Arundel – West Sussex
John Simpson's shooting CV is impressive. For the past three decades he and a group of fellow Canadians have been coming to the UK for a fortnight of first class driven shooting. Over the years, they've shot at an enviable number of the most prestigious estates in England, Scotland and Wales, including the Bettws Hall stable of shoots of Molland, West Molland, Brigands, Vaynor, Chargot and Kempton, as well as Wrackleford, Haddeo, Combe Sydenham, Gunnerside, Warter Priory, Rievaulx, Ravenswick, Farndale, Bransdale, Murton Grange, Swinton and many others. You name it, the chances are John and his team have shot there at some stage. And the one shoot that always features on their itinerary? Arundel Castle in West Sussex, where they have shot the opening two days in November every year since 1985. “Not many estates are worthy of coming back to every year for more than 25 years,” he says in earnest. “I think this is one of the very best shoots in the country.” And he should know.
Indeed, as I was soon to discover, a day's shooting at Arundel is a truly special experience. The castle itself – the seat of the Duke of Norfolk and dating back to the 11th century – is nothing short of spectacular. The rolling parkland surrounding it is equally breathtaking, particularly in late autumn when the mature deciduous woodland is an artist's palatte of russets, golds, crimsons, oranges and yellows. The lunch, which included – by way of unanimous vote – the best sticky toffee pudding in the world, was outstanding and the Duke of Norfolk and his staff disarmingly warm and welcoming. What's more, Arundel isn't run commercially. In fact, they only shoot 11 days a year, four of which are kept in-hand for the Duke and his family, and one is reserved for a tenant farmer. So to be a part of such a day was a great privilege, in more ways than one.
“The shooting is spectacular,” Don Douglas, one of the Guns, assured me as I joined them for breakfast at their hotel in Arundel. “But the hospitality is what makes it extra special. The Duke is a warm and charming host and he and his staff always make us feel like old friends.” Don was a member of the eight-Gun groundbreaking team who shot four of Yorkshire's best shoots in a single day last year, travelling from drive to drive by luxury Sikorski helicopter (as featured in the Winter 2012/13 issue of Fieldsports). He is also one of the original members of John's team who have been returning to the UK every year for almost three decades.
Although the team did fly from Yorkshire to Wales and then onto Arundel by helicopter, it was by Land Rover that we made the short journey from the hotel to the castle. “So, are you trying to tell me that the Gunbus will be remaining on terra firma this year?” I ask in mock horror. “I know, it's tragic, our standards are slipping,” laughed Matt Biker, the team's official shoot organiser. As we made our way along a mile-long stone corridor into the depths of Arundel Castle, the walls lined with row upon row of impressive red stag mounts, I had to mentally pinch myself.
An enormous log fire and a selection of teas served by Richard, a modern day Jeeves – “India or China, Sir?” – were awaiting us in an impressive oak-panelled drawing room where we were also met by Peter Knight, the estate manager. Peter was our host for the first four drives and the Duke, who had prior engagements, joined us for lunch in the castle and the final two drives of the day.
After drawing pegs, Guns, loaders and companions bundled into Land Rovers and headed out of the courtyard and onto the 1,800 acres of surrounding parkland. “The Duke's party trick is to drive through here at 40mph,” said Matt, as he carefully inched his vehicle through an extremely narrow archway. Clearly constructed at a time when horsepower really meant horse power, the Land Rover's wing mirrors almost brush the stone walls on either side. Apparently, John's partner Jollean – who had been a passenger in the Duke's Discovery the day before – had screamed out loud as they had hurtled towards the seemingly too narrow gap at hair-raising speed.
The first drive, known as The Herons, saw good numbers of pheasants pushed out of a mix of autumn-washed beech, oak, birch and hazel. The Guns were lined up in an open field with the stunning West Sussex countryside rolling away into the distance behind. It really was a beautiful backdrop, and as I got into a good position to snap away with the camera, one of the Guns, Paul Hudson, who must have read my thoughts, turned to me and said: “Now you can see why we love it here.” This sets a precedent, not for the quality of the birds – for not a single shot had yet been fired – but for the sheer enjoyment that this team derive from their sport. Indeed, it's not hard to see why the Duke invites them back to Arundel year after year. And as the first drive came to an end, I began to understand why none of John's team would ever contemplate missing these two days.
Although some of the lower-pegged Guns didn't get a huge amount of shooting, the quality of the birds at The Herons was impressive with Don Douglas and Tom Brinkerhoff, pegged at 8 and 9, pulling some spectacular pheasants down from the heavens. But as I made my way back to the Land Rover at the end of each drive, I was repeatedly reminded why I so enjoyed their company last year. This is a group of friends who shoot for all the right reasons. “That was great,” observed John, who had been on the periphery of the action on the first drive. “Sometimes, it's nice to just stand back and watch, take in the scenery and really appreciate how lucky we are to be here.” When we stopped for homemade pasties and sloe gin after the second drive, known as Park Cover, John's sentiment was echoed by the rest of the team as they gazed down the valley, now bathed in a soft golden light.
Each of the six drives were all expertly run by headkeeper Chris North and his son and beatkeeper Joe, but the third and sixth drives in particular, known as Fort Putnam and Michael's Beeches, really stood out. At Fort Putnam the Guns were lined up along the bottom and left-hand-side of a steep ravine with the birds pushed from a copse of woodland on the brow of the hill in front. There was shooting right across the line from the start, but Hank Swartout, Mark Zivott and John Simpson, who were positioned at the very bottom of the valley, were presented with some of the most incredible pheasants I have ever seen. And I'm pleased to say that the standard of shooting matched the quality of the birds. Hank's loader, Craig Coughtrey, was suitably impressed: “I have never loaded for a gentleman who has fired at such testing pheasants and killed at the ratio that he has,” he said. “And I have been loading for Hank here at Arundel for five years.” When I relayed this high praise to Hank afterwards, he joked that he'd had to pay Craig a hell of a sum to say that.
The whole atmosphere of the day was wonderful, from start to finish. There was laughter between each drive and even after the penultimate drive, known as White Ways, during which the heavens had opened and everyone, the Duke included, were soaked to the skin, the morale remained upbeat and jovial. In fact the rain had been so heavy that the keeper had been unable to blow his whistle to signify the end of the drive. As we squelched our way through the downpour and back to the vehicles, there was a ripple of laughter as someone muttered something about wetting one's whistle.
The final drive, Michael's Beeches, was a fitting end to a great day, with a brisk crosswind adding to the challenge of strong flying pheasants pushed out of a wood on the top of a steep bank. And as we all gathered around the drawing room fire for afternoon tea, I was left with the feeling that I may never again experience a day's shooting like it. Indeed, it was easy to see why shooting at Arundel is very much a case of dead man's shoes.
Drives: The Herons, Park Cover, Fort Putnam, Houghton Lodge, White Ways and Michael's Beeches
Bag: 545 pheasants
The Arundel Castle pheasant shoot
Headkeeper Chris North (62) was born and raised in Sussex but moved to Hampshire at the age of 17 to take on a single-handed keepering job on the 3,000-acre Bereleigh Estate. In his first year there they shot a total of 365 pheasants, but by the time he left, it had been developed into a substantial commercial operation.
Chris moved to Arundel 14 years ago and is assisted by his wife Di, who runs the picking-up team, and their son Joe (31), who joined them five years ago, having previously worked as a keeper in Ireland. The pheasant shoot is split into two beats of approximately 1,000 acres each, Chris overseeing one and Joe the other, and there are 12 named drives.
All of Arundel's pheasants are reared on the estate from a closed flock. “We don't bring anything in except food,” says Chris. “We hatch the chicks ourselves and release the poults in September, so they are all well-matured in time for our first day in November.”
The Duke, who is fiercely passionate about his wild bird shooting, has also created a wild partridge shoot over 3,000 acres of arable land on the far side of the estate. “Our aim has always been to make the pheasant shoot as wild as possible too,” adds Chris. “We don't plant any cover crops anywhere on the parkland which is quite unusual, and all of our drives are from a mixture of woodland.”
In 2002, Chris introduced some wild pheasants to Arundel from the edge of the Duke's grouse moor in Yorkshire. “It transformed the shoot overnight,” he says. “It really was unbelievable. We caught up a number of wild cocks and introduced them into the closed flock. The result was spectacular and everyone who shoots here comments on the way that our birds fly. That's why everyone who shoots at Arundel wants to come back.”