Quarry in a quarry
PUBLISHED: 11:58 10 December 2012
Will Edwards treats his team of Guns to a day with a difference - shooting partridge in a former working stone quarry
One of my roles as the manager of the ‘Five Ts’ (The Totally Tip-Top Team) is to seek out and book top-quality shoots and manage the day alongside the host. The Five Ts is a hand-picked team of Guns – mostly clients of mine that I have coached, but also others that I have enjoyed watching shoot in the field. They are all safe, sporting gents who aren’t greedy on the peg and, most important of all, they are great fun to be around.
Recently I organised a day out with a difference: you shoot your quarry in a quarry. Yes, you did read that right! Let me explain…
Set near Frome in Somerset, the quarry shoot has a reputation for being family run with legendary West Country hospitality. There are 2,000 acres of former working stone quarry and partridge are driven off the top to fly over the Guns below. The scenery is surreal; a combination of James Bond’s Moonraker with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure. In fact, this location is so unique that it has been used for filming Dr Who; imagine an eight-Gun team of Daleks on a driven day!
I had booked this shoot for us last season, immediately following a very satisfying day and dinner at this venue with our host John Nicholls, and my team couldn’t wait to come back for a return match. Luckily it also gave Editor Dom plenty of time to clear his diary so that he could come out and join us in the quarry experience.
We meet for coffee and biscuits at Barrow Farm, John’s residence, which has a separate, large and well-appointed shoot lodge. It’s our first day of the season and you can see and feel the excitement as friends are reunited after a seven-month break. Peg numbers are drawn whilst John and I give the shoot briefing and the format of the day is mapped out.
It’s slightly overcast with a gusting breeze as the Guns get booted up, but there’s a warm welcome from the pickers-up and beaters as we all clamber aboard our respective vehicles. John suggests that Dom and I travel with him so we can get a true insight into the running of the day.
John turns to me and gives me the nod: “Perfect conditions today, Will. I hope your boys are on form because the birds are going to go like the clappers on this wind!” Dom and I grin widely and chuckle in anticipation of what awaits us.
With John in the lead, our small convoy heads off through the country lanes, skirting around a field of maize and heading for a small open clearing. It’s like we have just travelled via some sort of time portal, and with a prehistoric landscape spread out in front of us, we are on top of the first quarry.
Slowly we wind our way down to ground level and the Guns disembark. Keen dogs check out an unusual setting as gun slips and cartridge bags are shouldered. Dom tilts his head back and slowly turns around, scanning the high cliff face, and suggests that we need bigger guns: “Looks more like a pterodactyl drive than partridge! I wonder what the lead picture would be on one of those…”
John leads each of the team to their peg. Dom and I set ourselves back behind the middle of the line – this is always a good position for me as I can get a good idea of how many birds are being shot and if I see someone struggling I can move forward and assist with some coaching.
Instructions are given over the radio for the drive to begin. Almost immediately several birds break out to the left, catching one Gun by surprise. Suddenly, right in front of us off the very top of the quarry, a covey of 80-plus partridge break cover, splitting in all directions. There are some major screamers and several swoop down to head height, but the Guns are selective and pick out some real beauties. John Beasley is ushered in as back Gun in the middle of the line; a wise move, as shortly afterwards another explosion of birds fills the sky.
Dom, armed only with his trusty Nikon, has never seen anything like it. “The good thing here, Dom, is that there are birds for all abilities,” says John. “If you have a well-disciplined team and pace yourself properly you’ll have a memorable four-drive day… Not bad for starters, and I think we can safely say everyone is wide awake now!”
We observe the flanking movement of the beaters as a steady trickle of birds are sent out over the line. With an approximate number of shot birds on the ground, the horn is blown to end the drive.
You can sense the buzz in the air. The rest of the team are, for once, almost speechless. “Truly outstanding,” is the general consensus. “God, those birds were going some!” the Guns all agree.
As we take a slow walk back to the vehicles the picking up team set to work, leaving literally no stone unturned. It is fascinating to see how their dogs adapt to this environment.
The next drive, John explains, is in a smaller quarry, so it will be shorter than the last as it holds fewer birds, but the birds coming off it should be ‘quite impressive’. Dom’s eyes widen: “Impressive? Is he having a laugh – what was the last one, a warm-up?” he says under his breath.
The Guns move up two pegs and the scene is set. Well light blue paper and stand well back, I think Dom’s likening of the action to the 633 Squadron film was about bang on. Let’s put it like this: when our now London-based Texan, Bill, says: “Nope… We don’t get those at home,” you know you’re on to a winner – I thought everything was supposed to be bigger and better in Texas?
Soon it’s time for elevenses – well, actually, quarter-past-twelveses – and our hosts have laid on a spread of optional extras and drinks to refuel the Guns.
Everyone agrees that if the day finished now, they’d all drive home with huge smiles on their faces, all with several birds in the ‘never to be forgotten’ memory bank.
On the next drive I reveal my hand of cards – and it’s aces high: “Dom, we have arranged for you to be back Gun behind the hot seat on the next drive. Make sure you grab all your kit. I’ve got the camera bag – I’m snapping, you’re shooting.” Needless to say, I don’t have to bully him into it!
We drive a mile or so down the dual carriageway and pull in to what looks like a working stone quarry; lots of activity and lorries with tyres the size of your average three-bedroom semi. We are told to bunch up our vehicles and put our side lights and hazards on. We drive towards the quarry face and through a tunnel, and as we pass through the rock John tells us that the main road we just travelled down is now above us. Just as we are thinking it’s all gone a bit Tony Robinson’s Time Team we come back out into the light of day, with Somerset’s version of the Grand Canyon to our right and a massive horse-shoe-type cutting in the rock face to our left. This is our drive.
With the team pegged out I discuss tactics with Dom. “Just take your time. If you have several heading straight for your peg, try and pick out a nice sporting bird and stick with it. Don’t change your mind at the last second or the wheels are going to fall off.” After a couple of dry run gun mounts and a look around to see where his fellow Guns and pickers-up are located, the first shots ring out. Not only are the birds flying at speed but they are also curling on the wind. Some are swooping down off the cliff face, making it difficult to see them, only to flare up at 45 degrees and hit the after-burners.
A large covey breaks to the left and heads our way. Dom takes a step across to set himself up for a cracking high bird which he nails clean over his left shoulder – not an easy shot by any means for a fellow south paw. Instinctively he reloads and is composed for the next wave of brown bandits. He’s really getting into the swing of things.
When the drive ends we amble back to the vehicles, a few of our fellow Guns shaking their heads that some of the birds were just too testing for them. After a short break and some delicious hot sausage rolls – “I was getting a bit worried about Will; he hasn’t had a scrap to eat for at least an hour!” John says – we are intrigued to find out what the final drive has in store for us.
We travel down a dusty track into another vast, open quarry. We can already see hundreds of birds in the air some distance away as the keen beating team works from far afield in towards its hold point.
We just have time to top up on cartridges before, seemingly out of nowhere, the sky turns dark with partridge. There’s a mass breakout with sporadic shooting the whole length of the line, and the shot birds seem to take an age to hit the ground. As the horn is blown for the final time, guns are broken, made safe and slipped, scattered cartridges are collected and we reflect on a remarkable day.
It’s a quiet drive back to the lodge with John as Dom and I are still trying to digest the day. It’s hugely rewarding to know I have a very content team of Guns and some great images taken by Dom.
On this occasion we are having our shoot dinner a few miles down the road in Shepton Mallet at Charlton House, a spa hotel owned by Duncan Bannatyne of Dragons’ Den TV fame. We are presented with our shoot cards and informed of the final bag for the day by the head keeper – John’s son Mark, who must be commended on his true professionalism – while loyal underkeepers Kelvin and Garry present us each with a brace of birds for the table.
A huge thank you goes out to Frann and Amy, John’s wife and daughter, for catering to everyone’s needs and for the warmest of welcomes.
For further info on the Quarry Shoot, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call John Nicholls on 07734 978988 or 01749 850313.