Brightwalton – Berkshire Downs
Mike Barnes emerges from the November fog to enjoy a day of fine sport and good company on the Berkshire Downs at Brightwalton.
During a shooting season, we (the team at Fieldsports) visit a variety of shoots. It's a tough ask, but, as they say, someone has to do it. However, it is not quite what it seems. For starters, we mostly carry a camera as opposed to a gun (though I'll admit to slipping a 20 bore into the car boot, just in case of a no-show!).
Looking back, it soon became apparent to me as I embarked on this 40-year shoot odyssey, that there really is no such thing as a free lunch, and that in general terms invitations tend to come from shoots which we wouldn't necessarily wish to feature.
However, there are exceptions to all rules, and I have met some super people who want nothing more than to share their passion. Their raison d'etre is the creation or restoration of their treasured slice of countryside which they either own or lease. Moorland grouse or heathland partridge are the obvious examples of species that draw the attention/devotion of individuals who will immerse themselves in the enormous task of their chosen aim.
Of course, we need to remind ourselves that it is driven partridge and pheasant which are the bread and butter of our sport. However, here too there are many shoots with so much more to offer than a release pen stuffed with game. We are talking about shoots which have a hugely beneficial impact on the countryside, and on wildlife in general. Shoots which are all-embracing and look to play a useful role in the local community.
Guns, beaters, dog handlers; all have their roles to play on a happy day's shooting, and they will come from all walks of life. Meeting this array of individuals on a shoot day, and visits to restoration projects, has been a joy for me.
Sadly, the world outside our sport has little or no idea of how the countryside they love is being tended by those with shooting interests. Without their input we would be left with a landscape which, with apologies to Blake's Jerusalem, would equate to England's mean and barren land. Every season throws up its surprises. Last November I was invited to shoot in the Berkshire Downs at Brightwalton, a village I had never heard of. The invitation came from Alan Hayward, a great character who runs Vicars Game and is a leading game dealer and friend to a number of top chefs. He had been featured in Fieldsports earlier in the year and out of the blue invited me to a shoot which he thought I would enjoy. He was right.
The shoot, lost in West Berkshire, an area both pretty and surprisingly far from the madding crowd, was, on this particular November morning, shrouded in thick fog. Son Tom was with me carrying a camera for later, though at that point in time there was no hope of a photograph. And we seemed to be getting completely lost. Then it appeared in front of us, the Saddleback Farm Shop, a destination worth finding where the Guns had gathered to consume bacon butties, make introductions and generally get in the mood (not difficult!).
The shoot is run by Giles Wilson-North, who at 33 is already a veteran, having started as a keeper at 17, and taking on the 1,200-acre shooting lease at Brightwalton five years later. Meeting at the farm shop set the tone for the day. He has since added the 900-acre Bagnor Estate and 4,500 acres of deer management.
The shooting line included chefs Mike Robinson and Brett Graham along with former Stringfellows boss Roger Howe. Good company! Giles is a man who knew from an early age precisely what he wanted to do in life. Keepering was always a magnetic draw. His late father Bruce tried to get him to understand that this was not a safe career choice. And he would have had a better grasp of the dilemma than most as he was the Director General of the CLA until his untimely death nine years ago at just 53. So young Giles worked on a farm taking on an apprenticeship, but also worked part-time as a gamekeeper. Five years later he took the plunge and has not looked back. He has grown the shoot substantially since his first let day (which was taken by his father), but has not saturated the ground with game.
The shoot programme kicks off with some early partridge days, followed by mixed days from the end of October. He took the second shoot on last year and, like Brightwalton, it enjoys lovely Downs topography. He is now also assisted by full-time gamekeeper Louie Smorfit and part-time keeper John Hiscock. Bags average 200 for a line of eight or nine Guns.
Once the fog lifted we were treated to delicious autumn colours in all their glory. There was only the softest breeze and expectations were low but the birds flew beautifully for the remainder of the day, including the early season pheasants (Kansas crosses) on the following drive. Generally, Guns are refreshed mid-morning with smoked salmon and sloegasms. Then at lunch they have curry or stew, picnic-style at an outdoor table (a Spanish touch?). It all makes for a fun affair.
We had a couple of drives after lunch – both saw classic bird presentation of partridge and pheasant.
We then returned to the farm shop for tea and cake. I enjoyed the day so much I bought a small gift for Mrs Barnes – she was both shocked and suspicious. I guess I should do it more often!
Like all of the good shoots, Brightwalton have sold all of their days – in fact they were fully booked by May. So what is their secret? I asked Giles. “Almost certainly it's all about making sure that everyone is enjoying their day, both Guns and everyone behind the scenes. And I don't think Guns want herding. It should be relaxed.”
His wife Harriett looks after the Guns on shoot days and is a natural – the two are clearly running a tight and happy ship. I thought it was excellent.
John Coe, Herbert Berger, Mike Robinson, Brett Graham, Mike Barnes, John Campbell, Richard Auden, Roger Howe and Simon Florey.
209 (92 pheasants, 117 redleg partridges)