Pawton Manor is a high quality partridge shoot run by Anthony and Jimmy Wills that packs plenty of West Country punch
I was in Cornwall this summer and enjoyed the ferry ride across the Camel estuary from Rock to Padstow. The sun was shining, Padstow was awash with tourists, or ‘emmets’ as they call them in this Celtic corner of England, and the cash tills were ringing.
I couldn’t help but reflect on that memory as the morning ferry arrived at Padstow harbour on this shoot morning in November.
The only passengers were myself, shoot owner Anthony Wills and photographer Bob Atkins. In our shooting gear, the ferry crew labelled us ‘the Morris dancers’ as we got on board, but we were the only customers.
As we strolled around an empty quayside, it was obvious that this shoot party was bringing much-needed cash into the local economy in the winter months. This story is repeated hundreds of times all over the country every day of the shooting season, but it seemed particularly pertinent here in one of the most isolated parts of England.
Cornwall thrives in the summer and struggles in the winter, so there is no better place for shooting to demonstrate how it can keep the cash coming in all year round.
Drive and vision
But of course it’s not that simple. Someone has to have the vision, nerve, commitment, work ethic and sheer persistence to make it happen. Meet the Wills family. Farmers by birth; shoot owners by design.
Brothers Anthony and Jimmy run Pawton Manor shoot and they don’t do it by halves. Anthony is the front man who ensures visiting teams have somewhere good to stay, feel welcome and enjoy their time away from the peg.
Jimmy is the quieter brother who ensures everything ticks along as it should on shoot day.
We stayed with Anthony and his charming wife Vicki in his farmhouse on the east side of the Camel estuary. Meanwhile Jimmy and his wife (also called Vicki) live in the idyllic farmhouse at the centre of the shoot to the west of the estuary.
This is where the guns draw pegs in the morning, eat lunch and have tea and cakes at the end of the day.
But how did this family-consuming business come to fruition in the first place? How did the dairy-farming brothers end up running the busiest shoot in the county?
Anthony explains: “It all happened by accident really, and as a result of me loving shooting. When we bought the land at Pawton in 1993 we only shot it for wild birds. The first season I shot it with a few friends and I remember we bagged 49 woodcock in just one afternoon. I then built a pen for 600 pheasant poults in 1995 and left a few corners for cover crops. After that season we were asked if we would put on a let day for a few friends. By the end of the season, after building two more pens, we shot 10 days of about 100 birds.
“Then in 1999 I reared 300 partridge chicks for the first time and the teams loved it. They all asked if I could start earlier and put on mixed days. Even in January we were asked if we could shoot the areas that held the partridge. It was clear the land was particularly well suited to holding and presenting partridge and demand grew. In 2004 we as a family decided to build the new dairy complex at Pawton. It took 13 months and that’s when we finished with the pheasants completely and decided to go partridge only. So this is our 11th full season of being a single-species shoot.”
It’s been quite a transformation and, make no mistake, the dairy farm and the shoot are both very serious operations.
Anthony says: “We are now milking 1,200 Pedigree Holsteins, producing around 14 million litres a year. All crops are grown for the use of the herd except the 80 acres of maize for cover crops. Our two sons, daughter and daughter-in-law take care of the day-to-day running of the dairy. Running the shoot and the dairy year round is a serious challenge, but we love it. We are not beholden to any other farmers so we are self-contained and in charge of our own destiny.”
Anthony spends every waking moment during the season either planning ahead or entertaining that day’s team.
Having played hooker for Wadebridge rugby club in the 1970s with Rick Stein and famous Cornish comedian Jethro joining him in the front row, nobody can question his local credentials, or his sense of humour.
This is his home and there is nobody he doesn’t know. He cares deeply about the long-term prospects of the area and knows the money the shoot brings in filters down to all areas of the local economy.
He says: “The hotels, pubs and restaurants in our area are delighted we bring custom to them in the autumn and winter. That’s why our sport is so important to the rural economy.”
Our visit could not have been a better example of this. Cornwall is a long way for most and many teams will want to plan back-to-back days with other local gems such as Boconnoc, Pentillie, Carnanton and Caerhays.
But if you can fly down, as we did courtesy of Hangar8 (see panel on p28), then it’s easily possible to make it a one-day visit. We took off from Oxford airport at 6pm on the evening before the shoot and were stood in the bar at Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant by 7.30pm.
Then, after the shoot was over the following day, it was a 20-minute drive to Newquay airport and we touched down back at Oxford at 6.30pm.
After a fabulous meal at Rick Stein’s and a midnight ferry ride across the estuary to Anthony’s house, we joined the team in Padstow the following morning, with blustery showers promising to give the birds a bit of extra zip.
Once we had made the short drive from Padstow to Pawton Manor, it was immediately evident we were in the hands of expert shoot managers.
Anthony explained a bit more: “Jimmy, my brother, is in charge of all the crops and the farming side of the business, so in the seven months we don’t shoot he is full on with land management. The farm is 1,000 acres and the valley bisects the farm with all the land falling to the centre of the estate. In effect it’s like a cauldron. I manage the shoot as well as the farm, selling the days and rearing the chicks with the keepers and our two wives. Then in the season, Jimmy and myself join forces to run the days and entertain the teams – of course with the full support and incredible help of Vicki and Vicki preparing all the hospitality and meals for each team.
“We have a great team running Pawton. We are all self-taught. Nigel Hannaford the headkeeper has been with us for 14 years, having been a tractor driver before. Underkeepers Jamie and Colin joined in the spring, having been part-time before. We are still learning every year and trying to improve our standards. We never stop trying to push the boundaries.”
West Country cream
Anthony is an energetic presence on shoot day and, like others who host a lot of days in the season, one wonders where the energy comes from.
To be able to make every day special and treat each team with the same level of enthusiasm and interest takes tremendous skill and effort. It also takes a desire to share a passion and a strong belief in the offering.
Anthony again: “My whole ethos about a day’s shooting is giving the teams a complete day. It’s so important when teams travel a long way to Cornwall. I find them great accommodation, greet them with open arms and try to get to know them as quickly as possible. After that it’s a case of picking the best drives for the weather to give them the most challenging sport for the day. At lunchtime we serve up some of the greatest traditional meals you could find, including great desserts like Vicki’s Junket with our own cream. Pre-lunch Bloody Marys are something of a tradition, along with my Jethro jokes. Pawton is about every aspect of the experience and shooting is only part of a good day out.”
Variety on the peg
During this shoot day we shot five very different drives: Linnee, ECLP, Minefield, Fuzz Break and T-hedge.
They offered a superb variety of snap-shooting, challenging higher birds, partridges turning and accelerating on a stiff breeze, and classic birds driven over hedgerows. With the wind blowing as it did and the variety of drives it would be hard to imagine more enjoyable partridge shooting.
On most of the drives the guns are double banked so everyone has more than enough shooting. If you should be lucky enough to find yourself in the quarry on the Fuzz Break drive then you will no doubt enjoy the challenge.
George Rolls certainly relished his peg here and he was more than equal to the challenge.
With his view ahead almost completely obscured by a large tree, he was presented with a succession of hurtling birds, with only a second to react and take the shot. Suffice to say the picker-up behind had plenty of work…
Because the shoot is so well contained in one area, there are no long drives to another beat, allowing more time for chatting during the natural breaks of a shoot day.
This also means lunch can be taken at a leisurely pace and enjoyed to the full – the way it should be.
I asked George Rolls, a regular visitor at Pawton Manor over the years, for his thoughts on the shoot.
He said: “The birds are extremely well presented, catering for guns of all standards and nothing is ever too much trouble for Anthony and Jimmy. They run an extremely professional operation while maintaining the charm of a family shoot. We always have a lot of fun and the Cornish hospitality is second to none.’’
Generosity and hospitality
Guns travel long distances to shoot at Pawton Manor, as Anthony told me: “Most of our teams come from each side of the M4 corridor, and all the way from Colchester to Canterbury. We do not over-charge and try to be very competitively priced for a top quality product. We aim to pass on attention to detail and good returns in our price.
“The shooting fraternity includes some of the most generous people in life. I ran a charity event for Cancer Research and Motor Neurone Disease and with help from our shooting friends the raffle raised £43,680. By the time the whole event is over I am hoping to have raised more than £80,000, and all because of the sport of shooting. I know this is mirrored across the country and I don’t think enough is made of it.
“We don’t know how much money shooting raises for charity each year, but perhaps if we could put a finger on it we would have a very powerful tool in our hands. I believe in giving great sport, hospitality and fun. I meet great people, have fun with them and have made some fantastic friends.”
For more information about shooting at Pawton Manor contact Anthony Wills on 07980 011853 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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