The main quality that separates us ruddy-cheeked countrymen from the peaky, pizza-munching townies is our oneness with nature. We are in tune with the changing seasons, with haw berries ripening, the leaves reddening and, especially, the last flicker of swallows and swifts over our skies as they depart for the savannahs of Africa.
Their absence is always saddening, but there?s consolation in the winter influx of migrants. Once-empty roads suddenly fill with black Range Rovers ? where they summer is a mystery. Perhaps they perform a reverse hibernation, burrowing into deep piles of suburban lawn cuttings. Whatever their lifecycle ? and Bill Oddie should surely set up a Naturewatch to investigate ? black Range Rovers are thriving. Not that they are all black, of course. Like mynah birds, they have their flashes of yellow, each with their individual markings: LES L1, BG DCK and A1 STUD are typical of the species, though CMPLT G1T serves as the breed standard.
They?re most comfortable snaking through the Devon lanes at a steady 60mph or materialising, like a cast-off Rottweiler, 10ft from your rear bumper on the M6 ? behaviour that we may forgive if they decant their passengers complete with decanters. And they always seem equipped with those, usually brimming with sloe gin and King?s Ginger liqueur. In more robust times, we called them shooting brakes, though why that, and not ?shooting wheels? or ?shooting radiators?, remains fogged in time.
The dear old cloth-covered sporting tomes featured them heavily in the thin filling of black-and-white photographs sandwiched between breathy accounts of tiger culling. Usually they were Rolls-Royces (RR), with running boards surrounded by a party of small local chaps struggling under picnic hampers, memsahibs in big hats and gauzy dresses wearing slightly startled expressions, as though they had just been goosed and found, to their consternation, that they enjoyed the experience.
I would have loved one of those (the RR, not the goosing) and amazingly, the offer came last week to have and hold one for a week (the RR, not the memsahib). Actually, it was even posher than a RR; it was a Bentley. ?You?ve been offered a test drive in one of those?? exclaimed a PR girl. ?Hell, they?re scraping the barrel. Every minor celebrity from China westwards has been offered a spin in that.? But as we all know, you should not look a dead teal in the beak, and the thought of a free car (and, more importantly, petrol) had attractions. Apparently, it goes from 0 to 60mph in less time than it takes to dunk a tea bag, and half an average-sized herd of Friesians are converted into its seat coverings, which match, exquisitely, the veneer from the small copse of walnut trees smothering the dashboard.
Only two factors held me back. Would the Labrador, fresh from the marsh, dry-off properly on leather seats? And could they provide me with one in a colour other than Lingerie Black or Midnight Depression? Did they, in fact, have one in camo?
Applied at home with a Woolies? wallpaper brush, camo was the colour of choice for my fowling friends? cars in the 1970s. To be accurate, it was less ?camo? in the modern Realtree sense and more splodges of ex-MOD green and black paint. And they weren?t cars either, but ex-GPO vans. Since these came originally in two colours ? bright yellow (line repair van) and red (postal deliveries) ? they had to be camo?d. Not because of the wildfowl (even my friends didn?t park on the flightlines), but because you didn?t want those buggers from Newton Winterbourne to spot the wheels and twig the duck were in on our side of the marsh.
Today, those old GPO vans are primped up and displayed at vintage car rallies by chaps who have too much polishing time and too few girlfriends. But the van culture continues to thrive among the marshy brotherhood. I met a new friend last week at a crowded pub car park. Having only shaken his paw once, I was still confident I would recognise him, and, sure enough, he swung alongside in a battered van adorned with his business details. In the back was the traditional accoutrements of the seasoned fowler.
As he?d been hard at it since the First, the van was properly seasoned with the sporting necessities that will stay happily in situ until 20 February. My own car has yet to acquire its winter patina of spare cap, spare over-trousers, spare ear defenders, spare coat and thin coating of partridge, pheasant and duck feathers. Part-wardrobe, part-kennel, part-bedroom (those killer drives back from Caithness), the shooting brake is so indispensable to our modern lifestyle that I wonder people stop at putting a fitted kitchen in the back of the Range Rover. Why don?t we become more ambitious?
Any night in London (and probably Norwich) you?ll see stretch limos cruising around, normally filled with scary hen night girls. This would be the ideal shooting brake. True, you would need an accompanying JCB to straighten out the bends in the Devon lanes, and it might be a little tricky to hide from those duck thieves from Newton Winterbourne, but think of the advantages. Duck decoys, pigeon magnets, ferreting nets and fly-tying gear could all be slung in the back without the slightest fear of your wife ?tidying up? and losing your vital pieces of kit forever. One could even install a small swimming pool so the hound could practise water retrieves for that working test during the close season.
And, best of all, you would screw up that line of black Range Rovers trying to make the first drive after lunch, having left 20 minutes late.