Cloaked in its best autumn shades, this was no exception and the welcome for visitors looking for game shooting at Lingholm, Cumbria, was as warm as the colour of the falling leaves.
The team of guns there on my visit, a group of six local ladies, were all determined to enjoy the day despite the poor weather forecast – and were clearly repeat visitors.
As we were served bacon rolls and coffee by Lord and Lady Rochdale – St. John and Elizabeth to everyone – I took the opportunity to ask a few obvious questions.
“It’s our second season as a team,” explained Louise Rosling. “Having been infected by my enthusiasm for shooting, the girls decided that this was far more exciting than being ladies who lunch.”
Clearly encouraged by their partners, the ladies were expecting a good day, with two apparently bringing their husbands as unpaid loaders.
A shoot in renaissance
A few years ago, the day here might have been far less exciting for them. Shooting had hardly taken place on Lingholm since it was halted by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Nature and commercial planting had taken its course and some of the fell sides had been overtaken by sitka, spruce and hemlock, which made drive management a nightmare, even with a big team of beaters.
Louise Rosling shoots as Dazzle looks on.
So how had the sport here been revived? It was a combination of factors, but the estate manager Michael Anderton was clearly a driving force in developing the shooting.
He had first come to Lingholm as a three-year-old when his mother Elizabeth married St. John, which meant that he knew the ground well.
Experience of estate and forestry management in neighbouring Cumbrian estates left him with a clear vision of what could be achieved.
Thus, over 60 years after the last shooting party, a syndicate was established to develop sport for family and friends on an estate that was, thanks to the dedication of the second Lord Rochdale, more famed for its spectacular terraced gardens of rhododendrons and azaleas than high pheasants.
After the storm
In the early days it was pretty much done on a DIY basis with just a few hundred birds put down.
But nature took a hand when in January 2005 the worst storm in 80 years tore through the area, with 100mph winds snapping trees like matchsticks and flattening huge swathes of timber.
“It was heartbreaking,” explained Michael, “it took us two days of chainsawing just to clear the roads and we spent a week without electricity. The future for shooting here was at a turning point because whilst the original syndicate hadn’t really worked as well as we’d hoped, it took a while to decide what to do.”
However, the storm was the catalyst that moved Lingholm into a different league, because it was decided to develop the shooting on a more commercial basis, with a mixture of family and let days.
New pens and access tracks were quickly built and, through strategic woodland management, the team developed the habitat that now allows them to feed birds well away from their home woods.
And they are driven from new flushing points for many of today’s signature drives.
The guns keep coming back
Lingholm now offers shooting every week through 14 different drives on its 1,000 acres, so there’s plenty of scope for areas to be rested.
Let days help pay some of the essential bills and the family are able to enjoy more sport.
The mixture of commercial and family days is clearly important.
Sat on the beater’s cart between drives I discovered why a totally commercial approach is avoided here – the beating and picking-up teams are made up of extraordinarily friendly and welcoming people who have a great sense of ownership of the place and a pride in the atmosphere.
On shoot days the evidence is clear to the visiting guns too, as many teams sit down with the beaters to share a meal.
Pam Critchley in action at Swinside End.
“We all know that there aren’t many beaters who go anywhere just for the day’s ‘pay’” said Michael, “but the fact is that on weekend shoots we get families turning out to help, including youngsters like my son Oliver, who would rather be out here on the beating line than at home with a Playstation. That’s how we’re going to survive in the long-term as a sport.”
His mother Elizabeth agrees: “The guns all seem so delighted with our atmosphere here and they tell us that we’re getting things right. We must be, as they keep coming back!”
If the day that I saw was typical the rejuvenation of this grand old shoot is working very well indeed.
Michael runs the beating line personally. His devotion to hand feeding and knowledge of the ground means that he’s able to predict the likely outcome of drives and direct his team accordingly.
This means relying on colleagues such as Noel Brindle, a member of the old DIY syndicate and a keen supporter of developing the let days.
He places the guns with a few words of advice.
Alan Moor, who has also offered part-time support over the past few years, also appears to hand whenever needed, to stand with guns or support the beaters and pickers-up.
To the action
The first drive was Howe Keld. Pushing birds from a narrow strip of woodland at the top of an incline the beaters could see them climb high and fast over a stand of hardwood towards the guns who, despite initial nervousness at the presence of a photographer, still did them justice.
As we moved on to wait for the start of the Larches, the work of the storm was clear and as the tapping of sticks in the distant wood got louder, a steady flow of birds began across a face of felled timber.
Directed by a team of flankers many were ready to demonstrate what sport this drive could offer in a cold January wind.
As the weather steadily improved, the beaters hidden in the young larch plantation could admire the view over Keswick. I stood with Louise Rosling and her dog Dazzle to admire the shooting as she picked out some stormers appearing from the heather on the top of Swinside.
As we took a break high on the fell I tore myself away from the stunning view over Derwentwater when I noticed a familiar face from a gunshop in Penrith. What was Tom, one of its employees doing there? “Loading and carrying things about,” he said laughing. “Louise is my wife!”
For the last drive of the morning we moved to Swinside End. Another area that has benefited immensely from the tree felling and subsequent regeneration, this features pegs on both sides of a road.
The beaters covered a 500 yard line from the top to the bottom of the fell and the birds flushed high above the guns, heading for their home wood in the valley below.
In sight for a while before being in shot, they were birds that tested skill and patience.
With an enjoyable morning already in the bag we took lunch in the main dining room at Lingholm.
The guns all clearly enjoyed the sport and the welcome – something that I was told isn’t offered to all-female teams by every estate.
A fitting finale
As we lined up for The Ghyll, our final drive of the day, with the team spread along a forestry track, the slight nerves of the opening drives were history and the jokes flew up and down the line of guns as fast as the birds.
Dawn Dixon was just starting to explain how they all went for lessons at the same shooting school when the stream of pheasants began and she had to demonstrate the success of the lessons.
After the final pick-up the post shoot tea and cake was taken in the main beaters hut – with the teams of guns, beaters and pickers-up joining forces.
As the ladies left for home or to do the school run, the beaters were busy filling me in on summer barbecues, Boxing Day shoots and walked-up days they were looking forward to as part of the Lingholm team.
The initially disastrous storm has, therefore, been a blessing in disguise.
Thanks to a lot of hard work and investment an estate that might have stopped shooting entirely is coming back into its own under Michael’s guidance.
The team on this day, from left: Kelly Gale, Dawn Dixon, Sarah Chamberlain, Bella Clifford, Pam Critchley & Louise Rosling.
An interesting history
Lingholm was purchased by Colonel George Kemp, later the first Lord Rochdale, in 1900, when it already had an interesting history. A favourite holiday spot for Beatrix Potter in the late 1800s, it had inspired her Squirrel Nutkin and Peter Rabbit books. The new owner saw the potential for even more interesting wildlife, to supplement his Gunnerside grouse moor. Enlarging the estate by renting large areas of Bassenthwaite, Wythwop, Derwent Bog and the Derwent fells, by 1920 Lord Rochdale employed an army of keepers led by the character who is still a local legend – David Imrie, a poet, bagpipe player and sporting author. Living in a hillside bothy with no running water or mains services David deployed his 10 underkeepers in a campaign that provided sport still remembered by one 94 year old, who was a beater at the time. “High, high birds they were,” recalls Billy Wilson, “launching off Swinside Fell they were a real challenge, it’s a good job that I come here as a guest gun not a beater now though!”
For more information about shooting at Lingholm contact Michael Anderton on 07747 013891.