Constable Burton – North Yorkshire
Can a shoot be both progressive and traditional? Yes, says Will Pocklington, following a visit to Constable Burton in North Yorkshire where emphasis is placed on both heritage and best modern practices.
There’s an old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, which holds great pertinence for the game Shot. We’re not too keen on change, are we? There’s a reason we still dress on a shoot day morning in a way that might have us mistaken for Morris dancers. And it’s hidden somewhere in a warm, honey-thick sense of charmingly British nostalgia.
Driven game shooting is underpinned by tradition, etiquette and unique customs which have been embedded in the sport since the mid 19th century. They weave their way through almost every aspect of the day – the attire, the formalities, the food, the drink, the lingo – and not just the shooting itself. They make the experience what it is.
We all know, of course, that some sporting estates manage to capture the essence of these customs much better than others, seemingly without effort. Well, North Yorkshire’s Constable Burton Estate is undoubtedly one of them.
The estate’s sporting heritage has its roots firmly set in the charming Grade I-listed Palladian villa, Constable Burton Hall, which was completed in 1768 for Sir Marmaduke Wyvill. It was here that I was welcomed last October by husband and wife D’Arcy and Imogen – the most recent generation of Wyvills to call Constable Burton Hall their home. Indeed the family have been in Yorkshire since the 12th century, formerly seated further east at Slingsby Castle near Hovingham. History runs deep here.
But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, a few years after D’Arcy’s parents Charles and Maggie began hosting grouse shooting parties from Gunnerside in the hall (they are good friends with Lord Peel, the owner of the well-known moor at the time) that the commercial shoot in situ today was born. “We could see that the hall was a fitting place for guests to stay, and we have some excellent ground surrounding us, so we decided to develop a shoot of our own,” explained Charles. “Our very first keeper here doubled as the local hunt master. On the first drive of the first shoot day, we had about 50 pheasants and 10 foxes flush from the same wood!”
To say a lot has changed since then might give the wrong impression. Not because headkeeper Richard Ferguson and his team are slack on their foxes, but rather the Wyvills take a forward-thinking and progressive approach that remains sensitive to tradition and the estate’s heritage. Balancing the two and maintaining that quintessential British atmosphere is an art, and one that D’Arcy and Imogen seem to have mastered with aplomb since upping sticks and swapping London for Leyburn six years ago. Change is managed expertly.
The key to this is the people, something Imogen was quick to point out over supper on the first evening of my stay. “The staff have helped enormously in the transition from Charles’ tenure to D’Arcy’s. We still have staff who were here when D’Arcy was a young boy – they’re practically family,” she explained as the full-time head chef entered the dining room to talk us through our sublime starter of partridge risotto with air-dried bacon and walnuts.
Yes, even the kitchen nurtures a comforting sense of familiarity, majoring on seasonal, fresh and home-grown ingredients. And we’re talking food-yards rather than food-miles. “If beetroot is in season and growing in the garden, we’ll have beetroot,” says Imogen. All of the game used in the house comes from the estate, too, and the majority of the fruit and vegetables served are harvested from the garden or the recently-restored orchard adjacent to the dining room. They even have their own apiary.
So we’ve established the food is worthy of an article in its own right (did I mention the venison shepherd’s pie with bullshot for elevenses, or the roast lamb for lunch the following day?), but we mustn’t overlook the lodgings. The nine double rooms in the hall – all but two en suite – are as regal as the newly refurbished library is opulent. Four-poster beds, tastefully understated interiors, puppy-soft linen – rarely do you feel more than a bowler hat away from a period drama.
What really stands out, though, is the homely atmosphere. Terriers sleep on the hearth, labradors walk around as though it is their role to do so and the staff treat you as if you’ve been a returning guest for years. But then I suppose many of those who take shooting on the estate have been returning for years. Children who shot their first pheasant here 20 years ago under the supervision of their grandparents are now coming back with teams of their own – testament to that warm atmosphere and familiarity – whilst D’Arcy is doing a grand job of encouraging fresh blood onto the estate, too.
“There was a trend, even when we started out in the 1970s, for people to shoot here before going on to try out one of the high bird shoots down in the West Country,” Charles explained over lunch before the final drive. “But almost without exception, they’d soon come back.” By that point I had already discovered why. You see, Constable Burton’s allure stems from more than the palate-punching food and the sumptuous accommodation...
The shoot itself spans 3,000 acres with 35 drives comprised mainly of woodland, pocket valleys and undulating parkland. Pheasants are the primary quarry, with two main partridge drives and 10 duck ponds to boot, whilst the topography lends itself to testing but not demoralisingly high birds. It would certainly be naïve to regard it as an old-fashioned, stuck-in-its-ways shoot that is carried by its history, a good staff and resplendent house. On one of the drives in particular, Wild Hill, a torrent of birds split the line in powerful fashion – impressive given the infancy of the season. It’s a beautiful place, too, glorified somewhat during my stay by the oaks, horse chestnuts, beeches and ashes clinging stubbornly to their leaves – a thousand shades of russet and gold just days away.
A holistic approach
D’Arcy is very much an ‘on-the-front-foot’ type. His ethos when it comes to the estate seems to be that of continual progression rather than radical change. And they’re doing some exciting things. For example, working with a GWCT biodiversity officer, he and headkeeper Richard have been experimenting with ‘open release’, whereby poults are released strategically without being confined to release pens. It is thought to reduce stress and disease, and sees the birds mature slightly earlier. “We’ve certainly noticed a difference,” commented Richard. “The birds seem fitter and stronger. But of course you have to be very hot on vermin, and the right habitat needs to be there for it to work.”
Which takes us neatly to the co-operation between the forestry department and the shoot, both working closely to improve said habitat. A selective thinning project to improve woodland structure and consequently the ground and roosting cover for pheasants has been underway since 2008. Harvested softwoods are then chipped and used to fuel the biomass boiler which heats the house. It’s a whole-estate approach that appears to be paying dividends.
This outlook stretches further than Constable Burton’s boundary, though. With 4–6 days shooting per week through the season, the estate plays an important role in the local community. Forty-plus beaters, pickers-up and loaders from the surrounding area – many of whom have been helping out for years – join Richard and his team of three keepers on each and every shoot day. It’s very much a collective effort.
Yet despite a hectic diary and a large workforce, attention to the smaller details is a key priority.
And we’re not just talking about a well-stocked gunroom or a ready supply of bismuth shells for the ducks. D’Arcy places each Gun himself and the loaders are typically fully-qualified shooting instructors, familiar faces from the house staff, or laugh-a-minute veterans who know the drill like the back of their hands. “I’d like to think that a Gun could turn up here naked and we’d have everything they need,” said D’Arcy, between drives. “Once they’re in Yorkshire, they are ours to look after.”
With such an attitude, it’s no surprise that guests continue to re-book. They know that they will be looked after, they know that any change will be managed with subtlety and efficiency, and they know that year after year they can sip on that same rich cocktail of heritage, tradition and familiarity.