Arriving at the door of Low House in Cumbria, just after the storms and gales had ravished the area and with the power out, the atmosphere of the Ecroyd family’s country seat was positively Dickensian.
Guided by candlelight through to the kitchen, Charles Ecroyd showed little sign the lack of modern amenities was going to have the slightest effect on the day’s shooting.
After all, having been the family home since the early 1870s, numerous generations had no doubt encountered such minor inconveniences. One problem that certainly hasn’t reared its head for nearly 100 years, irrespective of the vagaries of modern life, has been the level of commitment and unquestionable diligence of the Low House gamekeepers, the Taylor family having maintained the estate’s sporting interests since the early 1900s.
One point Charles made, just prior to his usual informal chat with the gathering guns, was finding Philip Taylor, the present incumbent of the headkeeper role, and engaging him in conversation wasn’t going to be an easy matter. Attending to his job well in advance of the first gun awakening, his attention to detail is unsurpassed. Not surprising really when you consider those of his family that went before stare down at him from aging photographs that adorn his cottage walls.
Cumbrian by birth and nature, Philip is everything you’d expect of a man whose very soul and every thought is dedicated to Low House. Quiet, reserved and fully focused on his life’s work, the land that forms the shoot has taken on a meaning that few other keepers will ever be fortunate enough to encounter.
“Standing on the Deep Gill and Homewrangle Bank drives, the speed, quality and aerial determination of the Low House pheasants soon became apparent.”
The Snipe Bog drive emphasised the thinning and replanting of the estate’s well managed forestry first laid out over 60 years ago. A mixture of beech, hazel and various hardwoods, purposely erring away from the ever pervading pine trees, the variety of the new saplings will not only encourage indigenous species but provide the most appropriate cover as the season progress.
I eventually caught up with Philip on the edge of the Lock Hill, the last drive before returning to the stables for lunch. Stood on the bank of the River Eden, his two black labs tensed and ready to retrieve from the waters: “I’ve been keeper at Low House for the past 25 years, but every holiday, especially during the summer, I’d live with my grandparents, help around the estate and carry out anything and everything that needed to be done. Mainly though, I helped my grandfather, Joseph, who was predominantly the river keeper.”
On leaving school Philip chanced a telephone call to Charles Ecroyd’s father, Peter, to see if there was the possibility of any jobs around the estate. Although technically no permanent position was available, Peter informed him if he wanted to help out and do general estate work then Philip was more than welcome.
When he first started he was also able to call on the years of understanding of grandfather Joseph and his Uncle John who between them had over 80 years of Low House experience. Pointing out where the foxes were likely to be and how to maintain the coverts to their best advantage, John passed on his knowledge to Philip.
“On the river, his uncle Joseph’s years of dedication highlighted the pools and runs the salmon preferred when he first started rowing the visiting rods at the age of 13.”
“Death duties and other such have reduced the size of Low House. Now we have just 1,600 acres that comprise 1,200 acres of farmland, the rest a mixture of woodland and general forestry. My grandfather could call on a staff of 29 back in 1926 whereas today all there is is me. Certain practices have also changed; for example the local cat population was virtually non-existent when my grandfather was keeper.”
But, apart from the reduction in size, one aspect that Philip’s forebears would immediately recognise is the drives they put into place: “The one thing we found on all the drives was the way both families had laid them out was the way they worked the best. The main difference is we now use game crops and pheasants are the main birds. Traditionally, Low House was a partridge shoot with a few pheasants reared for interest. But as times moved on, like other estates, we adapted. A few things we do have here are a Reeves pheasant, red squirrel and guinea fowl and woe betide any gun that shoots them. Likewise, when I first started, Low House was a syndicate for Peter Ecroyd and a few friends. Nowadays though, the estate has to start to pay for itself.”
The conversation was then cut short as the sound of shots echoed down the valley. Within seconds Philip’s radio informed him a hen pheasant was floating in his direction. Gill and Lara immediately took to the water in a display of synchronised retrieval.
Holding station in the fastest flowing section of the beat, Philip carefully threw a small stone just in front of the bird, a marker that allowed the dogs to adjust their position so as to allow this and the subsequent six birds to flow precisely into their grasp. Energy sapping at the best of times.
“I used to own spaniels but now, just like my great grandfather John, I prefer labs. They seem more suited to Low House and to how I work. Besides which, I find labs more controllable.”
Breaking for lunch, neatly laid out in the huge room above the stables, the roaring fire welcomed the guns in from the cold. It was also a chance to engage Mathew Shuter, Charles’ brother-in-law in conversation: “I’m part of a roving syndicate of guns who shoot all round the country. But as the years have passed, we always book at least one if not two days at Low House, usually as the season draws to an end when the birds are at their fastest. Equally, if I have the time, I always attend the keeper’s and beater’s days when all the drives are used and we walk the boundaries.”
After lunch and with the light starting to fade, Christy and Hill Top still beckoned, more of the famous Low House high birds awaiting the chance to test the line’s skills before dropping down to Park, the last drive of the day. Pegged out around the edge of the Low House lawns, Park provided some of the highest and fastest birds of the day as they rose and climbed above the woods set on the hill overlooking the house, a fitting way to end the day.
“As the years have passed, Philip’s closeness to Peter Ecroyd and now Charles means they know how each other works and what’s expected. Similarly, each one knows exactly where and what the other is talking about.”
But if maintaining the shooting, controlling the vermin, releasing and tending to over 2,000 pheasants and 50 partridge weren’t enough, as the seasons change, so do Philip’s duties. Encompassing three miles of the River Eden, one of the country’s finest salmon rivers, Philip dons his waders as the Low House ghillie, guiding family, friends, guests and visitors along the various beats.
“We had 80 fish off our stretch last year which, given how numbers have fallen nationally, isn’t too bad at all. I learnt how to fish here whilst my partner, Sheila, is a keen fly fisher and my own daughter caught her first salmon here, something Peter Ecroyd was delighted about. Equally, everybody who comes to fish on the Low House beats always returns.”
But Philip, like any keeper, is more than dependant on his team of beaters to ensure each of the estate’s eight driven days goes without a hitch.
“I have some beaters who’ve been here as long as I have, while Malcolm Kendal has more time in at Low House than me. For over 40 years, Malcolm and his dogs first worked for Philip’s grandfather before coming to work for me.”
Braced and hung in the game larder, Philip’s eventual tally came to 45 brace of pheasant, one partridge and two pigeon, a more than respectable end of season bag. It was also indicative of how the estate has altered its own style as successive generations have come and gone. Initially, the shooting at Low House started early in the season and was shot hard. But as the days passed so the number of birds fell accordingly. Conversely, with guns expecting good birds and reasonable numbers even as the season draws to a close, Charles and Philip have adapted to suit.
“An average day’s bag is around 60 brace with the occasional 70 or 80 brace. The most we’ve had is 160 brace with some American visitors but that was an exception. We don’t start shooting now until the second week of November with a good week or so break between each day. This allows us to settle the birds, allow them to return to their home roosts and keep the drives as they’re meant to be.”
“Back in the stables and sat around the fire, well deserved whiskey in hand, Charles Ecroyd was able to explain the virtually unique relationship he enjoys with Philip.”
“We’ve been incredibly lucky in the continuity of service, knowledge and experience. Philip can hark back four generations even down to his father who although he wasn’t one of our keepers did work for the estate during his teenage years. It’s a combination of innate circumstances and Philip’s ability to apply his and his family knowledge to how things are today here at Low House and how they were done in years past. When you sit back and look at mine and Philip’s family connection it’s a positive anachronism.”
“It’s a well known fact you should never employ your friends. But the relationship the Ecroyds and the Taylors have enjoyed for nearly 100 years transcends any such views. Equally, as with the estate’s three tenant farmers, as a land owner you soon realise the incredible responsibility that exists. Its people like Philip who have looked after and tended to the needs of Low House over the years. When any member of my family had to travel or spend time away, it was, and is, immeasurably reassuring to know that in Philip, as it was with his great grandfather, grandfather and uncle that the house and land is in the safest possible hands in addition to his full-time work.”
In respect of the likelihood of increasing the number of let days, Charles is clear: “From next year, the syndicate will have dropped down to three days so seven let days currently exist. We like to know our guns, know how they shoot and more than anything else, how safe they are.”
One slightly poignant aspect of the Low House tradition is that one day it will draw to a close, Philip currently having no son to carry on his family’s link.
But with immeasurable years still remaining in both Philip and Charles, it’s more than safe to say that the historic collaboration of these two great sporting families will continue to be providing some of the finest, most intimate sport Low House and Cumbria have to offer. So with power finally restored and the lights of Low House receding into the darkness, it was comforting to know that tradition ensures even the pheasants sleep soundly at one of the remaining truly traditional country estates.
For information about Low House let days contact Charles Ecroyd on either 01697 472009 or 07769 876262.