Pheasant Express

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Where Guns travelled from drive to drive by rail. One of a series of fascinating articles by the late Bob Jones.

The Nocton estate, seven miles south of Lincoln, is known for providing some of the best shooting in Lincolnshire. Its 8,000 acres stretch nine miles long and four miles wide from marvellous partridge country on the limestone heath, down through the hamlet of Wasps Nest, to level out on the flat black peat of the fen.

The River Witham forms its eastern boundary, and the dykes with miles of nesting sites along their grassy banks provide a natural habitat for pheasants and wildfowl.

From the turn of the century until 1919, the bag at Nocton averaged 10,000 birds a season – 4,000 pheasants, 4,000 English partridge and 2,000 duck. But how many today can recall with nostalgia halcyon days when the Guns were transported around the shoot in unique style by the estate's private narrow gauge railway.

gametrain_2The story of this railway is an interesting one. In 1920 the estate was bought by Messrs W. Dennis and Sons who farmed extensively in the Holbeach area and found a narrow-gauge railway invaluable for moving large tonneages of potatoes over fenland which became quickly impassable to the traffic of heavy carts and lorries. 

The purchase of Nocton made Dennis's the largest potato growers in the country, and in 1926 the estate manager, Major Webber, bought a large quantity of ex W. D. track and rolling stock from an army dump at Arras in France, which had been destined for the 1916 Somme offensive but arrived too late to be put into service.

The track stretched for a distance of 38 miles and was laid out around the estate in such a way that every field had a ‘railhead'. To prevent it sinking into the peat fen, a pit was dug in the Big Wood and the clay used to form a base on which the sections of line were laid.

The railway with its six engines and 90 wagons carried some 17,000 tonnes of produce a year, mainly potatoes to Nocton Station and sugar beet to the Bardney factory but, as the estate employed 287 people in 1927, it was put to every conceivable use. It delivered tanks of drinking water to isolated cottages and cattleyards, collected people to go to church and even operated a postal service with the small guards' vans carrying letter boxes. 

On shoot days, from 1927 until the mid 1950s, a special train waited for the Guns at Nocton Station, pulled by a 20hp Simplex locomotive which had been fitted with a diesel engine. Behind the engine was the gamecart, followed by the Gun coach, and at the rear was the wagon for the beaters and loaders, still quaintly inscribed with ‘Cinque Chevaux ou Vingt Hommes'. 

The coach for the Guns was a splendid affair, some 20ft-long, with glass windows which wound down and were lined with oak panels. There were 10 swivel seats, each with a glass rack, and legend has it that it was fitted out originally for the ‘Brass Hats' to tour the Western Front.

gametrain_4It was so grand that someone said that it reminded him of the Royal Train and from then on it was known as the ‘Queen Mary'. 

There were two main rules to be observed. Firstly, you had to be at Nocton Station in time for the train's departure at 9am sharp (if you missed it, you had had it, as there were no hard roads down the fen), and secondly, shooting out of the windows was forbidden.

As it took nearly half an hour to reach the fen, a ‘snifter to clear your eye' was served. On reaching the scene of the first drive, the train stopped to allow the beaters to dismount before continuing two fields where it stopped again for the Guns to get out. When the drive was over and the keepers had picked-up, everyone would climb aboard again and rattle on to the next stand.

Once back in the Queen Mary, there was time for another drink ‘to keep the cold out.' The Lincolnshire Fens in winter can be very cold, with a chill factor that has to be experienced to be believed, when you are standing waiting for the drive to begin. The Nocton syndicate's practice of ‘having one to keep the cold out' at frequent intervals proved so effective that no one has collapsed from hypothermia this century. 

This generous hospitality was aided and abetted by a marvellous character called Eustace Pask who was in charge of the horse-drawn gamecart which could travel on the heath tracks and along the rides to the woods.

‘Pasky' not only collected the game and paired it properly for despatch, but he also had a locker inside the cart which contained a bar. Although he was under instruction from the shoot captain that measures were only to be ‘two fingers', Pasky's problem was that not only did he have enormously thick, gnarled fingers but, due to an accident years before, had lost his middle finger. The resulting measure was two fingers separated by the missing one, and thus, a snifter almost filled the glass. For many years, barmen in the Lincoln area would pour you a large one if you asked for a ‘Pasky'.

Refreshment

Much of the liquid refreshment was provided by Dick Leven, who owned the White Hart and the Saracens Head in Lincoln and had interests in the wine and spirit trade. He was a well-known racehorse owner and came to England from South Africa after the First World War where he served in the Royal Flying Corps. For 30 years, he played a prominent part in Lincoln's affairs and was elected to the City Council in 1935 and Chairman of Lincoln Races in 1938.

gametrain_3Dick Leven was a most generous man. During the war, his hotels were almost ‘open house' for the aircrew of Bomber Command from nearby Scampton, and he kept five MG sports cars which he lent to servicemen and their wives when they had a few days leave. His fellow South African and racehorse owner, Stanhope Joel, was a frequent guest at Nocton as was Fred Rimmel, the jockey and trainer.

Although there was good partridge shooting down the fen, especially off the potato fields, it was better still on the heathland, which in the days of organic farming was a paradise for partridges. There are five belts of sweet chestnut planted by the Marquess of Ripon over which the coveys would fly high with only the whistle of the keeper to warn the Guns that the birds were approaching and about to burst overhead.

To keep the partridge stock healthy, eggs were swapped with the neighbouring estates of Sir David Hawley of Tumby, and Lady Beryl Gilbert at Revesby, and some Hungarian eggs were also imported to improve the vigour.

The best pheasant shooting was in the 300-acre Big Wood with its immaculate rides cut like golf course fairways and flanked on either side by great stands of rhododendron. 

The pit, which had provided the clay for the railway, formed a kind of ‘competition tee' for the Guns who had to climb down wooden steps dug into its steep bank to reach their pegs. Although this was the best stand of all, the portly Dick Leven, if drawn in the pit, would swap his number, saying that if he got down there he would certainly never get out again.

Pheasants rocketing over the high trees above made for wonderful shooting, testing even the best Shots of the day.

Rabbits

The woods swarmed with rabbits and their runs, allowing the pheasants to make their way through the undergrowth. Rabbits were shot by the keepers in prodigious numbers and in 1936 the bag was 4,382. With the spread of myxomatosis, the numbers dropped dramatically until 1959, when not a single rabbit was shot on the entire estate.

gametrain_1On ‘wood' days, the Guns shot through until 3.30pm, pausing only for champagne and mince pies in one of the rides, before making their way past the pollarded oaks, the Nine Brethren and the Seven Sisters, to the keeper's cottage in the middle of the Big Wood where they sat down to a meal of hotpot or saddle of mutton prepared by Mrs Stiff, the wife of the headkeeper, George Stiff. 

The Guns vied with one another to produce the best bottle of Port. Major Harry Greaves would arrive from Yorkshire with a parkin cake, which was alien to Lincolnshire tastes, and a bottle of 1890 Port – which wasn't. At the end of the meal there would be a sweep on the day's bag, the proceeds of which were handed to Mrs Stiff. 

Unfortunately, there were less happy moments. Derek Young, the estate manager for many years and a great naturalist and raconteur, sadly lost an eye when his neighbouring Gun swung through at a low partridge. On another occasion, he was hit ‘amidships' by a Gun firing through a hedge at a rabbit. As two beaters carried him back to the Queen Mary on a hurdle, he felt gingerly inside his trousers, muttered “Thank God. I am still entire” and passed out.

There was also drama at the end of one day as the train made its way back to Nocton Station and the Guns relaxed with a drink in their swivel chairs. The driver, who was in a hurry to get to the cinema, opened the throttle too wide. The train lurched off the track and the Queen Mary turned on its side. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but Dick Leven fainted – it is said that it was a result of the sight of so much alcohol being spilled.

gametrain_5In 1960 the railway was finally abandoned, the farm roads were improved and most of the equipment and track were scrapped. For many years the Queen Mary coach was used as site office in a scrap yard before being rescued and restored by the Lincolnshire Coast Light Railway at Humberston, which has since relocated to Skegness Water Leisure Park, situated 2 miles north of Skegness.

Last year, much of the estate was bought by inventor James Dyson, who – though not a shooter – is seemingly happy for the sport to continue there.

Nocton today, under the captaincy of John Saul, is still a marvellous shoot. The Guns travel around it in a bus named ‘Queen Mary' in memory of its illustrious predecessor, the likes of which, for style and panache, we shall never see again.

The author was indebted to Bill Redshaw and Jack Francis for their invaluable help in putting this article together.

 

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