Game shooting at Hembury Castle, Devon: Oliver Taylor was finishing a gin and tonic when I found him lounging in an Umberleigh pub.
The place was full of men in cords, jumpers and pheasant motif ties, everyone sitting six to a table under a low beamed ceiling.
“Now then young man,” he said upon seeing me, a finger already circling above the empty glass of his friend, Jim Freestone, “are you alright for the same again Jim, yes?, get them in Mart…”
For as long as I’ve known Oliver, a blonde barrel-chested farmer with hands like coal shovels, he has repeatedly mentioned the game shooting at Hembury Castle – a home from home for Jim and he – hidden between the wooden valleys and hamlets near Torrington.
A good sense of balance is required on Pen’s seventh peg.
Hembury Castle isn’t a castle in the Windsor, Caerphilly or Edinburgh sense. Born an Iron Age fort on a promontory above tree-lined fields and tributaries of the River Torridge, the building has gradually been consumed by extensions to become the family home of its owner, Richard Goodburn.
The 60-year-old has all the trademarks of a committed outdoorsman; the fiddled-with greying hair, the tough, wind-numbed skin and busy-behind-the-eyes expression all signs of a man with a paternal relationship with an estate he has called home since 2007.
It was standing room only in the family conservatory when Richard conducted a short briefing on the cold and blustery January morning.
The light rain that fell as he spoke skipped off the slate chip path leading guns around a new lake and outhouse towards The Moat.
This drive is a fallow field in the shape of cupped hands whose wrists sink towards a tree-lined banking and into the belly of a shallow valley split by a cold meandering river.
Guns were pegged in a gentle S-shape by Richard and shoot co-ordinator Carolyn Methven.
The gun furthest right much higher than the rest of the line, and a cartridge throw from a hedgerow holding back a single line of trees and maize cover crop.
When hosting a new team, it is common practice for Richard to ease the guns in with a good (but not outstanding) drive just to get an idea of their ability.
It may have been just as well the guns were all friends of Richard’s on this particular drive.
The weather had its own agenda and scuppered any chances of them seeing good sport, a northerly wind either ushering birds sideways once airborne or towards the guns at near head height.
Although for most the succession of unsporting birds might have been disheartening this early on, Richard’s expression suggested it might not be the last we would see of the pheasants from this particular drive.
A gun picks up a rare cock bird on The Moat.
Despite a wealth of flushing points to play around with, Richard resists the temptation to fill his sky with pheasants.
He is, by his own admission, obsessed with his bird’s welfare – game shooting takes place once a fortnight – and they are given “the best chance to get away but at the same time give the guns challenging game shooting”.
He has a profound dislike for what he describes as “cricket bat game shooting” just to make the bag up.
This viewpoint goes a long way to explain the reason for his policy of guaranteeing a fixed amount of shots rather than a fixed bag.
The day’s slow start was chalked off to experience later on in the morning at the bottom of the heavily wooded shallow valley, a part of the shoot that hosts two drives (Pen and Bond) in one.
For Pen, guns line up facing the south banking which holds a horizontally challenged pheasant pen and an ingenious peg position.
In a brilliantly effective use of space, whoever draws peg seven has to haul themselves up the side of the banking using a knotted rope just to reach the ledge they shoot from.
Such is the deceptiveness of the landscape, birds flushed from the top of the pen cross peg seven around 30 yards up, so even if they were missed they would immediately present a 50 yard target to the guns further down below.
To prepare for Bond, all guns really needed to do was to shuffle around and turn their backs on Pen.
Now they faced a gentler north facing slope also covered by trees and crucially those birds from The Moat, who would be driven back towards the pen high up on the south bank.
With the afternoon sun pouring into the valley the light was now in the bird’s eyes rather than the guns, but the drive was still busy – any guns who thought things had gone quiet soon realising it was better to keep their gun up rather than broken.
Pegs positioned directly in front of the south bank saw the highest birds, but that is not to say that they saw a greater number, those in the shade being granted that privilege.
Bond drew to a close just as the sun began to turn the rustic landscape a dull grey.
Oliver Taylor is one of Hembury Castle’s many loyal guests.
Guns loaded back into the 4x4s they’d left in a procession hours earlier and headed up towards the castle for the warmth of a stew and vegetable dinner.
Watching the guns relax over wine and pudding, Hembury Castle felt more like a co-operative than a fledgling commercial venture – naturally the 700 acres includes the land of neighbouring farms.
It is warming in these uncertain times to see smaller shoots holding their own, and this one is helped in no small way by the people closest to the Goodburns themselves.
Family are an essential part of Richard’s life away from the shoot and are an immeasurable assistance on it – stepdaughter Letitia is headkeeper, stepdaughter Amy runs the beating line and wife Rosie prepares a wealth of refreshment.
The purchase of Hembury Castle fulfilled Richard’s life-long ambition of owning something that offered high quality in a relatively small area, and also gives him a chance to use his 40 plus years of shoot management to carefully nurture a boutique game shooting experience.
Although there are plans to eventually take on more ground, Richard doesn’t want Hembury Castle to get too big for its boots. As long as loyal guns like Oliver Taylor and Jim Freestone keep coming across from the other side of England to shoot here, it never will.
For more information on shooting at Hembury Castle contact 01805 622757.