Game shooting at Lake Vyrnwy, Powys.
On a crystal clear day you can apparently see Lake Vyrnwy from space – but on one November shoot day there last year, I could barely see past the end of my shotgun.
I was standing on Tyllwyd, the morning’s second drive, and the Vyrnwy Valley, home to a 60,000 mega litre reservoir, was wound up in a low grey fog.
The sky had swallowed up everything but the grass at my feet, itself tinted with a silvery glaze. Apart from the panting of invisible spaniels and cartridges clinking in pockets, the valley lay silent.
The other guns, standing who knows where, chatted to wives and girlfriends, who shifted their feet to keep warm, gloved hands wrapped tightly around their bodies.
After a few moments what sounded like beaters came into earshot, their quiet thrashing causing small ghoulish shadows to glide overhead.
Suddenly a single gunshot shattered the calm. After a few moments more a further six blasted into the void.
There were muffled thumps over to my right as objects began to hit the ground.
This was a huge contrast to the previous evening, when I had met Lake Vyrnwy’s enigmatic shoot captain, Brian Bisiker.
A Canadian by birth, Brian is also the owner of Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, to which the shoot is attached.
I was resting in his bar after a slow drive up and the shoot party, who were all friends of Brian’s, were already well into their second or third nightcap.
We were making introductions when my host strode in, two feet thick and as broad as a Welsh dresser, his glowing eyes sitting in a round face crowned by voluminous light brown hair.
His handshake could crush coal.
Brian, who grew up in Vancouver, has lived in Powys since the 1980s.
The opportunity to come over to mid Wales when his family bought the hotel was there and so he took it.
After talking fondly about the American turkeys gobbling around his shoot, he slipped away to bed.
His exit led the remainder of the shooting party to head into the Tower Tavern, a pub built on the side of the main hotel.
They spent the hours until closing time shooting pool with local girls and singing badly by the jukebox.
A few hours later, even the best-rested eyes were as dewy as the sky and the cold curtain drawn across this fringe of Snowdonia showed no signs of parting.
Garris North was a furious morning drive
Garris North, the opening drive, was low enough over the hotel’s left shoulder to evade the worst of the fog but it was an entirely different scene higher up on the valley sides.
Most of Garris North’s pheasants flew across the line from its right-hand side, banking sharply left out of the wood as the beaters tightened their formation.
Later on, beside the old green army wagon, peg six was identified as the most fruitful, its occupant suggesting to his neighbours that they abandon their “sweetcorn” load if they wanted to take their share of the spoils.
He still nodded to the beaters as they passed and they nodded back.
Many of the beaters at Lake Vyrnwy are ex-gamekeepers or retired estate staff. Techwyn is an eighty-something who has probably trodden every blade of grass in the valley.
He is a useful ally to headkeeper John Roberts, an everyman with a cool and measured demeanour.
While both John and Brian have been involved with the shoot for over 20 years, they still rely on the old hands who have seen every type of bird fly over every type of guest in every type of weather.
John’s knowledge and foresight was tested after Tyllwyd as he roamed the valley in search of a drive that wasn’t consumed by the grey wall.
Although the Tyllwyd pheasants occasionally dipped low enough to be shot at before ascending into the fog, ironic since the shoot relies heavily on nature to provide its cover, it wasn’t feasible to continue at that point.
Though the thought of a delay probably made him furious inside, Brian shrugged matter-of-factly and said that we would just have to sit tight until the fog had lifted.
The guns weren’t bothered about the enforced delay, optimistic that things would clear up.
Flexible but no pushover, Brian didn’t second-guess the guns at any point.
He did the most sensible thing in moving the party off Tyllwyd and down to the lakeside for an early lunch.
On the jetty the shooting party picked up from the previous evening, and analysed everything from the music of Michael Buble to the merits of a non-drip teapot, all over doorstep sandwiches and Bakewell tarts.
Fittingly, and as if the last mouthful of cake from the hamper was a cue, the fog began to recede, and within 10 minutes it had drawn off the whole valley completely.
Keen to crack on, guns attempted to march straight towards the majestic bracken clad hillside of Centenary Wood, but it was probably a journey some would have preferred to make by ski lift.
The new afternoon had brought with it the true magnificence of Powys.
The sun drew harsh lines across the whole landscape; serrated mountains stretching up towards blue sky, the browning valley sides burrowing deep into the earth, and orderly coniferous woods watching over the lake like spike-helmeted guardsmen.
When the pheasants came they were consistent and shootable, just as John had told me the previous evening.
Cheap adjectives like ‘jaw-dropping’ would not do them just service.
Sheep in the field below bolted down the hill as the shots rang out, closely pursued from above by pheasants over the right and centremost half of the line.
The drive seemed to go on for hours, and it was just as hard to hit the birds as it was to find one that didn’t offer a challenging shot.
John and Brian looked pleased as the guns climbed into the sturdy wagon-come-changing-room-on-wheels, a vehicle that had to use all of its might to force its way up onto The Park.
From its pegs, Centenary Wood, and indeed the rest of the valley, appeared miniature in comparison.
The Park is covered in delapidated stonewalls encircling old pens strewn across several fields, all in the shadow of a collection of empty, moss ridden outbuildings.
Few shots were fired and the pheasants that were around flew mostly out to the right hand side of the gorse and down towards the pens, foxed out by energetic spaniels.
The staggered position of the pegs meant that to those guns further forward the birds were at a good height, but to the back guns they were just out of range.
The drive only lasted a matter of minutes and many guns remained broken.
It was a similar tale on Tynewydd Bank, a drive John felt would have shown more in the morning.
As the amber afternoon sun slowly began to fall into the hillside and the shadows lengthened all around us, I wondered why anyone would ever be in a rush to leave a place as beautiful as this.
Managing the shoot operation
The Lake Vyrnwy shooting line has included families who have been taking days there for three generations. The last Saturday of the season has been taken by the same team for the past 36 years. The chance to sample traditional sport is the main draw, but there are others, as headkeeper John Roberts explained: “We’re very fortunate in that we draw pegs and brief guns out in front of the hotel before the off, and that at night the Tower Tavern is waiting for us. Everything we do on the estate is almost exactly what former shoot captain Brian Roberts (who schooled the young John and shoot captain Brian Bisiker) was doing two decades ago. The Bisiker family took the hotel over from Sir John Baines in the late 1980s and they’ve kept the very regimented system Sir John employed. The shoot holds itself to a high standard as a result.” Lake Vyrnwy is not financially motivated and doesn’t try and be as famous as its neighbours. It values its modesty, is in touch with its roots and is not remotely interested in big bag days.
“We can produce some of the best sport you’ll ever see in Wales,” said John. “Every bird we show is consistent and shootable. Yes, some of them are what you’d call stratospheric but they are all as good as you would want them. We’re not here for the money, we just try to run a fair and genuine shoot.”
Fostering good neighbourly relations
Central to the life of the shoot, and indeed the local community, is Severn Trent Water, which manages the 1,120 acre reservoir which was built in the 1880s, originally to supply water to Liverpool. The shoot leases around 18,000 acres on the estate, which are in turn accessible to the RSPB, who have a nature reserve across the site. While there is potential for conflict, the shoot maintains a good relationship with all of its neighbours, as John explained:
“They understand our needs and we understand theirs. We are not limited in our work, like controlling mink and foxes despite our neighbours’ presence, as long as there is a genuine reason to do it.”
Lake Vyrnwy, the hotel
After a 90 minute drive from Birmingham, only one signpost, for the Tower Tavern pub, gives you your cue to take the sharp right turn and power up the curling driveway towards a hotel perched on the hillside that has been watching you all of the time. Strangely, from the other side of the valley you can hardly fail to notice the two-tier gothic structure stretching out along part of its eastern tip, itself 900 metres above sea level. Shooting parties have been visiting since the 1880s, adding weight to John Roberts’ opinion that the shoot is “Wales’ own little secret’.” The hotel is not only a favourite amongst game shots either. Flyfishermen regularly decsend upon Lake Vyrnwy for wild brown, stocked brown and rainbow trout. Non shooting guests can also be pampered at the spa or work-out at the gym
For more information about the shooting available at Lake Vyrnwy contact John Roberts on 07870 224771 or visit the website www.lakevyrnwy.com