Carlton Towers – Yorkshire
It may not have the acreage, topography or scenery typical of a top driven shoot, but there is nothing ordinary about Carlton Towers, says Marcus Janssen.
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN McGEE
I suspect that Simon Kershaw, the estate manager of Carlton Towers, will be glad it wasn't Alex Brant who turned up at the enormous front doors of the great house in Yorkshire one dank and grey evening last November. Simon had extended an invite to Fieldsports for a day's partridge shooting at Carlton Towers, and the truth is if we had sent Alex, I suspect his appraisal wouldn't have been entirely positive.
Like a lot of really good Shots, Alex is all about the shooting – he likes his birds high, challenging and plentiful, and compared to say, Haddeo, Warter Priory or Molland, Carlton's traditional partridges, driven over tall hedgerows, would pale into insignificance. Bags are modest and, topographically, the ground is as flat as the Freestate – there are no archangels or skyscrapers – and to be honest, the scenery isn't a patch on the West Country or the Scottish Highlands. But if, like me, you're a bit of a traditionalist, Carlton Towers will be right up your street. And if you are also into your food and drink, you'll well and truly be in your element.
Regular readers of Fieldsports will know that the level of enjoyment I derive from a day's shooting is more closely related to the things that can't be measured or quantified than those that can. The number of shots fired, how high the birds were or the size of the bag are largely inconsequential. It's all the other stuff that makes driven shooting in the UK so special to me – the company and camaraderie, the traditions, the rituals, the history and rich heritage of the estates where we shoot, many of which were established with shooting, fishing, hunting and entertaining in mind. It could be argued that this is a bit of an anachronistic view of things, but I disagree. And happily, so does Simon Kershaw.
Carlton Towers is the ancestral home of the Duke of Norfolk's family and today is the home of the current Duke's brother and sister-in-law, Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard. It has everything a perfect historical building should have – magnificent architecture, a distinct family heritage and an estate steeped in sporting history. There has been a house here, 30 miles east of Leeds, since the Norman Conquest, but the oldest parts of the existing building date back to the late 1600s. As I was shown to my en suite bedroom up in the clock tower on the third floor – one of 16 rooms that have recently been refurbished to the highest standards for the benefit of guests – I had to pinch myself. Several times. It really is an incredible house.
“This house was built for entertaining, and that is exactly what we are all about,” explained Simon as he poured us each a strong black coffee from an ornate silver coffee pot. We were sat in front of an enormous inglenook fireplace in a little alcove off the vast main hall which stretches away almost 200ft to the east. As the rest of the shooting party were due to join us in the morning, apart from the west wing, which is the self-contained home of Lord Gerald and his family, the great house lay in complete darkness. I have to say, it felt pretty special to have such an amazing house to ourselves.
“One of the most memorable day's shooting I have ever had,” continued Simon, “was many moons ago on an estate in Aberdeenshire. The truth is, I can't remember what the actual shooting was like, but what I can clearly recall is the hospitality and outrageous fun we had. Here at Carlton Towers, we want to create that shooting party-of-old atmosphere and provide our guests with an experience they will always remember.”
Although it can be booked as a wedding venue, Carlton Towers isn't open to the public and, despite the upkeep of the house, which must be astronomical, Lord Gerald is absolutely determined not to turn it into a stately home theme park; he wants the house to retain its unique identity without compromising its authenticity and rich sporting heritage.
“If we had the topography or acreage, we could develop the shoot into a substantial commercial operation,” continues Simon, “but we have neither. What we do have, however, is an incredible house with the facilities to offer a shooting party an experience like no other.” He doesn't use the words personal or exclusive, but that is exactly how it feels; there's no great rush of housekeepers to get your room ready for the next lot of guests, and there's a genuine buzz about the day ahead. Indeed, with only 12 days shooting on offer per season, it could be a couple of weeks before the next party arrives. “We want our guests to feel like the house is theirs for the duration of their stay,” he continued,“and, most importantly, we want them to have fun.”
After a leisurely soak in a bath fit for a king, quite literally – think King Henry VIII – I made my way down two spiral staircases, along several vast corridors, through a labyrinth of passages and down into the bowels of the great house, the part that 100 years ago would have been abuzz with footmen, cooks, and chambermaids. But rather than finding Mr. Carson and Mrs Patmore and co. in a frisson of pre-dinner activity,
I followed the aroma of something delicious into Cooks, Carlton Towers' in-house school of food where I found Simon removing from the oven an entire entrecôte of beef that the chef had prepared for just four of us. “Perfect timing,” he said, “let's go and find something that needs drinking.”
Simon led the way into The Housekeeper's Sitting Room next door, where Lord Gerald and his son Arthur joined us for a pre-dinner glass of Nyetimber. Simon is a real food and wine aficionado, and his well-stocked cellar is testimony to that. “We really want to create a centre for outstanding local produce here,” explained Lord Gerald. “It's all about local producers, and in addition to our newly-opened school of food, we have our own Oxford sandy and black pigs which, with the help of butcher David Lishman, we are going to turn into our own pork products. We have our own beef herd, our own chickens, plus all of the game that is shot on the estate goes into the cookery school. We also have our own artisan micro real ale brewery, and there are plans for an organic farm shop and cafe.”
Over an excellent sirloin of beef with all the trimmings – enjoyed in The Duchess's Dining Room, possibly the best shoot dining room I have ever eaten in – Simon went on to explain how they intend to combine the shooting with all the other exciting enterprises they are developing on the estate. “We want our guests to come and enjoy a day's shooting and then have a day with our head chef in the school of food, learning how to prepare game and make the most of it. Then the whole party can sit down and enjoy a meal that they have helped to prepare. We want to involve everyone – husbands, wives, kids and friends (you can bring your own dogs, too). We really believe that shooting should be sociable and fun, so the food and drink element is a big part of it.”
After dinner, Simon showed me around the recently completed cookery school which, in addition to the incredibly well-equipped main kitchen, includes a larder, a special game preparation area, and a bakery and pastry kitchen. It is all very impressive.
The following morning, the rest of the Guns arrived in time for tea, coffee and bacon rolls, served in front of a roaring fire in The Housekeeper's Sitting Room, before convening in front of the great house to draw pegs. We would be shooting mainly French partridges over four drives, but, as headkeeper David Gay explained, there could be the bonus of wild greys in the mix too. Indeed, Carlton Towers won Silver at the 2007 Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation for grey partridge conservation and, although there is no longer a rearing program, there is still a healthy population of greys on the well-keepered estate.
It was my first experience of a traditional low-ground partridge shoot and I have to say, it was exciting. As Mike (Barnes) had warned me, the key is to take them early, way out in front. If you hesitate, they're gone.
On the second drive, just as things were hotting up, the distinctive chattering of greys could be heard ahead and, like a dog on point, I got ready. Seconds later a big covey came starbursting over the line, taking most of the Guns by surprise. Gladly, I did manage to get a shot off but to my dismay a redleg tumbled to the ground in front of me – in the heat of the moment, I had picked the only redleg in amongst the big covey of greys. “You numpty!” Photographer Jonathan McGee, who knew that I had never shot a grey partridge before, summed up the situation nicely.
Elevenses of delicious homemade sausage rolls, pork pies and sloe gin were then taken in a specially built log cabin in a wood near the house. And, as we huddled around a bonfire outside, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who had missed my opportunity; the entire covey of greys had made it through the line unscathed. However, in addition to the good number of redlegs that were already in the bag, there were a few wild pheasants too which had soared high above the line, despite the topography. But that's wild pheasants for you.
The remaining two drives followed a similar format with good numbers of redlegs bursting over tall hedgerows way out in front before bisecting the long line. With the Guns pegged at least 50 yards apart, everyone got some shooting.
On the final drive of the day, another big covey of greys suddenly swept across the front of the line without warning but remained a long way out. A few Guns had a pop at them, but to no avail. We had been well and truly defeated by Carlton's English partridges which, I guess, is no bad thing. All that was left to do was return to the house for an excellent lunch.
I was envious of those who were staying the night, for I had to be in the office early the following morning so had to hit the road. I knew what I would be missing – more fantastic food and wine, exceptional hospitality and a lot of fun. I always know when I have really enjoyed a day's shooting – I can't wait to ring Mike and tell him about it. Well, I could still see the incredible house in my rearview mirror when he picked up the phone. “How was it?” he asked. “A hell of a lot of fun,” I said. And it certainly had been.
Senior's, Holland's, Burton's and Twenty Acre.
Lord Gerald Fitzalan Howard, Arthur Fitzalan Howard, David Lishman, Jonathan Smailes, Jeremy Shaw, Edward Morrison, James Wright, Mal Evans, Claudio Antonio and Marcus Janssen.
110 (105 French partridges and 5 pheasants).