Gurston Down - Wiltshire
Pioneer of high bird valley shooting, David Hitchings moulded Gurston Down into one of the sport's truly great destinations. It set the standard. Where better then to celebrate his 80th birthday? By Robert Cuthbert.
With my sporting agent's cap on my head and my hand on my heart, I'd be the first to question the notion that solid lineage or endless pages charting historical sporting significance goes hand in hand with the most testing of sport. Sadly, it doesn't always... and then there is Gurston.
For the unacquainted or unaware, Gurston Down evolved from a very humble farm shoot, often barely hitting bags of a dozen or so, into a fully-fledged and internationally respected shoot through the endeavour of David Hitchings, a warm-hearted, quick-to-smile Wiltshire farmer with a sharp mind, who has never stopped learning or asking questions in his pursuit of sporting excellence. The shoot has come a long way from David 'wandering this bit of old ground with my old gun over one arm and a ferret in each pocket.'
Admittedly, Gurston Down, which nestles in the chalk valley, just off the A30 between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, is certainly the young pretender besides Highclere or Holcombe; no succession of Earls or Dukes presiding over its fields and coverts, or a palace or castle, in which to take lunch. Nevertheless, Gurston still has a concrete foothold within the structure of British shooting; a shoot that in recent years, has been enjoyed and has humbled, not only those shooting trap guns with 32 inch barrels, but also statesmen like Sir Anthony Eden, crowned heads from oversees as well as British aristocrats. Indeed, His Grace the Duke of Wellington wrote the foreword to David Hitchings' book, the historical and practical guide, Showing High Pheasants And Partridges, which I understand is to be updated very soon.
I was lucky enough to be invited along and watch David Hitchings' 80th birthday celebrtory shoot, with a team of his oldest and firmest friends, son-in-law and grandson.
After 30-odd years of steering the ship, David handed the reins to the shoot over to his nephew, Robert Hitchings, in the late nineties. It was Robert who welcomed everyone, the Guns, guests and myself, into the shoot lodge for coffee and the briefing before striking out for the first drive, Hollow Bend.
With Guns on pegs for 10am sharp, the first bird folded to a single clap from Tony Ball's peg. It was really quite horribly still, very mild and the sun just poured down onto us. Odd members of the team stripped down from heavy tweed coats to sweaters and waistcoats. Despite the conditions and plenty of leaf, the little birds did their utmost and were well matched by the team.
My position afforded me a good view of David and his grandson, Edward, and also of Robert, whom it seemed had developed the most remarkable and unique technique with his flag. I later learnt that he'd discovered a wasps' nest and wasn't dancing wildly for fun. After a couple of antihistamine tablets for the odd sting, Robert soldiered on valiantly.
The Gods clearly got the email late, and realising whose day it was, graciously acquiesced for the second drive; Pennan. As if by a switch, the dazzling sunlight dropped off by a half and the hulking clouds rolled and merged, abruptly scudding on at a greater pace.
I positioned my shooting stick between Andrew Jeans and the host for this drive, which afforded me a superb view of a cheeky partridge which dog-legged around the end Gun, and tried valiantly to run the gauntlet behind the line. As Tony Ball happened to be looking over his shoulder at a bird that had towered and then folded twenty yards behind him up a bank, he suddenly caught sight of this gambler that jinked like a little rare grey one. As he looked to have a very firm bead drawn on him, his right-hand neighbour, Derek Brown, folded the little scorcher at well over 40 yards with his first barrel. It really was goal of the month stuff.
Although David was a little out of the high-octane birds which pinged through the middle, I could see him intently watching proceedings, sometimes not even raising his gun, in order to chat to a stop or picker-up. He was so absorbed, taken up with watching his friends in the line, he missed the amusing scene of a small but chunky caramel spaniel retrieving one of David's partridges from a small barn roof, the dog having been lobbed up there by his handler.
With the pickers still sweeping the odd hedgerow for the stragglers, the cars wove their way up to a lovely vantage point, affording a cracking view of the estate's beautifully plunging topography. It was here that Robert cracked open the Bollinger for Sloegasms with slabs of rich fruitcake.
It was lovely just to take a step back from the intimacy of the team for a moment and listen to them, in their knots of twos and threes, recounting a particular drive or a quirk in a particular season or person.
With our flutes drained, our small convoy weaved its way down to the foot of the valley.
For the opening sprinkling of singletons and pairs on the third drive, I chatted to Lady Ana Studd, who raked down more than enough with a pretty 20 bore by Manton & Manton. "I'm sure it's from India," she told me. "It suits me well enough, for the few days I have."
As we neared the end of the drive, with well-feathered pheasants now coming thick and fast, I just caught sight of a lone partridge that tumbled earthwards between a squadron of cock pheasants, 40 or so yards above David's peg. A pearler in anyone's book. "Whoa-ho, the birthday boy," cheered a neighbouring Gun, out of view.
After Rowberry Hedge, the return drive from Gravelly Valley, and as panting spaniels scurried and quartered vying for supremacy amongst the fallen, we paused to watch the dogs before trudging back to the Guns' wagon. As we meandered back, I asked Peter Jeans, a great friend and neighbour of Gurston, what he made of David Hitchings' position in the shooting hierarchy of today. "Well, he's the doyen, isn't he? Surely, there's no question about that. He really is the pioneer of deep, West Country valley, high bird shooting. But all this, what we're enjoying here today, has taken years of refinement. David's a farmer. He knows what he's doing with this type of ground, but he has that advantage of almost thinking just like a partridge or pheasant."
The skies became even darker, and the cheery group assembled outside the shoot bothy, where we were to take lunch. As the combined age of the assembled Guns and guests was tipping close to a thousand years in total, there were a few quips from the younger end of things about the possibility of Jan Hitchings, Robert's wife and i/c lunch, serving the lunch courses as purees, very well mashed up, at least! They needn't have worried. Accompanied by some very cosy Haut Brion, the wonderful roast beef lunch went down a storm. I was lucky enough to meet Gwen, David's very bubbly wife, who, when the kitchen was under her control, never gave a team the same main course - even after a three year rotation. That ethos is something that Robert and Jan have naturally adopted - absolute attention to detail.
After a very warm and modest speech by David, Peter Jeans continued the conversation we began before lunch. "I suppose, if you were to treat high birds as a lesson in Latin, David would be much akin to the grammar, the syntax for commercial shooting." Peter Lamb, a neighbour of Gurston agreed: "Before Devon, before Exmoor took off, there was Gurston ... still is. Long may it remain, too."
To help see off that sumptuous lunch, a few of the Guns wandered down to take up their pegs at Lower Warren. The birds here were nothing short of spellbinding; awesome to watch. There were the odd freakish birds that steeply rose out of shot, but on the whole, these were fantastically driven, birds ... just in range for mortals.
As the Guns trickled back to my vantage point near the Gun wagon, ready to take their pegs for the finale, Rowberry, I heard David say as he looked up and around the horizon and the blackened skies, which looked fit to burst: "I really do love Hammerhead, I suppose it really is my favourite drive, but Rowberry is the perfect drive to end today, with these conditions."
After a stunning closing salvo of fizzing, screamingly high birds, the beaming guests, tired, deliriously happy and a little bemused by the flurries of partridges that had beaten or been felled by them, closed in on their host with pats on his back and broad smiles. As they trooped towards him, I caught David, for once, momentarily without a smile, his eyes flitting from face to face. In only a few fleeting moments, I think the enormity of what he's achieved, with his beloved wife and his closest family, suddenly struck home, taking his breath away. The deep respect, love, warmth and fondness of his true friends seemed to hit him like a bolt.
Suddenly catching sight of me, hovering, clutching my notebook, his smile returned. "You really can't imagine what it means to shoot with such fine people, Robert; such great friends.
"It's lovely to share their company and see how they show birds, but it's them, their real friendship. How could you ever put a value on it, or on a day like this?"
The Guns: Lady Ana Studd, Tony Ball, Derek Brown, Ernest Hannam, Bill Heller, Andrew Jeans, Peter Lamb, John Parker, Richard Sawbridge, Edward Hunter Smart. Non-shooting guests: Dr. Nigel Potter and Charles Hunter Smart.
The bag: 216 redleg partridge, 2 woodpigeon. 2 magpies