Finding your fields of sporting Elysium
If you know where to look, pockets of shootable countryside are still available to those without a banker’s bonus, as Richard Negus reveals
On the rare occasion I tune my truck radio from the local station to a national broadcaster, I am struck by the length and magnitude of the traffic reports I hear. While I blithely trundle along near-empty Suffolk lanes to get to whichever farm I am working at, the voice from the speakers tells of tailbacks, tail lights and turmoil. The average daily commute for the UK’s workforce is one hour and 38 minutes. How many Shooting Times readers also endure such soulless hours spent in traffic jams or on overcrowded trains to get to their place of work?
To alleviate the woes of these lengthy commutes, many buy homes in the suburbs. While this is a pragmatic solution, it does mean that where you have to live is, often, not where you want to live. This is particularly true for those of a sporting bent. The commuter belts of our major cities may be leafy, but on the whole this is a sanitised countryside, overly stuffed with your fellow man.
The sporting options that cling on here are often jealously guarded, astronomically expensive or closed shops, almost impossible to access. To buy a house in the rural enclaves of the Home Counties requires an eye-watering financial outlay, not to mention that your choice of gun, attire and dirty dogs will single you out to neighbours as a dangerous threat to property prices and society.
But all is not lost. Lockdown has proved that working from a home office is possible. High-speed broadband is slowly creeping its way into the furthest reaches of our islands. Zoom is replacing face to face as the preferred method of carrying out business meetings. It is no longer a prerequisite to live in close proximity to a major conurbation to hold down a corporate role. Sois now the perfect time to sell up and turn your back upon 29 Acacia Avenue?
Spend it wisely
A perusal of the property website Rightmove reveals that the average house price in Woking, that most leafy and archetypal of commuter towns, is a shade over £557,000. That sort of money can buy some serious real estate, with sport on tap, if you know where to look. When taking the leap to sell up in the suburbs, your first thoughts for the location of your new dream home may well turn to locations truly remote. The fly in the ointment for living among, say, the snipe bogs and smoky malts of Islay or sea trout and stags on Exmoor are the logistics of living in this glorious isolation. While inconsequential when young and healthy, in older age, having to drive for an hour to visit your nearest shop, doctor, chiropodist — and eventually undertaker — becomes increasingly impractical.
It is, of course, possible to buy somewhere in the ‘real’ countryside without having to be either a backwoodsman or a millionaire. The ‘average’ dwelling where I live in mid-Suffolk, for example, is some £200,000 cheaper than its counterpart in Woking. My region is unashamedly rural, yet not so remote that you become a hermit. But our landscape is 98% agricultural, predominately arable; this is by no stretch of the imagination a wilderness. If you are in search of an affordable sporting home in wilder territory, with the succour of services within reasonable reach, here are two suggestions for where you may find your fields of Elysium.
Great Yarmouth is the gateway between the Broads and the North Sea. The town itself struggles on as a holiday destination. The Golden Mile is sadly tarnished these days; cheap flights to the Spanish costas have lured away the tourists who once flocked here in droves. For the sportsman, however, Yarmouth and the east Norfolk villages, jutting out into the cold North Sea, offer delights beyond measure. This region is earthy, honest and largely free from complaining incomers bleating about cocks crowing, muck spreading and dawn-flight banging.
Take, for example, the village of Fritton with its Norman church and historic lake — once famed as a duck decoy, now part of a 1,000- acre rewilding project. Admittedly, Fritton itself does not have the bucolic visage of Blakeney, an hour up the coast in north Norfolk, but the average price for a detached property in the city banker-beloved Blakeney is £1,176,667, while in forgotten Fritton it’s £435,000.
What Fritton lacks in whimsy it makes up for with wildfowl — this is the heart of Great Yarmouth Wildfowlers’ country. The club has 34 separate marshes and, for a little over £200, members enjoy some of the finest goose shooting found anywhere in the world, while the foreshore at Breydon vies with the Solway and Wash as the ancestral home of the sport. If you are not inclined to share your fowling with others, a grazing marsh of some eight hectares near Acle recently sold for £100,000, meaning you can farm cattle in the summer and shoot pinkfeet under the moon in winter.
Keen anglers are well catered for here. The national record for a river-caught pike, a rod-bending 45lb, was landed in 2009 at Thurne, north-west of Yarmouth. Of course, pike angling on the Broads is nothing like fishing a spate river. For starters, much of the fishing on these waters costs either a few pounds or is free.
Stalking is plentiful, particularly for those keen on bagging a Chinese water deer — the east coast is their UK stronghold. East Norfolk offers little in the way of the ‘smart’ driven shoots found inland; however, numerous small syndicates and farm shoots abound and the costs reflect this ersatz type of game shooting. Great Yarmouth and its environs boast a sporting history to be proud of; it is a place without pretence. To live here and be on hand when the pinks arrive from the norlands or the wigeon come in from Scroby Sands is worth any price.
Britain seems to have forgotten the land of the Prince Bishops. Yorkshire, be it Dales or Moors, is known to most, as is the wild beauty of Northumberland, the Lake District and Westmorland. Yet when was the last time you heard anyone wax lyrically about County Durham? It is a surprise.
The county boasts a diversely beautiful landscape that rubs shoulders organically with the marks from its recent industrial past. The Durham Dales, Weardale and the Derwent Valley have largely gone ‘undiscovered’ by the sorts of people you hope don’t discover it. Grouse thrive here and, while driven days are best suited to those with deeper pockets, a walked-up day over pointers is a realistic and memorable possibility for around £100 a brace.
Adam Morton from Durham-based Morton Sporting is passionate about his home county. “County Durham can offer a wide range of sporting opportunities. We have something for everyone here, from some of the finest grouse moors in the UK to numerous small DIY syndicates shooting a handful of days a season. Salmon and sea trout fishing on the Wear is excellent too for a fraction of the cost of Scottish rivers,” he says.
County Durham is a mecca for working dogs. My cocker Mabel is a born and bred ‘Smoggie’ and she and I shared a superb day beating on the moors above Ruffside. The bleak hilltop town of Tow Law produces a strain of terrier so hard bitten, they appear made from the steel that was once smelted there.
For stalkers, buying your own woodland is an eminently affordable prospect. Prices hereabouts are some £2,000 an acre below the national average. The local architecture is designed to withstand the harshest of weathers — winter in Weardale will definitely be a shock to southern emigres. Buildings stand stolid and resolute like craggy nightclub bouncers. You can buy an example of one of these right now in the village of Whittonstall — a three-bedroomed stone-built cottage, with plenty of space for kennels, is yours for £240,000.
It may pay to not tarry over making a decision to move from the suburbs. Estate agent Savills surveyed 700 registered buyers in May last year and noted then that 40% of its respondents were looking at village locations. One year on, and confidence in the feasibility of working from home has increased. Finding a hidden sporting Elysium to live in looks soon to become either very elusive or very expensive.