Clay pigeons came whizzing out like dots in the stratosphere

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
To Highclere Castle, seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, for a grand blast-off at clay-pigeons. Two specific requests from the management set this apart from an ordinary day's shooting. First, everybody should bring a hand-guard or glove, as gun barrels would become too hot to hold. Second, everybody should wear a hat, since broken clays, falling from unexpected directions, can cause nasty injuries.

With these and a few more instructions, our genial organiser Wendy Plummer launched the party into a brilliant spring morning. A veteran of simulated game shooting, Wendy is now in her sixth year of laying on this kind of day. For Highclere, on the other hand, it was an experiment.

With its splendid Victorian castle in an undulating, 3,000-acre park, the estate has every natural advantage for corporate entertaining, and the aim of our day was to see if this kind of shoot would fit into the pattern of activities.

The guns, 16 in all, had been allocated into eight pairs, each with a loader, and had drawn for places, as on a live bird shoot. At the first drive, pegs were set out in a line along the bottom of a sloping grass bank. Out of our sight, at the top, six traps were deployed under the control of the operations manager, Ron Puttock.

The guns took it in turns to shoot, and the drive, lasting only six minutes, was done twice over. If that sounds parsimonious, it takes no account of how sharply adrenalin levels rise as clays start to pour over.

When the whistle went, the rate of fire was instantly terrific: within less than a minute, barrels were too hot to hold with bare hands, and after six minutes several of the marksmen were temporarily exhausted, declaring that they could not have gone on a moment longer. During that fearsome barrage the coolest person on the scene was Wendy herself, who strolled up and down behind the line, constantly adjusting the flow of clays by radio contact with Ron. "Raise trap two a bit ... Get some pairs out over pegs three and four. Five's a novice. Give him low singles."

After the drive she remarked, "That was the easy bit. Now we'll go somewhere more testing." This was Heaven's Gate, a towering bank scattered with big trees. Here the clays came whizzing out like dots in the stratosphere, and it took an ace marksman to break them.

One such was Peter Baxendale, who manages shooting lets for Strutt & Parker. In six searing minutes he missed seven clays and broke about 70 - but then, as he shoots all winter, so he should. Lord Porchester, elder son of the Earl of Carnarvon, also scored heavily and admitted that he was amazed by the excitement which the blast-off engendered.

As people recovered their equilibrium over bull-shots and sloe gin, I asked several what advantage there was, or might be, in spending pounds 3,500 of their companies' money on such a jolly. Tim Ingram Hill, chairman and chief executive of RoadChef, reckoned it good value. "A day like this relaxes people a great deal," he said. "You see a different side of them." Whom might he invite? "People we're working with - our bankers, solicitors, construction people: some who have entertained us, others we'd like to do business with."

During the morning there was much talk about the Castle's chef, Mark Greenfield, and by 1pm people were openly wondering whether lunch would justify his high reputation. With Van Dyck's magnificent equestrian portrait of Charles I glowering down on us, we feasted on salmon tartare, home- culled venison, lemon mousse and cheese - a meal so stylish and protracted that the afternoon's shooting had to be curtailed from two drives to one.

I do not think anyone minded. On the final bank, serious poaching broke out as everybody merrily began shooting his neighbour's birds. "That's one of the points about this," remarked William Asprey, manager of the London gun-makers, as we headed for home. "You can do that here. But if you did it on a live game day, you'd never be asked again."

Clay days can be arranged through Plummer Dixon Associates, Sherborne, Cheltenham, Glos GL54 3DR (01451 844714).

Comments