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A game shoot back from the dead

Sydenham is tucked away in a tranquil and undiscovered part of west Devon, where time has quietly revealed a house and estate with a rich history, which started when it was listed in the Domesday Book.

The house in its current state was built in the 15th century by Sir Thomas Wise, and has since served as a garrison to the King in the Civil War, a sporting lodge, and a girls’ school, on a par with St Trinians by all accounts.

Its sporting history can be traced from the old game records, which show that good shooting was had there from the early 1900s up until 1920, when all formal shooting ended. However all that changed when Graeme and Hilary Hart bought the 1,200 acre estate in 1992, and were determined to restore it to its former sporting glory.

They took on Alex (Robert Alexander), a very experienced keeper to help them in their mammoth task, and he is still there today, showing what an incredible success story the Sydenham estate has once again become.

There is a wonderful old sepia photo hanging in the guns’ room, depicting the shooting party of November 27, 1906, and it was because of his fondness for this photograph that Graeme Hart decided to organise a centenary shoot to celebrate the revival of the estate and all the wonderful conservation work that has been carried out since he took it on.

So on November 18, 2006, almost 100 years to the day, 10 guns and other friends of Graeme and Hilary were invited along to celebrate the centenary and help recreate a modern day version of the favourite photo.

The day itself

The morning started with typical Devon weather, warmth and dampness, but undeterred, the guns, several of whom had shot here on the Harts’ inaugural shoot, back in 1992, were keen to start the first drive.

After the first drive there followed a refreshment stop while the picking-up team, including Alex’s wife Wendy with her labradors and springer, ensured the fields were quickly and efficiently swept. Enjoying the refreshments were guns Roger de Vere and George Palmer from Hertfordshire, who had both been guests back in 1992 at the first day’s shooting. Roger is an eminent gynaecologist and was also ‘Countryman of the Year -1997’ for his involvement and work in the cleaning up of the River Thames, showing what a diverse range of people are involved in field-ports and how seriously they take conservation.

The final drive for the morning was The Mound, a small clearing deep in the wooded hillside, a favourite drive of local gun Colonel Bev Austin, also renowned in the area for his fishing prowess on the River Tamar. The guns were proving to be a very multi-talented bunch.

The afternoon’s shooting continued with the rather wet, boggy conditions of Warren Wood, which is actually more of a water meadow alongside the fast flowing River Lew, than a wood, although the guns are divided up by beautiful ancient beeches and oaks. Whilst waiting for the birds, a number of red and roe deer were seen.

As light faded we went to the final drive, mysteriously called No Name. From this, one of the most stunning views could be found, right across to Dartmoor and the silhouette of Bren Tor. It was no wonder that Graeme and Hilary Hart were drawn here from their home in Hertfordshire, as there really can’t be anywhere more beautiful.

An historic ending

Finally it was time for the photo-call. The original picture showed 11 guns and 26 loaders and estate workers with their total bag of 135 pheasant, nine hare, 10 rabbits, one partridge and one pigeon. The centenary photo, in contrast, shows the Harts, Alex, the guns, their wives, plus the beaters and picking-up teams. The bag in 2006 was 226 pheasant, 15 partridge, and, coincidentally, one pigeon.

There are 25 drives and 28 release pens on the estate and they have been developed over the years to make sure they put fine birds over the line, using the steep valleys and woods to maximum advantage. However they are also placed to minimise impact on this stunning area and to provide the very best environment possible for both the birds and the wildlife they share their habitat with. Such knowledge only comes about from many years experience and it’s here Alex and the Harts make such a superb team.

It can only be hoped that in another 100 years, there is someone at Sydenham who has as much passion and enthusiasm for the estate, its sport and its conservation as the current owners ? and there will be another wonderful photo shoot to celebrate the event.