Stowell Park – Gloucestershire
The Ian Coley Sporting Agency let days on some of the UK's finest estates. Patrick Tillard joined them in the Cotswolds in the tail-end of a storm.
Anyone with their feet in shooting circles who isn't familiar with the name Ian Coley has clearly been banging away without ear defenders for far too long. As the affable former GB Olympic shooting coach, who guided Peter Wilson to the top step of the Double Trap podium at the London Olympics, and a hugely knowledgeable figure within the game shooting field, surely no-one is better qualified to head a sporting agency.
The Ian Coley Group comprises a gun shop and shooting school just outside Cheltenham, and the 30-year-old sporting agency – each as well managed as the other. Their extensive sporting portfolio allows days to be tailored to suit Guns' predilections, coupling both quality driven sport and meticulous hospitality. Within minutes of meeting Ian, and his assistant Ed Darbishire, it's clear that they take a hands-on approach and are both thorough and entertaining hosts. The benefit of getting a sporting agent onboard is that they ensure the right Guns take days, respectful teams that enjoy the full frills of a shoot day rather than just the emptying of cartridge bags.
Owned by the Vestey family since 1921, Stowell Park Estate extends over 5,500 acres on both banks of the River Coln in Gloucestershire and has topography that just yells out brilliant sporting presentation: deep natural glades, woodland banks and wide open arable fields and grassed valleys. The meeting point in the charming and unspoilt stone village of Yanworth, eight miles from Cirencester, was a stunning converted barn, with high wooden beams and wall-to-wall skull mounts. Less cramped than Mar Lodge ballroom, but equally as impressive. There were red, fallow, roe and muntjac – switches and peruques, bronzes, silvers and golds.
The estate has 24 drives, allowing headkeeper Eddy Graves – the only keeper with an MBE – to ensure the Guns' ability is matched. Days are hard to come by as only 10 are let each season, and a typical day consists of five drives with bags in the region of 300. Eddy, who was awarded his MBE for services to gamekeeping and food hygiene, has been a keeper for more than 40 years and headkeeper of Stowell for 22 of those.
On the day of my invite, there was an additional factor to throw into consideration when picking the drives... Cast your mind back to last autumn when winds of near 100mph were smashing the south of England. Granted, the gales had somewhat mollified by the time they swept through the Cotswolds, but there was still plenty to be rocking the conifers and add plenty of bite to the birds.
The bar was set early. The first drive, Shabby Hill, was a real stonker. No time to get into the swing of things. The Guns horseshoed around a sizeable block of tall-standing maize on rising ground and, live on their pegs, the early birds were screamers. Coming from far in the distance, before the beaters had even reached the cover, and using the wind to bank, pheasants were flying well ahead of their time, emulating the likes of December/January birds. And what's more, the partridges were matching them.
I stood with back-Gun Nick Barham, who had flown over from New York the night before, and as the first cock bird rose over the line, untouched by the front Guns, Nick nonchalantly dropped the bottle of water he was gulping, matched the line and speed of the bird and placed the pattern perfectly. He proceeded to do the same with the next six, one barrel needed for each. With the wind, birds were sliding and bouncing like a spaniel's ear out the car window. Great sport!
Happily though, there was nothing extreme, as seems to be the avant-garde within so many shoots nowadays – tall bird specialists should stick to the West Country and Wales. The pheasants were challenging, but always within range for the Guns of differing experiences using various bores and loads – the way it should be.
These were the toughest birds of the day. The layout of the drive and crossing tailwind making for an exciting collusion.
Ed Darbishire explained that Stowell is best known for its wooded glade drives, but due to the heavy autumn tree leaf, these signature drives come to the fore later on in the season. Nevertheless, each drive was notably different from the last. The second, Holy Well, produced lovely 50-yard pheasants, bursting over oaks on a high bank – the flapping audible before they soared into view. And then from snap-shooting in rides of conifer plantations, to decent birds at the picturesque Over The Lake, with peg No. 5 on a rickety promenade out in the water, and a classic Cotswolds valley drive to finish, Oaksbottom, where birds explored real pace and height from a modest gradient. On the latter, the less energetic partridges could merely take off and let the wind and gravity do the rest for them, while pheasants locked their wings and hit the line going like Concordes.
Such diversity in five drives bodes extremely well for the other 19. The topographic combes of the Cotswolds lend themselves perfectly to driven shooting, and with this in mind, Eddy had maximised the use of game cover to enhance the natural features at hand – some 80 acres is grown and over 40 species sown. The estate is split into four beats and Eddy works alongside three beatkeepers: Matthew Burton, Graham Hope and Ashley Tricketts.
The Ian Coley Sporting Agency prides itself on the first class hospitality of their let days. And justly so. Warming elevenses were taken in a luscious grass field beside a swollen tan-stained stream – whereupon I quizzed Willie Carson about all things I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! related – and lunch was taken before the final drive, back under the antlers of the Jura reds. A roaring fire, fine wine, succulent lamb with creamy mash, and rich-red, flavoursome summer pudding.
As Marcus Janssen's article More than meets the eye detailed in our Autumn 2013 issue, far more goes on behind the scenes than the Guns may be aware of, but from the front it was hard to find any fault with the day's proceedings, credit to Eddy and his team, shoot maitre d' David and the caterers, and the Ian Coley Sporting Agency.
Nick Barham, Jeremy Marsh, Chris Wright, Janice Wright, Andrew Brownsword, Mark Fenwick, Ben Sangster, Peter Lassman and Willie Carson