Hall Barn – then and now
Brian Dunn visits the Portman Burtley estate where 100 years ago at Hall Barn the record-breaking pheasant shoot was held.
The late Victorian and early Edwardian era saw driven game shooting at its peak of social acceptability and interest. As a result, sizeable country estates incorporated game shooting for the owners' personal pleasure rather than as the commercial enterprise most driven game shoots have had to become today.
To the west of London, in the South Buckinghamshire area of the Chilterns, game shoots thrived: Lord Chesham's Latimer estate, the Fuller estate around Hyde Heath, Stewart Liberty's mainly partridge shoot on their estate around Great Missenden, the Hampden estate next to Chequers, the Dashwood's West Wycombe estate and Cliveden, associated with the notoriety in the 1950s Keeler spy affair. All of these estates enjoyed a driven game shooting facility throughout that period and many remain as game shoots to this day. However, none were more renowned or attracted such famous patronage as the Hall Barn estate at Beaconsfield.
That was ‘then'. ‘Now' in the 21st century, England's once most famous shoot is in fact two shoots and neither match the fame nor grandeur of the Hall Barn shoot of December 18, 1913, when a record bag of 3,937 pheasants were shot by a team of just six Guns in one day.
Today, the old original estate has been divided into two estates – Portman Burtley and Hall Barn. Both are still of substantial size, but much smaller than the original, which was ravaged in the 1920s and 30s by road building and property development.
Hall Barn remains a respectable family shoot, and it still enjoys land of the old estate where beech hangers were such an important feature, allowing driven pheasants to be beautifully shown to the Guns. However, since 1948, most of the famous valley along which the six-Gun team of 1913 stood, has been in the ownership of Viscount Portman and The Portman Estate Trust. Portman Burtley is a mixed partridge and pheasant shoot where driven shooting over Guns standing along the valleys and in the footsteps of the 1913 team is enjoyed by resident syndicate members, as well as several let days each season. The eight-man syndicate is ably captained by founder member John Blackiston.
In autumn there can be no finer landscape than that of the Chiltern hills where the beech hangers are spectacularly covered in copper leaves throughout the Pennlands, Hilmotts, Burtley and Egypt woods area, which comprises both estates and their shoots to this day. These woods lie next to the famous beauty spot of Burnham Beeches, named after Lord Burnham's estate, and is now owned by the City of London Corporation and devoted to recreational walking amongst some of the oldest surviving beech trees in England.
Such surroundings make the whole experience a privilege to be able to shoot beautifully presented birds in such spectacular countryside, where the company of fellow Guns and the hospitality of the shoot are second to none.
The 1913 team of Guns included HRH King George V, the Prince of Wales, Lord ‘Bertie' Vane Tempest, the Honourable Harry Stonor, Lord Dalhousie, Lord Charles Fitzmaurice and Lord Ilchester.
While it has been said that the shoot was not a slaughter and that very respectable birds were presented to the Guns, on the train journey home, the Prince of Wales noticed that the King was unusually quiet, his silence eventually broken when he said: “Perhaps we overdid it today.”
The occasion which might be considered as the “excuse” - if that were needed at a time when large bags were the norm - was in fact the celebration of Lord Burnham's 80th birthday, which fell just ten days later.
While eccentricities might still feature today as a welcome part of any day's shooting, none quite match Jack Westropp, a runner with the local Old Berkeley Hunt, who acted as cartridge carrier to the King and turned out in a top hat that had been originally presented to him by Lord Burnham.
Today “characters” still frequent the Portman Burtley shoots, many have been “shoot servants” for countless years and others have been Guns, where headgear, waistcoats and ties usually announce the presence of a “character” beneath.
A day's bag from 200 to 300 on formal driven days can usually be expected today - all well-presented birds requiring considerable skill to ensure a respectable cartridge to kill ratio. The shoot has good teams of beaters and pickers-up with well-behaved dogs under the control of their handlers.
All in all, one hundred years on, the culture and atmosphere of excellent English game shooting remains alive and well from those heady Edwardian days when the Hall Barn region of the Chilterns AONB represented all that was finest and most popular about driven game shooting, especially being, as it remains today, so close to London, the nation's capital.
Guns: Chris Moxon, Nigel Staples, Peter Dyer, Roger Withers, Keith Clark, Steve McHale, Brian Dunn & John Blackiston (shoot owner).
The bag: 46 partridges, 159 pheasants, 1 pigeon. Total: 206
APPEAL OF THE CHILTERNS
The following game shoots are on an arc from north through west to south, at a 25-mile radius from London. Their number grew from the turn of the 19th century out of travel expediency, the Chiltern Hills being so close to London and yet perfect for driven game shooting because of the steep banks and deep valleys that can show high birds. Much of the Chilterns grow beech, which do well on the chalky soils. Again these can be used to show sporting birds.
Many of the original shoots remain vibrant to this day. Others have suffered from development of roads and property, and have been reduced in size and broken into smaller shoots. But, there are sufficient flourishing shoots in operation in 2012 to rank the Chilterns as still a notable game shooting area after nearly 150 years of history.
At least 10 of the list of 25 still operate as high quality driven game shoots. In such a compact space so close to London, this must remain as one of the most dense game shooting areas anywhere in Great Britain.
The Chiltern shoots: Luton Hoo (Werner), Gaddesden (Brownlow), Ashridge Park (NT), Trying Park (Rothschilds), Wilstone Reservoir duck shoot (Rothschilds - closed down two years ago), Mentmore (Rothschilds), Waddesen (Rothschilds), Westbrook Hay, Bulstrode Park, Bucks Hill, Hundridge Manor (Lord Ednam), Latimer Park (Lord Chesham-Cavendish), The Lee (Stewart Liberty), Great Hampden (Oliver) and Little Hampden (Figg), West Wycombe (Sir Edward Dashwood), Shardeloes (Bazzard), Penn (Earl Howe), Hall Barn (Lord Burnham), Portman Burtley (Lord Portman Trust), Hambleden (Schwarzenbach), Cliveden (Astor), Winchbottom (Carrington), Medmenham and Windsor (HRH).