Arbury Hall – Warwickshire
David Egan takes a step back in time and joins a team of Guns at Arbury Hall in Warwickshire for a truly memorable day's shooting.
It is the morning of a shoot day and I am in the middle of an industrial estate on the edge of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. The lady in my satnav is insisting that I have reached my destination. Unlikely. The only drives visible are leading up to brightly-coloured factory units, and although there are birds aplenty, they are of the urban variety, flushing from the litter-strewn scrub, rather than from game crops or woodland.
My phone rings. “Carry on for another 200 yards until you reach two old gate houses and I will let you in through the big white gate.” Really? Was this to be some Narnian experience, perhaps? Whatever it was, the big white gates were quickly upon me and, as I approached, they slowly parted, allowing this non-believer – or disbeliever – to slowly pass through.
Then, as if in a parallel universe, or a vision from some distant time, long, long ago, I began an almost Elysian journey through sweeping ancient English parkland and past immaculately kept buildings, stone walls and gardens. The journey was not one to be rushed and almost five minutes later I arrived at my destination – Arbury Hall in Warwickshire.
The journey back in time didn’t stop there either. After coming to a halt in the spectacular grounds of the hall, I made my way out of the cold and into the shoot room, known on the estate as the tea rooms, where a roaring log fire, historical artefacts and art, and array of stunning taxidermy set the perfect shoot-day scene.
The tea rooms are situated in a delightful building that once housed the horses, servants and even prisoners during the Second World War. It was undoubtedly situated to make the most of the view and grandeur of the ancient hall.
This beautiful Elizabethan hall, originally built on the ruins of a 12th-century Augustinian Priory, is surrounded by 18th-century landscaped gardens and over 2,500 acres of lakes, parkland and arable farmland.
Like so many other great country houses, Arbury was founded in Henry II’s reign as a monastery, but it suffered dissolution and confiscation at the hands of Henry VIII in 1536. During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, Arbury was bought by a lawyer, Edmund Anderson, who totally rebuilt it in the Elizabethan style. Anderson, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas by the Queen in 1582, found Arbury inconveniently far from London, and therefore exchanged it in 1586 for Harefield Place, Middlesex, the property of John Newdegate.
Arbury Hall has been the centre of the estate since 1582 when the Newdegate family obtained the property, and it has been in the family ever since. It is the current home of James FitzRoy Newdegate, 4th Viscount of Daventry, who combines running the estate with working full-time for the RK Harrison Group, a Lloyd’s Insurance Broker.
Central to the pheasant shoot at Arbury is the land agent and shoot captain, Adam Weaver, who has been in situ for the past eight years. As with many seasoned land agents, Adam’s intimate knowledge of the estate and solid working relationships with staff and local suppliers ensures that visiting Guns are very well looked after both on the peg and in the shoot room. And with gamekeeper Chris Flintoft – who was brought in four years ago from Ingleborough Shoot near Clapham in the Yorkshire Dales – behind the scenes, the team has worked tirelessly to develop Arbury into an impressive shoot with a lot to offer.
“The shoot was in need of a full revamp when I first arrived,” explained Chris. “So we set about moving and building pens, altering and creating new drives, changing game crops and enhancing wildlife and game habitat. The shoot covers 2,500 acres of arable ground, and the tenant farmers plant the game crops for us, so I am quite fortunate in that I am able to stipulate exactly where I want them. All in all, we have about 20 acres of game cover, a mix of maize, triticale and Utopia.
“My predecessors used to shoot about 20 days a year, but I was tasked with upping the ante, and we have now almost doubled that. One drive I altered, called The Meadows, interlinks with four other drives so we can move pheasants wherever we want, which gives us great flexibility. By doing this, we can take them into a different area each time, according to the weather, so they don’t get wise to what’s going on.”
Over the last two seasons, Chris has also reintroduced redlegs to Arbury. “In the past they struggled to get good returns with partridges,” he explains. “I was told that it is not really suitable land for them. And although it has been challenging, on the right day and with the right wind, they will fly higher and faster than our pheasants.”
And in terms of pheasants, Chris favours the smaller American strains such as Manchurian, Michigan and Kansas crosses as they perform well over the gently undulating ground. “We don’t have steep North Yorkshire or Devon valleys here,” he explains, “so we need our birds to climb, which the American strains certainly do, particularly with a bit of wind. We surprise a lot of Guns here – with the right wind, we can and do produce world-class pheasants.”
Well, after a hearty breakfast and with no further ado, it was time to see for myself just how well the pheasants and partridges fly at Arbury. I joined the team of Guns for the day in the back of the famous Arbury shoot gunbus, a 1970s French military ambulance driven by Neil Rice who is responsible for getting the Guns to their pegs at Arbury.
The first drive of the day, Park Farm, saw us heading across the estate and meandering into a block of ancient oak woodland where the birds were flushed from an unseen block of maize towards a dense copse of wood behind the Guns. And it worked well – it wasn’t long before the first birds soared high over the line with a stiff breeze at their tails. Jonathan Chastney and Peter Webb were the first to connect with some challenging birds early on.
At the end of the drive, I spoke with picker-up Owen Stainthorpe who has been at Arbury for an incredible 37 years – the perfect person to give me an insight into the way the shoot has evolved over the years.
“I was a keeper here for 26 years, but when I finally called it a day, I decided to stay on the estate and help out in various other ways, just to remain involved. I have only missed one shoot day here since 1979 and I still proudly hold the estate record bag of 446 in the mid 1980s. I think it’s safe to say that Arbury is well and truly in my blood. We’re doing more days now, and I guess it has become slightly more commercial, but every day at Arbury still has a great atmosphere. We always have a good laugh.”
Following a brief elevenses, we moved on to the Wood Yard drive which is set amongst the quaint ploughed fields of the farm estate. Before long, the silence was broken as the first covey of partridges fizzed across the line with a curling crosswind, presenting truly tremendous sport. Ed de Lisle and James Ottewell were both on fine form, taking a number of very difficult curling birds a good way in front.
At the end of the drive, I spoke with Jonathan Chastney who has been taking a driven day for his guests at Arbury for over 10 years. “Whilst a number of our team are serious Shots, the day is always run in a very unhurried and relaxed fashion,” he explained. “The emphasis is on the social side of things which is such an important part of this sport. Arbury is inspiring as an estate in so many ways, not least because of its history and setting, and the fact that you have a feeling of stepping back in time to a more gentile age.”
I have to agree with Jonathan. There was no rush between the drives and no military approach to the running of the day, which gave the Guns time to relax and enjoy both the sport on offer and the dramatic landscape and the hospitality.
Over a hearty and delicious sit-down lunch taken in the tea rooms, I had the opportunity to quiz Chris about the direction he would like to take the shoot in the coming years. “We are now doing 36 days per season, shooting between 175 and 250 head, which is made up of 28 main days, plus a few boundary days of about 40 head. We have a total of 19 main drives and six boundary drives. Plus we are now also doing some field trials. At the moment we have no plans to increase the number of days we do, but perhaps we will offer a few bigger days to suit our clients’ needs.
“I would also like to do more field trials as I love everything about cockers – they are my passion. In September, we have what we call driven duck nights. We put ducks down and feed them hard all year round. We meet on the estate at 5pm, shoot 40–50 head and then go to the pub for a meal afterwards.”
Chris tells me that the driven duck nights are hugely popular because people can go and have a full day at work, come out and have an hour and a half shooting, then go to the pub for a drink and a meal and be back at home in good time. “We are situated 10 minutes from the M6, and have a very large proportion of the country’s population within an hour and a half’s drive,” he adds.
Before long, it was time to board the ambulance again to sample some more of Arbury Hall’s pheasants. The third drive of the day, called Shepherds, was special. Set in majestic parkland with breathtaking views towards the hall, the drive was exciting and tremendously varied as the little American pheasants did what they’re bred to do and stood on their tails and soared high over the eager line. Simon Blunt and Wayne Pope both shot tremendously well on this drive, taking some long crossers that were curling away in the stiffening crosswind.
The final two drives, Double Pitts and North, took us back onto rolling farmland where the birds once again climbed high over the waiting Guns who were pegged at the bottom of a gentle slope. At first the birds rose slowly, but as they caught sight of the Guns, they lifted and curled in the stiff breeze, producing truly exciting sport. A fitting end to an exceptional day’s shooting.
In the UK, we may have become somewhat obsessed with extreme-range pheasants, but Arbury reminded me that you don’t need Devon or North Yorkshire valleys to show challenging pheasants. And, of course, there is so much more to shooting than shooting. Indeed, as I headed back through the big white gates and looked into my rearview mirror one last time at the quintessential rolling parkland and spectacular hall, I knew that I was leaving behind a true hidden gem of a shoot.