Brimpsfield Park – Cotswolds
Richard Larthe established Brimpsfield Park shoot in the Cotswolds in the early 1980s, but now, following his untimely death in 2015, the time has come for his two sons, Henry and Archie, to take over the reins.
Words: Marcus Janssen – Photography: Bob Atkins
Brimpsfield Park, a 2,000-acre Gloucestershire estate between Cheltenham and Cirencester, has a reputation as one of the finest driven pheasant and partridge shoots in the Cotswolds. But if it hadn’t been for the great vision, foresight and efforts of the late Richard Larthe, that may never have been the case.
Indeed, when Richard’s parents Louis and Catherine bought the estate in 1958, the shoot was little more than a modest DIY affair producing two to three small family and friends days per season. And because Louis worked in London as a stockbroker (the responsibility of running the farm was left to Catherine who continued to do so until 1980), he didn’t have much time to dedicate to the shoot, although he did continue to host a few days per season.
But, when Richard returned from a five-year stint in Saudi Arabia in the ’70s – where, among other things, he ran the racecourse in Riyadh and built a milking parlour for camels! – he realised that they needed to find an additional revenue stream if the estate was to continue supporting itself.
He had always believed that they had the right ground and topography to do much more with the shoot, so, with the help and support of his wife Catriona (known as Prune) he focussed his efforts on developing it into a commercial operation. Woods, hedgerows and cover crops were planted, a full-time gamekeeper was employed, and by 1987, seven years after taking over the running of the estate from his mother, he sold the first ever let day at Brimpsfield Park.
After a relatively modest start – their first day produced a bag of 77 pheasants and one woodcock – things started to snowball considerably, to the extent that by the mid ’90s, they were shooting between 35 and 40 let days per season with bags averaging upwards of 300 (both pheasants and redlegs). Richard Larthe’s vision and his and Prune’s hard work had paid off – Brimpsfield Park shoot was well and truly on the map, and they had turned things around.
However, Richard had been diagnosed with cancer in the late ’90s and by the mid 2000s his health had deteriorated to the extent that running such a busy shoot schedule had become a struggle (he always insisted on hosting the days himself). But, despite being encouraged by his doctor to consider employing someone to take over the running of the shoot, he wouldn’t have any of it, opting instead to scale things back slightly, reducing the number of let days per season to a more manageable 25.
Sadly, Richard, known as ‘Pops’ to his boys, passed away in February last year, aged 56, after a long and drawn-out battle with cancer. But, remarkably, he barely missed a day’s shooting at Brimpsfield, right until the very end. In fact, he was in hospital for two weeks directly prior to the start of the 2014/15 season and yet, he still managed to make it out every single day that year.
“It was the shooting that kept him going,” says his eldest son Henry (27) who, along with his mother Prune and younger brother Archie (23) has now taken on the running of the shoot. “It was his passion and he lived for it. We had two eulogies at his funeral, one was read by his best friend, and the other was read by me. For my eulogy, I asked one of our former headeepers for his take on Pops. His lasting memory was of a man who demanded perfection, and when it was achieved would say “I told you it was possible”. The same conversation with Anthony Coleman, our current headkeeper, produced the word “obsessed” when describing his approach to everything at home, regardless of his health. Indeed, the last time he set foot outside was on our family shoot day on January 24, 2015. He died a little over two weeks later, on February 11.”
Richard never shot on let days unless he was specifically asked to by longstanding clients who had subsequently become friends. Rather, he preferred to remain in the background, running each day with military precision.“But that’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy his shooting,” adds Henry. “He loved it. And he was a breathtakingly good Shot.” He shot with a pair of AYA No. 2, 20 bores which Henry now shoots with. “He certainly put them to more effective use than I do,” he adds.
Richard gave up shooting long before he died because he knew that, due to his ailing health, he wasn’t able to shoot to the standard he once did. But three years after hanging up his gunslip for good, an underkeeper made a bet with him that he couldn’t come out of retirement and shoot at a ratio of 2:1 like he used to. “Of course, he took up the challenge and shot at 1.8:1, for the day,” laughs younger brother Archie. That was on January 25, 2012, the last time he ever picked up a gun.
“My father set a precedent and found a formula that works well,” continues Henry, “so we want to keep that going. Our aim is to carry on producing 25-35 first-class double-gun days (they have a team of estate loaders, several of whom have been loading at Brimpsfield for more than 20 years) per season with bags upwards of 300, plus one family and friends day at the end of the season and one or two keepers and beaters’ days.
“Everyone knows that it is incredibly difficult to make ends meet solely through farming in today’s day and age, so the shoot is a key part of our business. But, despite its commercial nature, Pops always ensured that it had the feel of a family shoot. And with mum and either Archie or I continuing to host all of our let days, just as Mum and Pops always did, we are determined to maintain that ethos.”
With shoot days taking place on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the season, hosting duties are split between Henry, Archie and Prune, who also takes great pride in working her team of black labradors, Thunder, Rumble and Flood. All three are descendants Richard’s original black lab, Mr. Mole.
As Archie lives on the estate and works for a local Cotswold estate agents, he tends to do Wednesdays, and Henry, who works for a headhunting firm in London, comes home at the weekends to help his mum look after the Saturday teams. And although both boys are very keen game Shots in their own right, they have taken to their new hosting duties with aplomb. “Yes, we certainly love our shooting,” adds Archie, “but there is an incredible sense of reward that comes from knowing that our guests have had a great day. You don’t need to be carrying a gun to appreciate that.”
Quality & quantity
“Although we obviously can’t compete with North Wales or Devon in terms of topography, we are lucky in that we have some of the steepest valleys in the Cotswolds,” continues Henry. “So we can and do produce some superb pheasants and partridges, arguably the highest in the area.”
With a number of steep grass valleys cutting into the hills surrounding the main house, they have a total of 27 named drives to choose from, allowing headkeeper Anthony to adapt to the conditions on the day and provide a variety of sport for Guns of all abilities. Signature drives at Brimpsfield include The Lake Drive, Douglas, Ostrich Wood and Bowman’s.
And in terms of game habitat and cover, while the farm’s main produce is livestock – Hereford-cross cattle, Welsh mountain sheep and Gloucester Old Spot pigs – wheat, barley and rape are grown in rotation and there is a good mix of mature deciduous woodland and spinneys, hedgerows as well as strategically positioned blocks of game cover. “We spend a huge amount of time, effort and money on getting the cover crops just right,” adds Henry. “That really is key. And although we do plant a lot of wild bird mixes including quinoa, barley, buckwheat and chicory, our main cover crop is maize. But thanks to my father, the whole estate is really geared towards shooting, so we know how to make the most of our ground.”
In addition to the main pheasant release pen which is positioned in a big block of woodland in the centre of the estate, there are a number of additional pens, as well as feed hoppers, positioned in woods, spinneys and along hedgerows to ensure that the birds are evenly distributed throughout the estate until the end of the season.
Conservation is also a major part of the estate’s ethos with large areas devoted to wild bird habitat (it has been in a HLS scheme since 2011), including 6- and 12-metre field margins and conservation headlands. As a result, there is a far higher average number of wild birds per acre than is typical of the surrounding area, with good populations of goldfinch, sparrow, linnet, reed buntings and blackbird nesting on the estate, as well as thrush, lapwing and sky lark.
“The management of our woodland was something my father took very seriously,” says Archie. “He knew that, in addition to clearing, coppicing and pollarding, you also have to continually plant a variety of new trees so that there is a constant rotation of old and young providing a range of habitat, not only for wildlife, but also for holding and presenting pheasants and partridges. Mum and Dad have always done what they can to make Brimpsfield a sanctuary for wildlife; that’s an important part of what we do.”
“Although my father always placed great emphasis on the quality of the sport we provide, he was a stickler for detail and an absolute perfectionist,” adds Archie. “He always maintained that it is the little things, the details, that make the difference. At the end of the day there is no shortage of good shooting in the UK, so we place great emphasis on the hospitality, creating the right atmosphere and ensuring that everyone feels like a guest, not just another client on a season-long treadmill.”
With drives pegged for eight Guns, and four or five drives being the norm, elevenses are generally taken out in the field, usually after the second. “We often stop at Mungo’s Tree which was planted in memory of my twin brother who died when he was 9 months old,” explains Archie. “It’s our way of involving him. I built a fire-pit there a few years ago, and early on in the season we do a barbecue there at elevenses.”
Other staples include homemade soup, mini fish pies served in scallop shells, cottage pies in ramekins, and Brimpsfield’s legendary sausage rolls which are made with pork from the estate, and are always baked freshly on the shoot day morning. “An American client of ours says that her favourite thing about England is the Brimpsfield Park sausage rolls!” laughs Henry. As most teams of Guns choose to shoot through, a leisurely three-course lunch is served in the dining room in the main house at the end of the day.
And it is clearly a formula that works as the vast majority of the let days are taken by regular teams of Guns who have been coming to Brimpsfield for years, or indeed their guests, with almost every booking coming directly through the estate office.
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication on my mum and dad’s part to get Brimpsfield to where it is today,” says Archie. “And Henry and I know that we have a responsibility to keep that up. This shoot is part of dad’s legacy, and we would be letting him down if we didn’t keep that going. We know it will require a lot more hard work and long hours, but we are both absolutely determined to do our father proud.”
Only time will tell what the future holds for Brimpsfield Park, but for now, it appears to be in good hands.