Chillington Estate – Staffordshire
Country sportsmen and women are all a little bonkers, says Patrick Tillard, after enjoying a wet and wild day at Chillington Estate.
There was a moment at elevenses which captured the mood of the day perfectly. Grappling for the sheltered side of the Discovery, and with water dripping from his nose, Mundy Miller clinked metal cups and shared a joke with equally sodden Kate McGahey. There was a violent wind that would have kept any sane sailors on the shore and downpours that rendered any coat as useful as a chocolate teapot. But the Guns, beaters and pickers-up were having none of it.
No list of adjectives can quite do justice to Mother Nature's temper on the day. But this is when country sportsmen and women stand out from the masses: we're all a little bit bonkers, for no other reason than when ornery weather rocks entire woodlands and forces most to remain behind closed doors, cowering at the thought of being swept into the next county, we pull on our breeks, waders, boots and jackets and carry about our business as usual. And there aren't many better places to do this than on Chillington Estate.
Home to the Giffards for more than 800 years, a family with a direct link by descent from one of the knights who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, the red brick Staffordshire manor provides something of a jaw-dropping entrance to the 4,000-acre estate. As it stands, nestled within spick sheep-grazed parkland designed by Capability Brown, the present building is the third on the site; the first being a stone castle built in the 11th century. This was then replaced in the 16th century by Sir John Giffard, High Sheriff of Staffordshire, until the third transformation into its current appearance, orchestrated by Francis Smith in 1724 and John Soane in 1785. And to say they did a fine job of it would be a crushing understatement.
From the outside, its vast edifice is impressive, but inside it is a different ball game. The capacious rooms, salient artwork, antique furnishings and car-sized stone fireplaces fuelled by trunks rather than logs, afford the Hall immense beauty and charm. History and heritage burst from every corner. A guided tour and walk of the grounds, with or without a shotgun, are hugely recommended and time well spent.
Come wind, rain and game
This drenched shoot day was one in the season when the enormously inviting owners, John and Crescent (the 29th generation of Giffards), host their nephews, Tom, Mundy and Bart, and the assorted entourage that accompany the three debonair brothers. After a sensational supper of cheese soufflé and pork á l'orange, followed by a tot of punchy foreign liqueur and some very questionable dancing to the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and The Who in the drawing room, we called it a night and set about the challenge of finding our allocated bedrooms – easier said than done with a maze of dark corridors and staircases to negotiate.
Waking to the racket of torrential rain thrashing the windows hinted that there was a storm of hurricane proportions brewing, as the parkland ewes looked somewhat suicidal huddled under one of the many bare oak canopies. Usually John stops for lunch midway through the day, taken in the sui generis 18th century Grecian Temple overlooking a lake towards The Sham Bridge and The Roman Temple. (Show me someone who knows of a better setting for a shoot lunch and I'll show you a liar.) However, due to the conditions suiting gills rather than guns, the decision was made to shoot through and return to the main house to avoid a light dusting of pneumonia.
At breakfast there wasn't a hint of pessimism – we were here for a day's shooting, not croquet. The morning's safety briefing and drawing of pegs took place in a rattling marquee used for a wedding the weekend before – the Hall is understandably an extremely popular venue for such events. In great spirits, the Guns suited and booted as best they could, and, although soaked before even cramming into the cavalcade of 4x4s, so the mood remained throughout. Sideways rain, hat-thieving gales and wintry temperatures, it had the ineluctable ingredients of a pitiful day, but it was quite the opposite.
As I said, country folk are a unique sort... Fishermen, for example, are more than happy to take inclement weather in their stride. In fact, blazing sun is seen as work of the devil to the salmon angler, spate river enthusiasts are known to indulge in the occasional rain dance and trout aficionados can't help but get psychotically giddy about hatches of ephemeroptera.
Hunters, having spent an inane amount of time polishing brass buttons, plaiting manes and scrubbing boots, usually at highly antisocial hours of the day, happily return home with half a clay field embedded in their teeth, having earlier dragged themselves from a swollen ditch after falling at a hedge the height and width of Blenheim Palace.
Deer stalkers will not only persevere when the weather takes a turn for the worse, but use it to their advantage, getting the wind in their favour and crawling into areas where stags and hinds are seeking sanctity.
And don't even get me started on wildfowlers, possibly the craziest and most stoic of us all.
And here I was, crouched in the foetal position at the base of an oak tree on the second drive, camera buried under my jumper, witnessing awesome scenes. With the Guns spread out in a field of oilseed rape, the rain smashing into their faces, pheasants were rising from cover and rocketing over the line as they were taken hostage by the savage wind. Their pace was biblical, with each bird seemingly needing the lead of a tennis court. Perhaps more.
Each of the drives offered a mix of topography and a new challenge, from rolling arable valleys to narrow woodland rides – my Canon was promptly too miserable to do the scenery the justice it merits.
On the final drive, with the beaters marching their way to the back of a thick wood, Guns were live on their pegs with the instructions to shoot any pigeons being manhandled in the bullying conditions. And by Jove were there pigeons. A frantic five-minute fusillade accounted for 125 shots... for six birds – necessary lead and side allowance a complete guesstimation. The pheasants and partridges soon followed and with the line dotted along a constrictive path the snap-shooting opportunities provided fantastic sport, with Jamie Gray also bagging his first ever woodcock (much to his surprise as a self-confessed ‘man with bent barrels').
Having wrestled the Land Rovers back onto solid ground, we returned to the warmth of the Hall for a change of clothes and a frosty beer in front of the huge bellowing fire, followed by possibly the world's best shoot lunch – juicy beef casserole and fluffy jacket potato. Seconds were a no-brainer.
All too soon we were saying our farewells. Yes it was truly wild, wet and windy, but it was certainly one of the more memorable shoot days of the season. Great hospitality, stunning surroundings and exhilarating mixed sport over a variety of drives, Chillington Hall has it all – whatever the weather.
Tom, Mundy & Bart Miller, James Sainty, Edward Downpatrick, James Gray, Johnnie & Jamie Kerr, William Tripp, Ed Dymoke, & Alex Kerr
Headkeeper Jeff Powell
Jeff celebrated 30 years as headkeeper at Chillington Hall during the 2013/14 season and has been integral to the vast transformation of the shoot. When he arrived at the estate from Weston Park in the 80s, only a small acreage of land near to the Hall was managed for wild bird shooting, but on inheriting the estate from his father, John Giffard set about laying the foundations of his long term vision for the driven shoot.
“We started small, rearing and releasing 500 birds,” explains Jeff. “Since then, the shoot has gathered momentum, encompassing more of the surrounding countryside and fuelling the development of new, exciting drives.
“We now have 20 drives and buy in the birds as six-week-old poults, hosting 13 or 14 let days a season and retaining a similar amount for the family. It's been great to be part of the shoot's evolution over the past three decades.”
Around 14 shoot days are let each season, with mixed bags of partridges and pheasants averaging 150 head. Smaller days of 40–50 birds are also available during the season.
Tel. +44 (0)1902 850236