The laughter had already begun in earnest as the members of the Greystoke Castle estate game shooting syndicate gathered for breakfast at the Boot & Shoe, the local public house that serves as the epicentre of the shoot.
Shoot captain Richard McGill was in discussion with underkeeper Chris Hetherington regarding the format of the day, and as to whether headkeeper Steve Pymm would make it back from a stalking trip to Ireland in time to join the line.
Steve eventually arrived and he was more than happy to leave the day in his underkeeper’s hands, allowing him to spend more time with the guns.
The first drive, the newly designed Marrigold, is unusual in that it incorporates vast tracts of open cover crop.
The birds gain height over a considerable distance as they head for the woods to the rear of the line. It proved ideal for warming up the gun’s limbs and barrels.
At the game cart Steve and Chris announced that the cartridge to kill ratio was almost 2:1. Far from normal practice on let days, it’s actually the syndicate who like to be kept abreast of the facts and figures.
It is a tradition that has kept going since the guns first came together just over two years ago.
After a short ride the guns lined up on Cuthberts.
A castle has existed at Greystoke in various forms since Norman times.
An old drive beneath one of the estate’s established woods, the pegs run down from a hill to the left and out into a wide meadow.
According to Martin Downs, one of the syndicate’s original guns, the drive’s peg positions count for little as the birds break out evenly over the entire line.
Rolling high on the breeze the first three birds downed were healthy redlegs, two of them falling to the gun of John Reid, while John Kelly demonstrated just how a high, overhead pheasant should be dispatched.
A fitting end to the late morning’s sport came in the form of coffee, pies and fruitcake, laid out on a folding table from the beater’s trailer.
The break was a chance to find out more about the syndicate’s history with founder member Larry Hague.
“Three years ago Richard, Ian Forbes and I got together with Steve and started the syndicate. In the early days it could be rather hit and miss. Although Steve manages Greystoke’s sporting rights, and had already developed the stalking side, he was still learning about shoot management.
“As time has gone by, especially with Chris as part of the team, drives both old and new are starting to flourish. Ken Ledward is in charge of the beaters and the timing has almost been perfect, as many of the beaters are as new as the guns themselves.
“We’ve been able to assemble a sociable collection of experienced guns who agreed a reasonable membership fee. It has injected much needed capital and allows us to expand Greystoke both for ourselves and the let day clients.”
Every peg is in the action at Sheep Hospital.
Leading towards the big one
Fortified against the gathering clouds and impending rain the guns headed off towards Sheep Hospital, a broad drive where birds are pushed in from another of the estate’s distant game crops.
Flushing over every peg it was safe to say that, along with Holly Bush, the following drive, it was a fine build up to The Nab, Greystoke’s signature drive.
The two things you notice there are the speed of the birds and the speed of the guns. They line out along a stream deep in a tree-lined valley that runs east to west, directly away from the castle.
The wide gap in the canopy above is their one and only chance to connect with the birds.
A long stop also is situated at the end of the castle’s lawns.
High above, the majority of the beaters swing around the entire hill pushing the birds initially over the upper tier of the woods before following them down. The remaining beaters push the birds onwards towards the valley below from a central ride. Suffice to say it’s a testing drive and an exhilarating spectacle.
With the light starting to fade and a final chance to sample Mrs Reid’s comestibles, all that remained was the lower extremities of Summer Ground, one of the duck drives.
Shot only when the guns request it, numbers are small although those shot are good birds. Just six ducks crossed within range of the deep, narrow valley that housed the guns.
Back at the Boot & Shoe, with a bowl of soup or a ham sandwich in hand, the final bag and ratios were declared.
The bag consisted of 41 brace of pheasants, nine brace of partridge and three brace of duck. With 399 shots having been fired it made for a cartridge to kill ratio of almost 4:1.
“This is an average day for the syndicate with numbers matching what the team wants,” commented Steve. “If a let day party of guns wants more then there’s no problem but we prefer guns who want a sensible quantity of good quality birds.
“We have 10 syndicate days and around 10 let days, along with a variety of boundary days. It is £30 a bird, the overall cost based on how big a day individual parties want, along with their hospitality requirements.”
“We currently shoot over 3,500 acres in the middle of the estate although we’ve recently discovered the estate also owns some additional land including a grouse moor. Although Greystoke had to sell land on for various reasons in the past the estate still retained the sporting rights.
“We intend to increase the numbers of pheasant, partridge and duck we put down. This is supplemented by the roe stalking we offer almost all year round. We have 12 drives, equally divided between those that have been established and ones that both the syndicate and I have designed ourselves.”
Sport on Marrigold warmed the gun’s barrels.
The history of Greystoke
Situated 30 miles south of the Scottish border, there has been a Greystoke Castle in one form or another for over 900 years since the Normans granted Llyulph de Greystoke the right to build a wooden tower and stockade. This timber structure was replaced in 1346 with the first of the stone built castles. After Anne Dacre inherited Greystoke and married Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, in 1571 the Howard family took control, and the family remains to the present day. Designated a fallow deer park, Greystoke was Royalist during the English Civil War and destroyed by Cromwell in 1660. After being rebuilt it was destroyed by fire in 1868, after which Henry Howard reconstructed Greystoke into the present day structure. Since being used as a tank training ground and POW camp during the Second World War, the subsequent generations of the Howard family have restored Greystoke Castle back into a stunning family home.
From mountaineer to headkeeper
Ask Steve Pymm about his keepering experience and he’ll admit that he’s more or less self-taught. Steve’s previous occupation as a mountaineer couldn’t have been more different, although it clearly required the same determination and drive which has helped him to return the Greystoke Castle shoot to its former glory.“Various keepers looked after the estate until I came along five years ago. When I took over the management of the shooting rights as a business I became both gamekeeper and sporting agent. Prior to that I was a professional mountaineer, climbing all over the world and involved with various expeditions including various first accents in the Himalayas and South America. In many ways I took on the running of Greystoke’s sporting side by default through stalking here. From there it was a matter of learning as I went along with advice from Chris Hetherington, who knows Greystoke like the back of his hand. Chris is an invaluable asset to the estate and the shooting here as a whole”.
For more information about the sporting opportunities at Greystoke contact Steve Pymm on 07831 759524. To contact the Boot & Shoe for accommodation enquiries contact 017684 83343.