When Gary and Beverley Widdowson started looking for a shooting estate some four years ago their attention was focused on Yorkshire. The county is known for presenting high birds and they had enjoyed the shooting there for some time, as Londoner Gary explains:
Estate owner Gary Widdowson in action.
“I had been doing a lot of shooting near Helmsley in North Yorkshire so we were looking in that area in 2007. However, nothing had really tickled our fancy. We had a finder working for us and they brought Kelling to our attention. Prior to that Norfolk had never been on the agenda because we thought it was pretty flat, but things changed quickly. We liked the brochure so we drove over to have a look and as soon as we saw the house and the estate we fell in love with it.”
And so it was that in 2008 they became the very proud new owners of a well-known estate, which had previously belonged to the Deterding family.
Beverley Widdowson (left) enjoys the day with a friend.
For those who don’t know this part of the country, it is extraordinarily pretty. The local flintstone is the dominant building material and tiny roads, bordered by immaculate hedgerows, meander through undulating land dotted with copses, many of which were planted with shooting in mind. Every now and again a small village pops up round a bend and it is very easy to forget about the modern world as the peaceful pace of life takes over.
On arrival at Kelling Hall it is not hard to see why the Widdowsons fell in love with the place. The gorgeous market town of Holt lies a couple of miles to the south and as you pass through it there is a distinct feeling of stepping back in time to a more civilised age.
The hall and estate have both undergone extensive restoration in the last few years.
The hall is a few hundred yards from the village of Kelling, which in turn is a few hundred yards south of the stunning Norfolk coastline.
If all this sounds like a holiday brochure then I apologise but it’s not for nothing that people have been retreating to north Norfolk for their leisure for well over a century. The famous partridge shooting estate of Holkham nestles into the coastal area a few miles to the west and beyond that Royal Sandringham takes pride of place in the region.
Classic East Anglian partridge
I visited on a shoot day in October and, after a leisurely breakfast taken in the main dining room, a short walk through the gardens and past the re-landscaped lakes took us to our pegs for the first drive. It was a mild day, but thankfully there was a breeze which stayed with us throughout. As the drive progressed it was clear there was plenty of action throughout the line as coveys of partridge exploded from a cover crop behind the belt of low woodland in front, and split on the wind. Near the end two jays made the mistake of floating dangerously close to the middle of the line where Shooting Gazette’s Will Garfit was unlikely to miss out on this opportunity, and they were added to the bag.
Like every drive on this day it was well managed by a team who are clearly comfortable in their individual roles. Headkeeper Will Hudson was already at Kelling when the Widdowsons took over and his experience here has been welcome and beneficial.
Will Garfit and his dog, Scott, wait for the action to start on classic East Anglian partridge shooting terrain.
Another short walk took us round to the front of the house where a previously arable field is in the process of being returned to parkland. And here there is a classic Norfolk partridge drive in the making. The guns line out in a straight line 20 yards back from a six foot hedgerow with a narrow lane behind. The beating team bring in the stubbles beyond for a good mile. In doing so a steady stream of classic East Anglian partridge are produced.
These birds appear above the hedgeline from all angles and present the guns with a series of left and right crossers, straight driven birds and plenty of shots out behind. It takes a special skill and plenty of experience to succeed on this drive. Rapid evaluation of the flightline and decision-making are crucial. Will Garfit provided the perfect demonstration of how it should be done. Time after time his confident decision-making and sharp reactions allowed him to drop another bundled partridge on the neatly cropped ground. As the drive finished I couldn’t recall seeing him miss a bird but apparently he had, just one, and there were 31 cleanly killed partridge distributed in a wide arc around his peg: some partridge shooting. These may not be high birds but they require a totally different skill and this was a spell-binding pleasure to watch.
The beating team on the day.
Developing the shoot
Having seen the work that is being undertaken to turn this drive into a classic I was very interested to hear more about the way the shoot is managed from estate manager David Tabrett:
“The estate is a little over 1,650 acres and Will Hudson is the headkeeper, assisted by Stephen Bentley. We shoot 20 days a season (entirely private days) as well as a couple of walked up cock days at the end of the season.
“This year Will took delivery of his pheasant poults at the end of July at eight weeks old. And this is the second year we have put down 13-week-old partridge, the aim being to have six approximately 200-250 bird partridge days during September and October and also to provide some variety throughout the rest of the season.
Headkeeper Will Hudson (left) & estate manager David Tabrett.
“The generally thought of signature drive is Hasgates. Birds are driven from a strip of woodland across a valley over the guns, and this produces some excellent high and fast partridge shooting. Unlike much of Norfolk we have the benefit of being on the Cromer ridge which is a terminal moraine and gives us the ideal topography to be able to present some of the best and most challenging partridge shooting in the county.
“Since Gary purchased the estate in late 2008 there has been a steady and on-going programme of improvements, the most visual is the de-silting and renovation of the lakes. Four separate bodies of water were tackled.
Gary Widdowson explains the circular estate map with a wind direction indictator which was used to decide which drives would be shot in the morning.
The first one was done in the summer of 2009. The area to the east of this lake to a width of about 40 metres was cleared to create another drive where the guns stand with their backs to the water and the birds are driven off the hill and over the trees in front. The last three lakes in the chain were completed in the summer of 2011.
“A fresh woodland management plan was drawn up for the benefit of the shoot and hopefully to produce sufficient timber for the three biomass boilers on the estate. We have also renewed our ELS and signed an HLS agreement which it is hoped will be of benefit to the shoot by increasing the small population of grey partridge we have and by generally enhancing the broader environment for wildlife and fauna on the estate.”
A great deal of work has been undertaken on the estate and this is more than matched by the renovation of the house, the stables and the extensive Victorian greenhouses to the rear. Gary has been hugely successful in the recycling industry and is obviously a man with an eye for detail and the golden touch. Suffice to say that everything has been done to the highest standard and in keeping with the local area.
Kelling Hall hosts old-fashioned shooting parties where guests can enjoy the house and estate, not just the shooting.
Back to the action
After the two drives within walking distance of the house the team headed off towards the western boundary of the estate for a drive which produced some fast birds in a strengthening wind. Following lunch in a lodge up on the high ground in the woods two drives straddling the village of Kelling provided further testing sport. Both of these are in the part of the estate where the best pheasant drives lie and it’s not hard to see why. The contours provide perfect ground for the guns to be placed between two hills which have some excellent woodland on them. And, as with every other part of the estate, it’s as pretty as you could wish for.
For the final drive of the day the team headed down past the chain of de-silted and re-landscaped lakes and it really is a pleasure to see the results of so much hard work and investment. This final drive was a fitting end to a fine day’s East Anglian partridge shooting. Strong flying birds spread up and down the line to give all the guns some good partridge shooting.
The guns from the day at Kelling Hall.
A magnificent estate
Ever since Gary and Beverley Widdowson bought Kelling they have been heavily involved in all the development, as Gary explained:
“Since we bought it we have derived great satisfaction from the work being done. Bringing the woods back to life, dredging the lakes and getting the water flowing again has been very rewarding. I am also very excited about developing the partridge shooting, which hadn’t featured here for a while. We have had sound advice from the GWCT and we have five- and 10-year plans, and intend to make it an excellent early season shoot.”
Gary Widdowson bought Kelling Hall in 2008.
For the record I think it already is, but Gary evidently sets the bar very high. He is a passionate game shooter and the consummate host which is a rather special blend:
“Our whole idea was that we would like to recreate the shooting party atmosphere of 100 years ago, where guests can enjoy staying in the house and the estate as well as the shooting. While we can never produce high birds like you would see in Devon and Yorkshire we can show very good sporting pheasants, as long as there is a bit of a breeze.”
This magnificent estate is in the hands of exceptional custodians who have found themselves in a position they did not foresee:
“When we bought Kelling I thought we would spend half our time here and half our time in London. In fact we spend 90 per cent of our time here and only 10 per cent in London.”
I am not surprised.