The signature drive

signature_3What is it that turns a drive into the jewel in a shoot’s crown – a crescendo of adrenaline, endorphins and wide smiles? Joining a very lucky team of Guns last season, Will Pocklington found himself well placed to conduct a little research.

There’s no doubt about it, our small island is home to some of the best game shooting on Earth. Reputed shoots with revered names are scattered across the UK from north to south and east to west. But what is it, exactly, that makes a great shoot so special? 

In order to survive and thrive commercially, shoots must now offer the whole package:  to-die-for food, superlative hospitality, and sporting birds aplenty to suit all abilities and preferences. But how does a shoot stand-out in what is a pretty busy and competitive marketplace? Simply put, they must impress. And, of course, the benchmark, the thing that they will be judged on more than anything else, is the signature drive – the one that pricks ears like no other when its name crops up in the morning briefing, or crackles through the keeper’s radio at elevenses.

One might think of The Point at Mulgrave, Tommy’s at Brigands, Kings Wood at Whitfield, Folly at Molland and Angel’s at Warter Priory. But signature drives are not confined to the major league or the well-known. They are found on the smallest of farm shoots right across the country, all the way up to the estate which hosts a hundred days a season. 

What is it, though, that turns a drive from one of four, five or six parts of a shoot day, into the jewel in the crown – a crescendo of adrenaline, endorphins and wide smiles?

Well, last December I found myself in a unique position from which I could conduct a little research...

signature_5Four shoots, one day

I can’t imagine a bright pink stretch limo has ever found itself parked on the gravel outside Stanage Castle before. But on this day, the splendour of the crenellated 19th-century edifice sat in stark contrast to the hen-party-style gunbus at our morning rendezvous. The look of utter bewilderment on the limo driver’s face said it all... He would be chauffering the friends and family of  Andrew Crow, a butcher from Newport with shops in Shawbury and Wellington, and the very lucky winner of the GWCT Shropshire High Four Raffle. Shocking pink baseball caps sat atop their heads, framing excited faces.

Crowy’s Fantasy Shoot team were here to enjoy their money-can’t-buy prize: A day for eight Guns on four of the finest shoots in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches (limo not included). Four drives, four shoots, one day – for the cost of a £200 raffle ticket. They were in for a real treat.

From the Castle we made our way to the first drive, Weston – one of Stanage Park’s most famous which sits in the company of Ragged Kingdom, Holloway Oaks and The Knoll on the ‘signature’ list. Aided by three beatkeepers, headkeeper Ross Traylor put on quite a show.

Weston epitomised the quintessential UK driven shoot. Sporting birds but not out-of-range and with no need for specialist guns and buffalo-stopping loads. And all in parkland designed by Humphry Repton.

Stanage owner Jonathan Coltman-Rogers stood by to watch as the birds rocketed into the sky from steep wooded banks and crossed the valley, leaving the Guns far below in complete awe. Small flushes added to skies already full of curling, climbing, dropping and accelerating pheasants – this was some loosener.

“For me,” Jonathan explained, “what makes a signature drive is basically a very testing bird with the proviso that they are shootable with English guns and normal cartridges in picturesque scenery.” The opening drive of the day had ticked each of these boxes. And some. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it’s a firm favourite with those who shoot on any of Stanage’s 35 days each season.

signature_4Thank-you’s and frivolities were kept short due to the time-consuming logistics of shooting on four different estates on the same day. In fact, dashing for the vehicles after a thank-you to the host and keepers, then snaking our way around narrow lanes, over humpback bridges and through farmyards, in the most comical of shoot day convoys, felt like a challenge cooked-up by Jeremy Clarkson and co. The team were soon marching to their pegs on the second drive.

Oakly Park is owned by Robert Windsor Clive, the sixth generation of the Clive family to have resided at the 8,000-acre estate just north of Ludlow since the 18th century. Formerly a Royal forest, it is also home to a charming little private shoot – the first of two we would visit.

Exclusivity was the draw here – there’s something about shooting somewhere that is off the beaten track, where no amount of money will buy you a peg. Yes, the birds at Oakly were fewer in number, and the lower numbered Guns in the line were certainly the busier, but that’s shooting, and at the conclusion of the drive, there were smiles all round for they knew that it had been a privilege to shoot on an estate that few others have seen from their perspective.

Elevenses were a quick slurp of soup and a sausage roll before the short trip north to Downton Hall, the picture postcard, family-owned estate with 10–12 days shooting a season, and the type of neatly-mown verges one avoids wheel-marking at all costs.

signature_2As an interesting aside, the immaculately landscaped grounds are also home to the well-known racing stables now run by Henry Daly, and previously by Captain Tim Forster. Owner Mark Wiggin was there to greet the team.

Wagon Piece was just a short trundle from the main house, past the pristine cricket pitch – venue of the hotly contested Wheatland vs Ludlow Hunt annual cricket fixture – and through a woodland plot to where the Guns were pegged and waited for headkeeper Jamie Lenahan and his team to get things going. The sheer variety of shooting was on a par with the picturesque setting.

It was fast and furious – birds approached the team from a potpourri of angles, speeds and heights. Half the line were pegged on a grass strip between the straight sides of a U-shaped woodland edge – mature trees to the front and rear – the remainder in more open pasture further downhill. Both were treated to sublime sport – the electrifying sort that one does not easily forget.

“I am particularly fond of this drive because it has three parts to it,” Mark told me. “It is one of two that I would call signature drives here at Downton, the other is called Corney Bank.

“Wagon Piece has three parts to it and when it goes well it can last for well over an hour, with birds coming from behind you to start with, then to your side, then straight over the top of you. They are not ridiculously high so as to be out of shot, but high enough to make you concentrate and give the pheasants the respect they deserve.” Mark’s recipe works, no question – that much was evident from the excited chatter on the way back to the vehicles.

The final drive of the day remained. And it had much to live up to. 

signature_1Spanning 5,000 acres, Kempton is one of the oldest shoots in the Bettws Hall stable, sitting in prime pheasant country on the English/Welsh border. An Iron Age burrow provides the topography which has paved the way for some creative drive names – Unbelievable and Viagra among them. Crowy and his friends would later dine in the shoot lodge which sits on the pinnacle of the estate at the head of Viagra Valley, but first they had to make their way to another of Kempton’s most celebrated drives: The Oaks.

If Stanage’s offering epitomised the quintessential driven shoot, Oakly represented exclusivity, and Downton impressed with sheer variety, then Kempton was all about operational slickness. From the moment the last Gun had found his peg and slipped two cartridges into the chambers, until host Peter Daborn blew the last horn of the day, birds – exceptional birds – broke the line from pegs one to eight in rhythmic fashion. It was clockwork.

I later caught up with Bettws Hall founder Gwyn Evans. If anyone would know the recipe for a signature drive, it would be Gwyn. “Different drives tend to shoot better at different times throughout the season, depending on wind, weather, visibility and sun placement,” he told me. “But in my opinion, signature drives must have equal shooting down the line, with quality presentation, a steady stream of challenging birds, and be in beautiful settings with good ground for peg placement.

“Of course topography plays a huge part, and if you can add something spectacular to a drive like a cascading waterfall or vast ascending hill topped with mature oaks, which make the Guns feel very insignificant stood on their peg, then it won’t be forgotten quickly.”

On that front, I had no doubts. This day would leave a lasting impression on a very lucky team. Four signature drives in eight hours – I think they’ll be buying more raffle tickets this year. And I think I will, too.

Crowy’s Fantasy Shoot Team: Jo Hockenhull, Nick Crow, Bill Morris, Nick Dixon, Andrew Crow, David Udale, Sandy Walker, Robin Morris, Andrew Watson Jones,   Scott Walker, Guy Morris, Olly Dixon, George Crow & Ed Udale.

Bag: 202 pheasants.

GWCT High Four Raffles are held by a number of regional committees across the UK. For more information, visit: www.gwct.org.uk

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