The Green Dragon pub next to the Hardraw Force, the longest unbroken waterfall in England, has long been a muster point for local men-at-arms. It’s tempting to believe that this 13th century alehouse remembers some scaly, fire-breathing menace that blowtorched knights and carried off their distressed damsels to a lair behind the waterfall. But the reality is less romantic. A Yorkist king — for we are in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales — once rallied his troops under the banner of the green dragon, and the name stuck.
The men and women who gathered beyond the pub on a warm, clear evening in June were also armed and set on victory, but that’s where the comparisons end. During the summer, the Wensleydale League convenes every second Wednesday. This sporting clay competition is held between nine pubs. Each venue sets up and hosts an evening to test the skills of the other eight. Tonight, the honour fell to the Green Dragon.
The rules are fairly simple. Each pub side can have as many shooters as it likes — but only the five best scores count. Each tries to hit 30 clays, set across five sporting stands. The five best totals out of 30 per team are averaged out to give a team score at the end of the evening. Points are then awarded (eight if you come first, seven if second and so on) every meet.
Each shooter makes a donation of £6 per night to help pay for the overheads, which includes a prize for the fortnightly Top Gun. The pub with the highest number of points at the end of the summer gets to display the trophy behind its bar until a rival pub takes the bragging rights away.
The Hardraw Scar, a wooded ravine that leads up to the waterfall, provided a natural and unique setting for a clay shoot. Through the middle runs the Hardraw Beck, which drains in from the Buttertubs Pass, cascading 100ft down cliffs into a smooth bowl below. Following hard rain or snow melt, the force is known to rage and torrent, but tonight its flow was gentle, providing an ornate back scene to high-crossing “pheasants” that pushed the ability of very Gun.
The ravine is well appreciated by musicians for its natural acoustics — indeed, an annual brass band competition is held in an outdoor amphitheatre — so the noise of gunfire reverberated round the ancient rocks like mortar reports. Inquisitive jackdaws flapped and gambolled above, confident that they were off limits. Far beneath them, the woodland was carpeted in bluebells, interrupted by sprays of pink and yellow, and the pungent whites of flowering wild garlic.
The host team doesn’t shoot, partly so they can run the show, but partly to avoid accusations of skulduggery. “I dare say there would be a bit of strategic positioning otherwise,” admitted John Thompson, a keen deerstalker and game Shot who represents the Green Dragon. “It could be too tempting to set up the traps to suit your strengths, rather than those of your nearest rival. Or teams might practice beforehand. It’s much safer to do it this way.”
For any of the tourists pitching their tent in the pub campsite, the sight of tough-looking country folk daubing their arms and necks with insect repellent might have drawn a smile. But the woods were moving with midges with a blood-lust.
They did little to dampen the spirits of the shooters, however, who enjoyed the chance to unwind and catch up.
A relaxed evening
For the local upland keepers, this is the calm before the storm of the new season, less than two months away. “A lot of the hard work has been done already,” said Nigel Winter, headkeeper of West Arkengarthdale estate. Representing his local, The CB Inn, his team were the current league leaders. “We can still trap and there are butts to repair, but we couldn’t do evenings like these during the season,” he said.
Do keepers compare notes between stands? “We can certainly catch up,” said Nigel. “But you know us grouse keepers — we don’t like to give too much away. Considering the winter we had, with the late snow too, the birds are doing well. But we were glad of the fine weather when it came.”
Ian Sleightholm, head grouse keeper on the Bolton estates, a member of the Bridge Inn team from Grinton, near Reeth, was accompanied by his underkeeper Daniel Place. The two of them cleaned up on the springing teal stand, smashing all three pairs on report in clinical fashion. “It was certainly a hard winter and we were worried about a cold hatch,” said Ian. “But things warmed up in time. We can look forward to a very busy season.”
Several of the farmers who regularly compete were drawn away to their hay balers on such a fine evening. The Coverbridge Inn, an old staging post at the confluence of the Cover and the Ure, numbers several stock farmers in its team, including Giles Broadwith, who had been selling his Texel and Suffolk lambs at Leyburn Auction Mart that afternoon.
“Given the uncertainty of the market,” he said, after he had shot at the dropping ducks stand, “it’s been a good day. We were getting £90 or 230p per kilo, which I was pleased with.”
His team-mate, Mark Webster, farms dairy cattle and has represented England at clayshooting in the past. So presumably a pub league offers scant challenge? “I love these evenings because they’re not taken too seriously,” he said. “I realised early on this year that farming commitments would keep me from the right qualifying competitions to make the national team, so I’m taking it easy. Next year, however, I’ll be gunning for England again.”
Mark Cockburn, owner of the butcher and gamedealer Cockburn’s of Bedale, is another Coverbridge stalwart, who shoots as often as he can. His shop will stock plenty of local game when it becomes available, though at the moment it’s a different meat on his customers’ minds. “We’ve done very well out of the horsemeat scandal,” he said with a smile. “I think all independent retailers have, as there’s been a serious trust issue with the big supermarkets. People now want to know where their meat comes from. We do a lot of ready meals, which are proving hugely popular in the current market.”
As the last clays smashed against the fading light, the shooters retired to the Green Dragon for burgers, beers and prizes. Seventy-one had competed, with the full eight points going to the Foresters Arms pub in Carlton, Coverdale, which won with an average of 19.4 clays out of 30.
Mark Webster claimed his first Top Gun prize of the summer, with a score of 27.
The prizes were announced by Dave Williamson, one of the founding fathers of the league in 2006. He explained how the ball had started rolling. “Like all good ideas, I think it started over a pint in the pub,” he said. “We all shoot, keep or work dogs during the season, so we were thinking of a way to busy ourselves during the summer months, and get more youngsters into the sport. It’s hugely social, but there is a competitive element to it as well. We shoot in some beautiful scenery, while I think each pub team enjoys the challenge of setting up their stands. Tonight we were shooting clays through the spray of a beautiful waterfall. That’s pretty special.”
You may not see a dragon at Hardraw. But if you watch this pub league in action, beware the green-eyed monster.
Members of the victorious Foresters Arms pub in Carlton, shoots beside the Hardraw Force.
Nigel Winter, headkeeper at the West Arkengarthdale grouse shoot, representing the CB Inn.
Daniel Suttill swings in on a high pheasant.
Des Coates shoots the springing teal, watched by fellow members of the Bridge Inn at Grinton team.
Jim and Vicky Thompson.
Organisers John and June Goldsmith record the scores.
Friendly rivalry: Des Coates from the Bridge Inn at Grinton and Colin Bowman, from The CB Inn, share a joke.
Giles Broadwith at the dipping duck stand.
Pete Richardson, underkeeper at the West Arkengarthdale grouse shoot, representing the CB Inn.
Watch and learn: competitors chart the flight of clays at the springing teal stand.
Know your onions: Mattie Metcalfe, a regular for the Green Dragon team, loads up his burger afterwards.
Founder Dave Williamson announces the winners in the Green Dragon.