Bolton Hall: The best invitations often come from chance meetings. And so it was I found myself heading through Wensleydale last season under lead-grey skies, in search of Bolton Hall and a day out at the grouse with the current custodian – Harry, the eighth Lord Bolton.
The term custodian seems the natural one because the estate has been passed down the family line since Shakespearian times, “never”, as Harry assured me, “being bought or sold”. Bolton Hall Estate (not to be confused with the Bolton Hall Estate in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire) now centres on Bolton Hall itself, a country mansion built near Leyburn in the late 17th century for the first Duke of Bolton and substantially rebuilt in 1902 following a fire. The 14,000 acres also includes the medieval Bolton Castle.
What immediately struck me was how the estate had been the perfect place to be brought up. A very keen sportsman, the seventh Lord Bolton had Harry schooled in shooting by his grouse and pheasant keepers. Harry was also able to develop his interests in flying and horse racing, until the necessity of developing the estate income fell on his shoulders.
“My father and grandfather were keen sportsmen of course,” he told me, “but from what I’ve heard my great-grandfather seemed to shoot or fish almost every day of the week. Things are quite different now!”
Harry, Lord Bolton, was delighted that his friends were on such good form.
A great deal of income has now been developed for the estate from its sporting interests. As Harry is quick to point out, this also generates a substantial income for the local rural economy, providing a boost in direct jobs and accommodation. A typical season could see Bolton Estate offer 35 grouse days, of which 30 are let, and in early season teams can expect 200-brace days, too. The pheasant shooting is similarly proportioned and with most of the shooting sold to repeat visitors or by word of mouth, it’s a lucky team that can book a day. Tom Orde-Powlett’s smile – despite a borrowed gun – says it all.
Harry tries to host every grouse day personally, although having his eldest son – Tom Orde-Powlett – now managing the busy programme of tourist activities at Bolton Castle plus their fishing operations, the family is always directly represented.
To the butts
The team this day were all guests and, as we stood on the steps of the Hall for our obligatory health and safety briefing, it became clear several of them were enjoying a round of late-season grouse invitations, which I hoped meant they would be on good form. With Harry’s final suggestion that we “follow Geoffrey’s example, take them early” – made much to Geoffrey van Cutsem’s embarrassment – we set off for Apedale.
For the first drive I joined Tom Orde-Powlett for The Greets. The sky was still heavy and threatening, and with the wind blowing across the line our initial birds were long crossers. “That’s maybe how they’ll stay,” commented Tom. “They tend to favour the higher butts in this weather.”
Keeper Ian Sleightholm gets stuck in picking-up at The Greets.
That said, with just five years’ experience on the ground, headkeeper Ian Sleightholm got his team to persuade increasing numbers of coveys across the majority of the line. Tom and his loader Steve Parker were kept increasingly busy. We could hear that the butts out of sight down the hill to our right were enjoying good sport, too.
Hearing the decision to reverse The Greets, I moved downhill to where Trevor Chator-Norris was settling in after enjoying a busy first drive. A relatively close neighbour from North Yorkshire, Trevor was in buoyant mood despite the light shower that had passed over. It was a break where those wise enough to have packed a hot flask appreciated the warmth.
Trevor Chaytor-Norris drew pole position in the centre of the line at The Greets.
There was a wait as the beaters moved out and round the hill. Then Trevor’s enthusiasm for the day, despite the less-than-perfect weather, was rewarded as the first birds began to arrive. Positioned where we could see a couple of butts up the slope to our left and the line downhill to our right, the prospects looked good. From then on coveys began to arrive straight over us. We were clearly in the right spot and by taking shots early as Harry had encouraged, the coveys split up well, and the strong and swift late-season birds flared over neighbouring butts. By the end of the drive, loader John Stoddard and Polly the poodle were busy picking up as the guns moved back to the vehicles for a breather.
Purdeys on the Bolton Hall moor
Having Geoffrey van Cutsem in the line was too tempting an opportunity to miss, and I moved along the line to join him for the final drive of the morning. Watching a noted grouse shot, I was expecting to be well entertained and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite typical modesty about his shooting on the day, Geoffrey kept his Purdeys – a present many years before from his father – busy throughout the drive. During any lull in proceedings his concentration on our short skyline was in overdrive and, when in action, it was a relaxed performance that only comes with experience of shooting on almost every leading moor in the country. And watching Geoffrey shoot was a clear example of how much easier it is to take birds early, if you are good enough. “I shoot quite a bit in Perthshire and other places too of course, but I always really enjoy my day here at Bolton Hall with Harry,” he told me afterwards. “Wonderfully challenging birds and he’s a kind and thoughtful host, too”.
Geoffrey van Cutsem and loader Rich Iveson made an effective team on every drive.
Knowing his loader Rich Iveson, a keeper on a nearby moor, I remarked that given the smooth gun changes I’d witnessed, he’d obviously loaded for Geoffrey before. “Not at all,” he said, “this is the first time ever, but it’s all about getting into a routine – and it’s a lot easier to load for a good shot
than a bad shot!”
Another grouse addict
After lunch the weather improved, with blue skies chasing the last of the grey clouds away as the team moved to the last drive. Headkeeper Ian told me most of the action would be focused on a fairly new wooden butt, where I found Bill Blevins. Despite no longer being a UK resident, Bill is nevertheless a very keen shot and comes home regularly throughout the season. Somehow, however, a day at the grouse had eluded him until he’d mentioned this to Harry, who’d made good on a promise to put matters right.
Now, with the shooting coming to a conclusion, Bill was getting his confidence and was well supported by his loader Nigel Winter. With clear shooting to the front and rear, Bill relished the occasion. I could see he was going to spend more time shooting grouse next season.
Joe Moseley, one of Bolton Estate’s loyal team of beaters and pickers-up.
It was a fitting end to the day at Bolton Hall for Bill and the rest of the team – on what was likely to be the final formal grouse outing of the year on the estate last season. With everyone sharing in the sport, including two lucky underkeepers who carried guns to help push the more canny grouse forwards, the guns were now focused on getting back to Bolton Hall for tea and cakes.
Bolton Estate has clearly evolved to deliver for teams of paying visitors and guests alike. But I would like to have witnessed one unusual day that took place many years ago – when the estate hosted the crew that filmed grouse shooting sequences for the first Casino Royale. On that occasion Harry’s father shot in place of David Niven to ensure James Bond was seen to be a crack shot. I’m sure Harry or Tom would do the honours on another remake.