Vaynor, Wales/Shropshire Border
Want to know what a shoot is really like? Ask the opinion of a well-travelled 90-year-old who's been shooting there for over 40 years, says Will Pocklington.
"Well I suppose you can say you’ve met some 90-year-old bugger who, on January 27, still has five days shooting left in the diary!” It was the last week of January and I was sharing a lift with soon-to-be nonagenarian Peter Chantler, and Bettws Hall owner Gwyn Evans.
It was Peter’s birthday shoot – or at least one of them – and we were winding through the old oak woodlands of Vaynor Park, a veritable (and lesser talked of) jewel in the Bettws Hall crown, which sits proudly on the Wales/Shropshire border.
The team, an assemblage of Peter’s close friends and family, had gathered in a cosy wing of the old stables adjoining the grand, red-brick country house William Corbett Wynder calls home.
They knew the drill, they’d been here many times before.
But they also know Peter’s a keen bean, not one for standing around, and so we were soon en route to the first drive of the day, The Dams.
Hang on a minute, you cry, a 90-year-old with five days left in the diary on January 27?! Now there’s a life goal.
And did I mention that he still travels to Montana to fish for trout every June, frequents bucket-list saltwater destinations the world over, and skis thrice yearly?
And he can shoot. Really shoot.
Peter’s passion for pursuing game with gun started at the age of 15 when he’d flight ducks and pigeons, and walk up hedgerows for pheasants on the farm in Cheshire where he worked.
After the War, during which he learnt to fly in the RAF, he went to university in North Wales before returning to farm in Cheshire, and starting up what has grown into one of Britain’s largest timber merchants.
A career that has opened many a door in the world of driven shooting.
At the age of 35, he and a group of local friends started running a pheasant shooting syndicate at Peaton in Shropshire.
Son Simon eventually took the reigns and carried on with the shoot until they lost the tenancy and formed a roving syndicate instead.
Thereafter, they were taken to some of the country’s foremost sporting estates by the legendary late John Ransford – widely regarded as the doyenne of commercial driven shooting in the UK, and tenant at Vaynor for 20 years prior to Bettws Hall taking it on.
Peter has been a premier-league shoot regular ever since.
So to say he’s well versed with the driven shooting scene is something of an understatement. And when someone in his position matter-of-factly ranks a shoot as one of their favourites, it’s not to be taken lightly.
We’re not talking lip service peddled because we’re sat in the same car as the tenant, either – Peter has shot numerous times a season at Vaynor for over 40 years. That speaks for itself. Plus, he’s not one for beating around the bush.
But what keeps him returning?
The Dams answered that question. It had everything a quintessential Welsh drive should – even the rain.
The Guns were pegged in parkland and parallel to a channel of water halted at one end by an earth dam.
Birds – mostly pheasants – were driven over tall ash, beech, birch and oak on the far bank, in a setting that would be hard to forget.
“By the time they had reached me, they were mountains!” Peter gasped as everyone gathered for a birthday toast of champagne afterwards.
It was some loosener alright.
Indeed the banter was soon in full flow between Peter and Gwyn, mock-debating which drives were to follow as we clambered into the vehicle and made our way through the 17th-century parkland to the next drive.
“We have over 30 drives across 5,500 acres here,” explained Gwyn. “So we can cater for all conditions. But most teams have their favourites.”
Peter listed a few of his; Kennel Wood, Marjories and Hanging Wood all got a mention.
“I enjoy a drive where I can take pleasure in seeing fellow Guns in action,” Peter explained. “That is, of course, if you have time to look sideways!”
“The scenery is an important factor too, though” he continued. “I’ve shot at pretty much all of the well-known West Country shoots. Certainly, those run by Gwyn and his team vary very little in terms of hospitality and the quantity and quality of the birds – they’re always great – but it’s the landscapes which differ.
"Vaynor is probably the most beautiful estate in the Welsh border counties, and perfectly laid out for presenting birds which are high, but not too high, from lots of varied drives.”
In fact, the next drive, Vronson View, was all about angles.
The whole team could choose from crossers, straight driven and the occasional archangel as birds powered over the line in true January fashion.
Variety of shooting was the post-drive talking point here, before conversation gradually shifted – as we drew nearer to the cosy wooden elevenses hut – to that of the excellent food, drink and general atmosphere.
The respite from the gradually dissipating rain granted the perfect opportunity to speak to more of the team, one of whom, Sidney Clarke, comes from Oklahoma in the States to the UK each season for a month of grouse shooting and a month of pheasants.
“I’ve had the privilege of watching Gwyn’s business expand, his children grow and the shoots he manages flourish, all at the same time,” he told me as we sipped hot soup and sampled a range of hot and cold canapé treats being whisked around by the catering team.
“The atmosphere here is what keeps me returning. It doesn’t feel like a commercial shoot. It’s more personal than that.”
Lunch reinforced Sidney’s appraisal. But not before the third drive – Molly’s, one of three that headkeeper Andrew Jones and his team would drive slightly differently in an effort to catch out the wily late-season survivors.
Simon Chantler’s grin afterwards said it all. “They were the best partridges I have ever been stood under!” he exclaimed as he removed his wellies in the boot room.
It was a sentiment shared by fellow Gun John Paton: “Vaynor is right up there with the best shoots in the country. Everything is well-kept, immaculately done, and professional.” These are men who, like Peter, spend a lot of time on the peg.
Indeed John later explained how he had shot Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday that week (and was quite likely to be getting a divorce on the Sunday!).
High praise indeed.
The main meal is served in a dining room above where the Guns meet to draw pegs at the start of play. And, certainly on this occasion, it was a coming together of two ingredients Peter considers crucial to a good day’s shooting: the company of good friends who don’t take themselves too seriously, and great hospitality.
“Lunch should be at lunchtime,” Peter asserted. “I don’t like being given a massive meal at the end of the day when everyone is about to drive home, and can’t drink. Especially after being given a constant stream of food all day anyway.”
I soon discovered another pet hate of Peter’s is too much hanging around.
“Come on! I want to get at least two drives in this afternoon!” he sang as he came back downstairs, ushering those still waxing lyrical about Molly’s partridges up to their hot lunches.
Alas, he was soon back in Gwyn’s truck, giving him a hard time. “Now you’ll make sure I’m in the hotseat this next drive won’t you, Gwyn,” he asked with a glint of mischief in his eye. “I’ll only be 90 once you know!”
Truth is, it wouldn’t have made a cock-bird’s difference where Peter had been placed on Cwncoid – the whole team enjoyed good sport. And we had a nice walk to and from our pegs through beautiful mature woodland to boot.
As if on cue, any cloud retreated to reveal clear winter skies as everyone lined out for the final drive, Kate’s Wood. And after another excellent show, it was a happy team that slipped their guns at the sound of the final horn.
For Peter it had been the perfect birthday celebration.
“I’ve watched a lot change since commercial driven shooting has really kicked off,” Peter reflected, with contentment written all over his face.
“There’s so much choice now, so estates have to set themselves apart. But if there’s one thing you can’t buy, it’s smiles all round.
"You get that here, everybody always has a smile on their face. From Andrew the excellent headkeeper, to Christine in the kitchen, Poppy on the gamecart and, of course, Gwyn.”
I couldn’t disagree. But then, I suppose, in the company of such colourful characters as Peter, it must be hard to ever keep a straight face.
Guns:Peter Chantler, Simon Chantler, Eileen Ainscough, John Roe, Graham Anwyl, Bill Roberts, Stephen Isherwood, Jen Townsend, Sid Clarke and John Paton
Drives:The Dams, Vronson View, Molly’s, Cwncoid, Kate’s Wood
Bag:324 pheasants, 54 partridges