Cocking - West Sussex
Alex Brant visits the Cocking shoot in West Sussex, and leaves wondering if shooting could possibly be any better than this.
I first shot Cocking five years ago as the guest of my friends Robert and Meili Hefner. I had met the Hefners on a shoot which mutual friends had me organize for them in Hungary through my agency, 'Driven shooting'.
Cocking is near Midhurst in West Sussex. It is owned by the Cowdray Estate and the second son, The Hon. Charles Pearson rents, along with Tim Hoare, the shooting with Pearson having the major share. Charles and Renata had been friends for a long time as they were both polo players (while Charles and Renata have hung up their spurs, Pearson's wife, Lila, and son both play). Cowdray Park is world famous for its polo.
There are 18 drives on 3,500 acres which comprises a large part of the Southern end of the Cowdray Estate (16,500 acres) running up to the heavily wooded north facing escarpment of the South Downs and onto the south facing slopes beyond.
This season I became exceedingly fortunate in that not only did I get my invite for two days of glorious shooting early in the season with the Hefners, but Charles Pearson invited both Renata and myself to shoot at one of his days for family and friends. He graciously gave us four days to choose from and the date in late December suited us best.
Monday, December 28 was a good day for shooting. While a hair bright, the rest of the factors were favourable. There had been so much snow and ice about this season throughout Great Britain, that many days were iffy. It was dry and clear, making for safe driving and safe shooting.
Safe driving was important as we followed Charles from his house to the shoot. While a good driver, he is quick and Renata had her work cut out to keep up with him. Polo players never truly slow down, even when they no longer play. At the shoot farm, Cocking Manor Farm, behind the Post Office in Cocking, is where we met the rest of the team and pegs were drawn. This brought us to the first drive known as The Bumps, one of their signature drives.
It was spectacular with tall, fast, towering birds coming off high and from a long way in front. We were a team of nine. Renata had drawn a good peg, one of the hot seats. At least six of the pegs had great shooting and all of the pegs had enough. I was one of the back Guns for the drive which gave me the advantage of seeing the birds going to most of the Guns and the disadvantage of seeing many of the birds I thought were coming for me being summarily dispatched either by Charles' son George or by Paul Roberts - the two Guns directly in front of me. Charles to my right had some magnificent tall birds over him, absolute screamers, which he shot very well.
The second drive, Warren, was one that I had shot twice before with the Hefners. While it produced fine shooting in the beginning of the season, it delivered even better shooting later on. The majority of the Guns are placed on a ride with a woodland to the front and woods behind giving them a good opening in which to shoot but not seeing the birds forever and ever. The birds flew high above the trees, well before they presented themselves to the line. The shooting continued to excel.
After this drive we shot The Thorns, which was a long hike up a reasonably steep path. Being an old guy with a bad back, I was glad I had brought my stick and had a stuffer. Four or five of us including Renata and George were in the same clearing. I was at the extreme right hand of the clearing, Renata in the middle, and George to the far left, facing the birds. Each peg had a square about 5x5 feet cut level into the hillside. This enabled one to shift feet and get in the right position for shooting and doing so from a level platform. I wish more shoots would do this as it makes a tremendous difference and adds a great deal of safety. The birds were again excellent but no match for young George who had numerous left and rights. It seemed as though birds only made it down the line when George was having his gun stuffed. The Guns who were back gunning had extremely tall birds.
Cocking is purely a pheasant shoot as they put down no partridge. Earlier this season I did kill the only partridge I have seen here, obviously an escapee from a neighbouring shoot or perhaps from wild stock in the area. The Cowdray Estate is huge, especially so close to London, and it is my understanding that Cocking is one of a number of shoots of on the estate, although in all likelihood, the best.
A delicious lunch was provided at Park House.
Lunch, however, was not on my mind but rather the Chalk Pit drive which lay ahead. Various shoots have their signature drives but all signature drives are not equal. The best drive at Bowhill, for example, is Black Andrew (as featured in the Autumn issue). End of story. For Cocking, it is the Chalk Pit. What is so interesting about the Chalk Pit is that as it had been mined, there is a good track going up on various levels and Guns are placed on three. I have been exceedingly fortunate in that on every occasion that I have shot the Chalk Pit I have been at the bottom where the birds are most challenging (none are easy).
Pegs three and four of the Chalk Pit are as good or better than any peg I know anywhere. Indeed, they are among my all time favourites. While one gets plenty of classic tall driven birds - everything was tall, many are extreme. At those pegs where one also gets long crossers, particularly tricky, are those slightly behind and far to the left, suddenly appearing between trees a good way off to the side, slipping and dropping. Because of the way the birds come off the Chalk Pit and the yew tree line at the top the birds are doing many things and require a lot of reading.
It was amazing to see the number of quality birds presented this late in the season. Robert Smallman, the headkeeper, who has been at Cowdray/Cocking since 1989-90, is a true master of driving birds. They employ one full time underkeeper and several other contractors/part-timers who help with bird rearing, vermin control, game crop management etc.
"Another point of interest," as Charles Pearson explains, "is that on nearly the whole of Cocking shoot we live with organic farming, including any game crops. It is expensive and complicated but it can be done even on the Downs."
At supper the night before, Charles mentioned that his father, when he was old, said how much he regretted not having used the Chalk Pit as part of the shoot... that he hadn't imagined that birds would have held so well on that cold north face. It is part of the South Downs.
During our first shoot season at Tressady, the Hefners shot our inaugural experimental day. A Gun had dropped out of their shoot at Cocking for the following week, and they invited me to fly down and shoot with them both days. Most of the Guns coming to that shoot were friends of my wife, not mine, and I truly wanted to abandon both my responsibilities and the Highlands and join Robert and MeiLi. Rectitude prevailed, reinforced with Renata's insistence, so I declined. Declining two days at Cocking for the small experimental day at home was truly painful. While it was the correct thing to do, to this day, I regret it.
There are few shoots as far from me as Cocking and it was a 650 mile drive south (many of the flights were being cancelled at Inverness airport as well as some at Gatwick and, indeed, the airport was often closed itself so we decided to take our time and drive down over a couple of days). It is a very long way to go for a day of shooting. To be honest, I would drive the whole way just to shoot the Chalk Pit, everything else was icing on the cake.
And a fine cake it is.
The best drives at Cocking
"The best known drives are either on the escarpment face itself or within the steep sided, afforested combes that run into it." As Charles Pearson further describes...
The Chalk Pit... disused chalk quarry cut into the north facing escarpment to the east of the Cocking Gap. The birds launch themselves over two tiers of Guns standing on the different levels (benches) in the quarry.
Bepton West... Guns are positioned on a steep ride running up the escarpment in a shallow combe between two extensive areas of woodland. Birds both cross and fly down the ride at great height and speed. Can be the most difficult drive at Cocking as there is not much time to swing.
The Bumps... an area of undulating mounds on the steep escarpment face of the Downs above a steep sided combe. Driven over Guns on different levels, shot birds plummet 250ft through trees in the combe below. My personal favourite.
New Barn East & New Barn West... another pair of drives that make use of the heavily wooded escarpment where Guns are placed in a U-shape in two Gun rides surrounded by tall trees, a variety of birds come from many different directions.
Lynch Bank... a shallow but very steep combe running up the thickly wooded escarpment and cleared of trees to allow for Gunstands. Numbers 1 & 2 form an L-shape in the line and can get some superbly challenging pheasants.
The Warren... a differently situated drive in terms of topography as it is located in a steep fold in the Downs to the south of the escarpment but nonetheless challenging.
The Thorns & The Triangle... a pair of drives at the top end of the largest and deepest combe known as "the Rifle Range" after its use as such in both World Wars and before. The Thorns is driven from the north side and The Triangle from the south both providing testing birds for the Guns stood on different levels on the side of the combe. Again both personal favourites as the country is spectacular, you feel a million miles from anywhere. But that applies to most of Cocking - it is hard to believe that we are only 50 miles from London!