West Wratting – Cambridgeshire
A day that started and finished with road rage, but with a hugely enjoyable filling. By Patrick Tillard.
Traffic really rubs me up the wrong way. Within minutes of hitting any form of gridlock I develop an irrational hatred towards any surrounding commuters and curse myself for being moronic enough to have joined them in their morning ritual. The editor had given me plenty of warning. Which I had heeded. Two and a half hours to get from Stamford to West Wratting – a small village half an hour southeast of Cambridge – I was laughing. I even put a book in the car for the spare hour I was sure to have when I got there. It wasn't to be so. The A14 morning rush-hour crippled me.
Eventually, when the traffic did clear, I put my foot down. And no sooner had I ripped on the handbrake and flung myself into wellies and a coat and was locked into a fishing conversation with a friendly beater, clearly having found the Cascade in my tweed cap as irresistible as a flickering flame is to a moth. Two trout and three salmon anecdotes later and any embers of road rage had long been extinguished. Henry d'Abo and his wife Tatjana's warm welcome then cemented the relaxed theme of the day – a theme which they strive to preserve throughout the season. And to further improve the situation, there was a stark contrast in Mother Nature's winter mood, as after weeks of widespread flooding and wind-induced destruction, she'd given us 14°C and Bahamian skies to play with.
The estate & shooting
Sat within 120 acres of parkland, West Wratting Park house, built in the early 18th century, is a fabulous Grade II listed manor – its current appearance credit to the time, effort and expense of Henry, who purchased the estate from his siblings in 1983. He then embarked on a restoration mission. The same year, the house was re-roofed. In 1985, a classic mix of English hardwoods was planted around the belts of the park and three years later, the entire house underwent a complete revamp.
Away from the house and parkland, the 2,500-acre estate is focused on good farming practice and conservation. “We currently operate the largest Countryside Stewardship Scheme in Cambridgeshire,” Henry explained. “Our principal aim is to create an ideal environment for the English partridge to breed and grow in numbers, and also to provide suitable habitat for many other threatened indigenous UK species, such as wagtails and skylarks.”
This pro-active role was vividly apparent as we bounced around the estate from drive to drive in the old sea-green Mercedes truck. Since taking the reins, Henry has planted over nine miles of hedgerows and 150 acres of woodland, as well as 120 acres of game cover (predominantly maize) every year. And not only has this proved to be hugely beneficial in terms of conservation, but it has created an array of exciting and diverse drives on the 1,800 acres that are used for the shoot.
Headkeeper Daniel Hughes
One way or another, there has been game shooting on the estate for over 300 years, however, it was in the 94/95 season that Henry set about reviving the shoot's reputation, as in former times West Wratting Park had boasted one of the finest wild partridge shoots in the country. Alongside headkeeper Daniel Hughes, he has developed 12 drives and now hosts 30 days a season – letting 20 – with bags, predominantly of partridges, ranging from 150 to 500 head.
I joined Henry and Tatjana in early January on one of their friends and family days. Despite there not being a breath of wind, which adds a serious scoop of spice on this terrain, both partridges and pheasants, having outwitted the Guns throughout the previous months, continued their testing form. As is Henry's wont on shoot days, rather than drawing pegs, Guns are positioned according to the conditions on the day, and to catch the partridges that have wised-up to the familiar routine, scampering in every direction other than that intended at the first sight or sound of a beater. This also ensures that everyone gets a fair share of the shooting.
Each of the six drives were from spinneys, copses and strips of game cover; short and exciting. From a personal point of view, Henry certainly saved the best drive till last. With the Guns spread out along a ripe sugar beet field, the beating line then blanked a thin coppice and game strip into another, perched high above the line. From a tall vantage point, I was able to see a number of partridge coveys flitting across the narrow field towards the flushing point. As the line of orange flags cracked ever closer to the second strip of cover, the same coveys lifted once again, but this time soaring high and fast above the Guns. It produced some fantastic sport and gave the picking-up team plenty to work their dogs on.
Turning to the other side of the valley, both higher and steeper, I couldn't help but wonder how great the birds would be on the reverse drive, which, unfortunately, wasn't on the cards today. Nevertheless, you couldn't fault the day's classic partridge presentation.
Camaraderie & cuisine
There are many aspects to a shoot day that get me giddy. The sporting presentation is just one side of this. Then there's the variety in landscapes, history of estates and families, the conservation and immeasurable benefits that go hand-in-hand with shoot management and, crucially, the food. Granted, beating my homemade pasta-pesto or microwave lasagne is no tough feat, but most shoots offer food so good I would happily starve myself throughout the summer months and, in West Wratting's case, wine so fine I would bath in it.
Elevenses of soup, mini croque-monsieurs and sausages were taken at the rear of the manor, under glorious sunshine. Just what the doctor ordered. And, having shot through, the team unwound at the end of the day in The Orangery, a beautiful glass-sided period building with panoramic views of the surrounding gardens and countryside. The food and camaraderie were equally as memorable.
But what I love most about food is the gatherings and the time it affords you with characters of all ilks. A time to mull over the highlights of the day, talk to those at the hub of its operation and share sporting stories. Every single person taking part in a shoot day is intrinsically linked – irrespective of background, origin, age or gender – by a love and connection to the British countryside and all the glorious sport it provides. Be it with a gun, rifle, rod or dog. Everyone has a story to tell, and elevenses and lunch allow nosy parkers – like myself – to delve into these sporting memory banks.
As I said my goodbyes, depressed at the thought of tomorrow's soggy ham sandwich after such a palate-punching feast, I had one last photo to take, as a very unfortunate member of the party, having earlier managed to lock his keys in the boot of his Discovery, was armed with a hammer, launching an assault on the back window. On the third almighty swing, it shattered into a gazillion pieces. Bizarrely then, as it turned out, a day that started with road rage ended in the same vein. Thankfully, the filling – the shooting, scenery, company and cuisine – couldn't have been more of a contrast.
Drives: Mill Wood, Golf Course, Bannisters, Oak Tree, Park Wood and Robin's Grave.
Bag: 299 – 231 redleg partridges, 63 pheasants & 5 various.