The second half of the 20th the second half of the 20th century saw the ruination and destruction of so many of Britains great country houses that it sometimes seemed as though this unique heritage was going to vanish completely. Even if the buildings themselves remained standing, they were too often gutted, their shells turned into schools, hotels, conference centres or office blocks and the estates which surrounded them broken up and dispersed. Either way, the essential unity of a landed estate and its magnificent centrepiece was lost, in most cases for ever.
And yet this quintessentially English phenomenon, the great family seat, set in its own park and farmland, can rise from the ashes. The clock can be turned back, history can be set in reverse, for that is what is taking place before our eyes at Heveningham Hall.
This splendid house, built in 1778 for Sir Gerard Vanneck, a wealthy Dutch merchant, almost followed so many other country houses into oblivion. Turned over to the Government in 1970 in lieu of death duties, it was managed for a decade by the National Trust before being sold to an Iraqi businessman, whereupon it suffered a disastrous fire. Salvation only came in 1994, when the house, together with 460 acres of land, were bought by Jon and Lois Hunt. Not only have the Hunts rebuilt the splendid interiors of the great house, but they have also reconstructed the estate itself. In just 15 years the property has increased eightfold in size to 3,500 acres and the historic house is once more at the centre of a living, breathing country estate.
That an estate shoot was once a central part of Heveningham is evident from the splendid hexagonal early 19th-century gamelarder, which stands beside the house, but it is only within the past three years that the formal shoot has been resurrected. I had heard good reports, so I had to see it for myself.
The weather on 11 November was fittingly sombre. Dense fog lifted into low grey cloud with barely a breath of wind, but this failed to dampen the spirits of Frank Steel and his party of Guns as they headed for the deep countryside of north-east Suffolk and the Boundary drive in the open-topped shoot bus.
We were greeted by a landscape of small fields and tall, unkempt hedges with bright scarlet hips and haws, thin ash trees devoid of leaves and yellow-qnd-gold oaks. The first partridges came as something of a surprise. For a moment they were there, zipping across the tops of the hedges, standing on their tails and climbing into the grey sky, and then they were gone. There was a rattle of musketry, but the first wave survived. I could sense the Guns pulling themselves together and giving themselves a stern talking to.
Clearly it worked, for Frank Steel with his loader and spotter, Gill Alston, soon got the measure of them while Sir Charles Blois, standing alongside a tall hedgerow, took some excellent shots. Nobody missed out on the sport, for the birds were spread across the entire line and came steadily in little flushes of two or three throughout the drive. It was an excellent start to the day.
We drove thence to Bush Hill, a block of land recently acquired by the estate. When we were still half a mile away I could already see the flankers moving forward, blanking birds from a huge area into the maize covercrop. When the estates shoot captain, John Winter, announced that there was to be a back Gun I warned Patrick Hockley to avoid standing behind No 5 Gun Bob Enskajt. I know Bob of old, and there is not usually much that gets past him. It did this time, though. I saw one partridge, which was already a good bird when Bob missed it with both barrels. By the time Patrick killed the bird, it was a real screamer. Patrick, a keen promoter of game at his Woodbridge Fine Food Company and Waterfront Café, also mopped up several more partridges that, though still climbing when they crossed the front pegs, made excellent birds for the back Gun who was situated in the bottom of a shallow dell.
Two minutes silence
After drinks, two minutes of respectful silence were observed at 11 oclock, before we headed back to the heart of the estate. We arrived at a line of pegs strung across the centre of a huge horseshoe of mature woodlands, the oaks now golden in the faint glow of sun, which was fighting its way through the grey. It was to the trees that the birds wanted to go and so, like the
gallant 600, the Guns had pheasants to the left of them and pheasants to the right of them. Thus the low and high numbershad a very enjoyable drive indeed, whereas those on the middle pegs had more time on their hands.
Franks team was made up primarily of Suffolk Guns, so it was a particular delight to meet Carole Sawkins who had driven all the way from Hampshire for her days sport. Standing at peg No 5 on Huntingfield drive, she killed a steady stream of fast partridges with consummate skill and I was not surprised to learn that Carole was the current south-west counties FITASC Sporting ladies champion, having clinched the title as recently as 4 October. Where other women might prefer a light 20-bore, Carole swears by her 32in barrelled Perazzi MX12 sporter, and I shouldnt think much gets past her own all-girl syndicate, the Tweedy Chicks.
Keeper Matt Smith was there for the pick-up and I managed to grab a few words with him as partridges and the odd pheasant were recovered from a healthy-looking fi eld of oilseed rape. Matt only started at the shoot on 20 July, but he hit the ground running. The season has gone well so far, he told me. This is our sixth day, but the third without any breeze. Even so, the partridges in particular were showing themselves well. Now Matt is discussing the possibility of additional covercrops. With long-term plans to do more days, well need some additional drives. Its all maize at the moment, but Id like a bit of variety and Ive always had success with kale, he said.
Standing on the newly constructed ornamental bridge over Heveningham Park lake, I spoke to shoot manager Grahame Sutherland about the estate. He told me that the landscape is slowly being restored to what was envisaged by Capability Brown more than 200 years ago. Almost a million trees have been planted and the bowl of parkland in which the house sits has been restored to a gentle pastoral vision, grazed by 1,500 sheep and bounded by miles of smart new park fencing. Theres a great deal of work still to be done to the house, of course, but the principal reception rooms are already quite spectacular, and shooting parties that elect to stay overnight have drinks in the drawing room and dinner in the splendour of the dining room.
Shoot lunches and suppers can also be had in the tea room in the stablec ourtyard next to the house. Our team sensibly shot through with a short break for sausages and drinks before continuing with the fifth drive. This was Huntingfi eld Hall, where a long hillside belt of maize was pushed across a line of Guns pegged out in an L shape, with the lower numbers ranged down the hill and the higher ones lined out in a rape field below the maize crop.
With what remained of the daylight leaking away into the western horizon we finished on the meadows beside the headwaters of the river Blyth. There was a tall line of alders in front of us and beyond them another covercrop, which extended up a little valley. Many of the birds angled to the left of the line, providing some fast work for John Sinclair at peg No 3, though I watched Richard Welham in the middle of the line take some excellent partridges, which came high over the alder trees.
It was a well-satisfied team of Guns that enjoyed a splendid roast beef supper in the tea room. The day had gone like clockwork and just like Heveningham estate itself, this is one shoot which I can see developing long into the future.
For further information about shooting at Heveningham Hall, contact Grahame Sutherland, tel 01986 798151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.