve an important purpose at the present time. Some landowners and lessees have lovingly restored and updated historic shooting boxes in recent years to provide guests with a comfortable luncheon venue, while others have built wooden lodge-type boxes within easy reach of a moor by 4x4 vehicle for the benefit of paying Guns, who not only expect a decent home-cooked meal at lunchtime but require luxuriously furnished surroundings in which to eat and relax, as well as cloakroom and toilet facilities and car parking. It goes without saying that modern day grouse shoot operators, many of whom now view shooting as a service industry rather than a wealthy gentleman's hobby, do their utmost to ensure that clients have a memorable shooting box hospitality experience.

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