There are presents you can wrap and there are once-in-a-lifetime gifts that can’t be boxed but can change your life. If I could choose my ultimate luxury this Christmas, it would be a game shooting course.
Until recently, my experience of shooting was limited to standing around, bored and chilly, occasionally muttering ‘Good shot!’ I had never considered picking up a gun myself. Then I met Claire Zambuni, columnist, member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, elected council member of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and founder-owner of the Shooting Society and the Covert Girls, an all-female shooting club. Her enthusiasm for the sport was irresistible and she quickly persuaded me to start learning. Besides, the statistics were compelling — 10 per cent of the 130,000 members of BASC are now women. I was not bucking the trend but joining it.
I started to investigate the courses on offer. Founded in 1835 and now owned by Chanel, Holland & Holland is the oldest shooting company in Britain. They invited me to Northwood, where they have had a shooting ground since 1928. The low timbered building with views over 120 lush acres looks like a Kenyan colonial country club. Instructor Steve Rawsthorne drove me round the course on a scarlet buggy. ‘We were the first to teach ladies to shoot in 1995. Since then, 1,400 women have completed our Green Feathers Course,’ he said. ‘Women are often better shots as they tend to be a bit nervous and so listen to what’s being said whereas men assume they know how to do it.’ As we bumped along past copses of young oak, grouse butts and clay towers, it was hard to believe we were only 15 miles from central London.
The Green Feathers course offers three lessons, followed by a competition day. In 2010 Purdey followed suit with their Ladies’ Course, providing three lessons at the West London Shooting School, after which you qualify as a ‘Purdey Lady’ and join a friendly competition followed by a champagne prizegiving reception.
Last August Claire Zambuni created her own comprehensive game-shooting course at Great Tew in Oxfordshire. It includes a simulated ‘Keeper’s Day’ — and an etiquette lesson. ‘If it’s your first time on a shoot you’d never know which birds to shoot at,’ says Claire. ‘So we simulate a real shoot and the keepers talk you through how to identify game and what you can and can’t shoot. There’s nothing more disgraceful than shooting a low bird or one of your host’s. There’s so much to learn.’
Claire took me to my first lesson at the West London Shooting School in Northolt. From the top of one of the hills you look out over Ealing’s rooftops, otherwise you could be deep in the countryside. Tom Payne, my instructor, fitted me up with a 20-bore Beretta and Claire lent me a tweed vest, ear protectors and a flat cap. Tom took me through the stringent safety checks (always make sure you can see daylight through both barrels) till I was ready to load the cartridges, remove the safety catch, mount my gun, lean into it with the soft part of my cheek and fire. Hitting the target was deeply satisfying and an hour later, tired and with a bruised cheekbone, I was hooked.
A few evenings later, I joined Claire and about a dozen others at London’s Home House for the etiquette lesson. We learned that it’s essential to take your host a present and to hand-write a punctual letter. You must never be late. You must always bring enough cartridges. We learned how much to tip the keeper and how to do it (put the note in your hand and he’ll exchange it for a brace of birds at the end of the shoot). Badly behaved dogs are infra dig, as is swigging from your hipflask on the peg. Hip flasks traditionally contain sloe gin or Berry Bros King’s Ginger, and it’s deemed polite to offer your flask around but only during elevenses.
As to what to wear, the opportunities to spank money on sporting luxuries are limitless. You need warm, waterproof boots (ordinary wellies won’t do), breeks to just below the knee, gloves with a fold-back trigger finger, a warm vest and a weatherproof coat with roomy enough pockets for cartridges. Outer clothes should be in heathery or mossy hues but socks and garters can be as flamboyant as you like and should be hand-knitted. Hair should be out of the way, jewellery and make-up discreet. Claire wears Patrick Mavros’s silver elephant-hair hunting bracelet. ‘Making sure you have the right kit isn’t about fashion,’ Claire insists. ‘It’s about keeping warm and dry enough to shoot well and showing respect for your quarry and for the ancient traditions associated with the sport.’
I examined Claire’s luscious tweeds lined in peacock and fuchsia and her chocolate leather Spanish riding boots as we ate game canapés (venison sausage rolls, pan-fried widgeon, woodpigeon and mushrooms on toast) and sipped champagne that was ‘sabred’ open with Claire’s Third Empire naval brass-handled sword. ‘Only fast women shoot,’ said Queen Victoria, so it’s no wonder Claire has already attracted 1,500 fun-loving, racy Covert Girls. What Claire has tapped into is that, for women, shooting is much more than mere sport. It’s the gateway to a luxury-studded world full of powerful, eligible men, and women don’t want to risk being laughed out of it by wearing the wrong footwear or insulting a loader with a paltry tip. Claire’s game-shooting course demonstrates not just how to raise a gun but how to raise your game so we infiltrate that world, confidently, politely and perfectly dressed.