Game shooting at Wood Advent Farm, Somerset.
A trip to the south west of England is always a treat for anyone with an appreciation of the countryside, but thinking of Exmoor is enough to send a shiver down the spine of the most stoic of guns.
Names such as Chargot and Molland are inextricably linked to high bird shooting and fuel the imagination.
So it was with some excitement I headed off down towards Somerset last season for a day’s shooting at Wood Advent Farm.
When I found myself blindly following the glowing green line of my satnav up the kind of roads normally associated with angry farmers and horror films, my confidence in a superb sporting break had begun to ebb.
But the sight of a sign high up on a tall hedge guiding my way soon energised me.
On this rainy night, the darkness was absolute, except for the blue-tinged glow of my headlights, and arriving at the farm, windows glowing warmly in the night, was a great relief.
Walking over the small stone bridge and into the Granary I was instantly hit with warmth from the log fire and the smiling faces of the Brewer family and their guests and immediately felt at home.
I was there to witness the opening of John and Diana Brewer’s latest venture, the Granary Barn; an old farm building which has been luxuriously renovated to make it fit for kings, let alone guns.
Just over two miles inside the Exmoor National Park and around 20 miles from Taunton, Wood Advent is swallowed absolutely by the surrounding countryside of the Brendon Hills.
Situated at the bottom of a very secluded valley, there is absolutely no light pollution.
While I settled down to what I considered a well-earned pint of beer, John filled me in on the history of the farm and the shoot.
“The Brewers have farmed here since the 1700s. My grandfather actually bought the farm in about 1940 from the Nettlecombe estate, which is owned by the Trevelyan family, who had to sell it off for death duties.
We have a herd of about 45 suckler beef cows and about 130 ewes, and 450 acres of arable land and pasture.
“We’ve got about 16 drives; 10 main drives and then half a dozen others. We have about 1,200 acres over which we have sporting rights, spread across five farms and some woodland.”
The surrounding valleys promise testing birds, and I was not to be disappointed. The mix of natural hardwood cover, mature fir woods and game crops on steep-sided valleys are an ideal recipe for fine shooting.
The most popular bag on offer is 100-150 birds, which for me is the perfect size. They are pushed over the guns by an extensive and committed team of experienced beaters, who are keen to share tales with the guns between drives or over tea.
There is also a large team of pickers-up, whose dogs are given a real test on the steep terrain of the estate.
My shooting skills were given a real workout.
From birds soaring high above, to those flashing hard from the trees, the guns really had to be on their mettle in order to take full advantage of the sport on offer.
I was caught out on more than one occasion marvelling at my surroundings.
Before elevenses, for example, the early morning haze was boiling off in long wisps as we were deposited in hushed tones on the Pit, a drive that shares a border with Chargot.
From my peg on the far right the view was simply magnificent, rolling hills studded with patches of woodland as far as the eye could see.
It was only the first shots from the middle of the line which startled me from my reverie, birds bursting out over the guns into the depression from which the drive takes its name and away to the safety of a thick wood far behind.
The drive over, the guns all continued to speak in curiously hushed tones, as if unwilling to break the spell that had sent us to this magical place.
As we gathered around the converted trailer which serves as transport for the guns, John opened his own little box of magic tricks, a storage cylinder built into the door revealing a range of treats and beverages.
The sausages were a particular attraction here, though some of our number struggled to eat any more after a superb – and huge – breakfast.
Later drives took in the area immediately around the house and Granary, one particular highlight being a short tramp down to the bottom of John and Diana’s garden to a valley hidden behind a tall hedge.
A small stream trickled its way along the valley floor, the guns surrounded on all sides by hedges and trees from which Home Wood takes its name.
Here I was out on the far left, and had the pleasure of watching retired Somerset and England cricketer Andy Caddick at the other end of the line.
A fiercely competitive man with a dry sense of humour, he shot with an easy style and an extremely efficient action.
Though my own performance had improved a great deal by this point, it had become evident that no-one would be wiping his eye on that day.
With 62 England Test caps, he has wicked hand-eye co-ordination, and very few birds escaped his 6’5” frame.
Though the shoot is run on commercial terms, it has one of the most intimate and friendly atmospheres I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
This comes from the passion that the Brewer family have for the countryside, and the way the shoot developed. “I basically grew up shooting,” John explained.
“My father used to run a small syndicate here that ran for probably 20 years.
It started to get very disjointed, with people dropping out, and so we began selling a few days to supplement the syndicate.
“Eventually we just decided to go the whole hog and sell it all, keeping a few days for ourselves to repay invitations. And that’s basically how we ended up here, selling 20-22 days a season. We’ve been going for about 20 years now.”
Their shooting package, with accommodation and food provided in the farmhouse and eventually the Granary, evolved as the shoot grew.
Diana told me more: “It all started with two guns who wanted to buy some shooting, but also wanted to stay. They tagged onto the syndicate initially, but we realised there was a market there.
“To start off with we used to sell single guns and just make up the day, but it can be quite difficult when you get people of different abilities and who don’t know each other. It wasn’t quite as good as having a team of eight guns coming in. We had potential in the house as we had eight rooms to use, and that’s when we decided to take it down the commercial line.
“We do run a commercial shoot here, but it has a family emphasis. We find that people like arriving at the doorstep and then not having to think about anything until they leave. Apart from the fact that John presents really great shooting, we really latched onto that idea.”
David, one of John and Diana’s two sons, has also bought into the ethos of the shoot:
“That emphasis is put on everything we do: having a gun bus for people to travel around in comfortably is really important so that they don’t have to do any driving. It’s all about ensuring a slick day for the guns that doesn’t seem too regimented.”
John continued: “We like to make sure that everyone is enjoying their day when shooting here, not just the guns. I think the guns enjoy it more if the beaters are having a good time, and a good atmosphere on shoot days relies upon that.”
Thankfully, the beaters and pickers-up were a visible and welcome presence throughout the day.
I have been on far too many shoots where these essential men and women are silent partners in our sport, so piling into the shoot room for tea and cake to share the collective experience of the day was a great pleasure.
There is something in the air at Wood Advent, a curious alchemy which produced the best day’s shooting I’ve had in years.
Driving away in the twilight was a real wrench, but I left the south west safe in the knowledge that this wonderful parcel of shooting country is safe in the hands of the Brewer family.
A future in safe hands
The Brewer family has real sporting pedigree: John’s brother-in-law is Richard Criddle, who runs the pickers-up on Wood Advent. Meanwhile his son and John’s nephew is Will Criddle, the sporting agent for Bettws Hall Shooting Estates. John’s father, Herbert, continues to work on the shoot in his retirement, taking care of two release pens and getting stuck in on every shoot day.
Both the Brewer boys have rather interesting careers: Ian is the physiotherapist for Somerset County Cricket Club, and David works in ice cream manufacturing and motor racing. But neither son has lost his connection with the countryside, as Ian explained:
“Though I travel around a lot for work, going with the team on winter tours for example, I try and get back whenever I can. Whether it’s to shoot, beat or just take a bit of pressure off Mum and Dad, I like coming back for shoot days.”
So many brilliant shoots and storied family estates can be lost by a new generation unwilling to take on the responsibility necessary to make farming or shooting economically viable. Thankfully, David has a clear vision for the future of Wood Advent, as he explained:
“I come back as often as I can – I enjoy it and ultimately I want to take it on, so I need to be here, getting involved and getting to know the guns.
“The whole place has evolved incredibly in the last few years, from a scruffy farmyard to where we are now. Mum and Dad have done remarkable things with the farmhouse and the Granary, but the next generation always has a new, fresh set of ideas.
“I think the key is not to base everything around shooting. Yes, shooting is a big and successful part of what we do, but you only shoot for a third of the year, so you’ve got to make sure you can make money for the rest of the year too. But there’s loads of possibilities – it could be that in the future we secure some more land and start up another shoot.”
Luxury life on the farm
Any visit to Wood Advent farm will be a memorable one thanks to the superb quality of sport. But as any sportsman will know, good hospitality is just as important for a successful shooting break. The Wood Advent Farm shoot provides all you need for a comfortable stay in the spectacular Granary Barn, which was officially opened by Andy Caddick during my visit. With eight en suite rooms, the Granary can easily house a full team of guns, who will revel in the comfort provided by the squashy leather sofas and wood burning stove. I was lucky enough to be part of one of the first team of guns to stay at the Granary, and it was a wonderful experience. Stepping out of the rain and up to my room, with its warm, deep carpets and expansive bed, was a true relief. Though the Granary is available to rent for holidays, it is clear that the shooting guest was in mind when John and Diana designed the property. Alongside all the luxuries you would expect from the best hotels, such as rich cotton towels, flat screen televisions and alarm clocks with iPod connections, each of the rooms has their own gun safe – an unusual but welcome step which provides great peace of mind. Though given the rural setting of Wood Advent Farm, you would need to be extremely paranoid to be concerned about gun theft. The Granary is advertised as a self-catered barn, and with a large, well-equipped kitchen including a huge range cooker it can easily provide for a full house. But for those sporting parties who expect the traditional sporting stay, Diana provides full catering herself, including the shoot meals. If you wish, catering can also be arranged for the duration of your stay. Indeed, on the evening before the shoot, Diana had arranged for catering from a local company and we were treated to a sumptuous spread. If, for some strange reason, you and your team of guns don’t want to stay in the luxury of the Granary, then Diana also runs a B&B from the farmhouse. Indeed, before the Granary was converted, this is where all the guns stayed, and given what a pleasure it is to spend time with the Brewer family, it is perhaps not surprising that some guns do still opt for the comforts of their family home. Whichever you choose, you are assured of a superb stay.
For more information on the Wood Advent Farm shoot, contact John and Diana Brewer on 01984 640920 or visit their website www.exmoorshooting.co.uk
Game shooting at Wood Advent Farm, Somerset.