Here's an entry for anyone interested.
I’m not one to turn down a day of wandering in the countryside, but if you throw in the option of free food as well, then I’m all over it like a rash. That was the offer that Jim, one of the farmers near my parent’s, had laid on the table. We’d been sat in the local catching up over a festive pint or four and the conversation had steered to shooting. He was explaining how he’d become part of a syndicate shoot an hour or so away from where we were and I was interjecting with how I’d never been on a shoot but would be happy enough being a beater flushing out the birds for the day to get a taste for it.
“Well I’ll come pick y’up on Boxing Day morn then, aye. You’ll get a brace for the day anyway." And that was that.
Christmas day came with the usual trials and tribulations of trying to get a Goliath turkey in a fairly small oven early doors, hoping it would be cooked at some point during the day. This thing had taken the best part of a week to thaw out. We'd probably have to eat until we hit pink meat then sling it back in. Next year roasting it over a spit in the garden might be a better idea.
The alarm went off ridiculously early on Boxing Day, much earlier than I anticipated the Sloe Gin would be out of my system. I laboured getting dressed and down stairs, creeping around making a cuppa and flask up. A sweep of headlights through the kitchen window told me my chariot awaited and I grabbed a quick turkey sandwich and my wellies before heading out into the cold dreary morning/night air.
“Merry Christmas!” Jim said as I opened the door to his truck "Looks like you enjoyed it lad," he grinned as I recoiled from the bellowing of his voice which reverberated around my ear canals.
“You could say that. I tried to pace myself but I think I was freewheeling the last hour or so."
I slung my stuff in the back of the pickup, shut the canopy hatch and climbed into the warmth of the cabin. 'You’re a good un!' I thought to myself as my backside made itself at home on the pre-heated seat. We were off and on our way.
The farm where the syndicate shoot was to be held was in a place I’d not been to before and as we drove away from the main roads I was soon lost. Lost in direction and lost in thought.
Jim was explaining what the duties of a beater were, who’d be there and the various types of land the guns would be shooting over but my mind was fixated on the contents of my flask which I’d mistakenly put in the back of the truck rather than having it ride shotgun with me to nurse myself into some state of consciousness.
Jim wasn’t like the other local farmers, he was built like a number seven. Broad shoulders, barely a sag on his middle to late age face and a smile that warmed you. The shovels that were his hands could probably detach a man from his spinal column but he was a gently spoken soul, quick to laugh and we got on well. He let me pester him about farming stuff every time we met up and had plenty of time for my daft questions. I liked him.
We swung into a country lane with double iron railings running either side. Round the corner, the beginnings of a farm came into view, it was a drive not a lane. The huge outline of the dark building now filled the view through the windscreen and we pulled in between the house and the various outbuildings with various vehicles parked outside them. The interior light of the cab came on as the engine switched off making the outside world vanish, leaving only my tired, hungover face reflecting back at me. Great first impression.
Opening the door let in the laughter and deep booming voices of the gathered party.
“Bah then Jim, merry Christmas," intoned various voices as I slithered from the warm comfortable seat out into the biting dark. It would be a good hour before the sun up, but that didn’t seem to bother the gathered collective. They bellowed as they laughed, shouted at dogs in cars, raised their voices as they tried to be heard over the growing din. I guessed they had no neighbours living nearby.
“You’re the new beater then?”
“Jim’s brought you, says it’s your first time out but you’re up for a day’s beating?”
“Yes, yes. Sorry.”
“Well, looks like you could do with some refreshment. Tea? Coffee? Bacon butty? Bacon and egg butty?”
“Well make a choice then," laughed the dark, low, but loud voiced figure.
“Coffee, Bacon and egg please,” I managed to muster in a still broken morning voice.
“Righto, we’ll have you fired up in no time! BERYL!! BACON AND EGG AND A COFFEE WITH…..?" The thunder of his voice in my thickened, mud filled head was painful. "Milk and one please," I replied quietly, trying not to wince. But I couldn't help recoiling when, without turning away from me, he yelled to Beryl as if she were in the next county "MILK WITH A SUGAR!! BETTER MAKE IT TWO SCOOPS OF COFFEE AND AN EXTRA SUGAR!!" My head rang like a bell. "Right, that’ll be straight out so come meet the others," he said and with that a huge arm came around my shoulders and slapped me on the back. Even through four layers of clothing I swear it must’ve left a perfect hand print with finger prints and all.
“Thank you very much!” I wheezed trying to get some air back in my lungs.
Sure enough, no sooner had I been introduced to five people, who may as well have been named after fruits for all I took in, a huge mug of steaming coffee and perfectly cooked bacon and egg sandwich were shoved into my hands. I slurped and chomped the warming combination as others talked amongst themselves about the previous day’s triumphs and failures, some throwing their heads back laughing in unison whilst others were cursing yesterday’s events.
Empty handed apart from the napkin my sandwich had arrived in and the pot now drained of coffee, a soft female voice I’d never heard before spoke to me.
“Would you like some more, young man?”
“Oh, yes please, thank you very…”
“BERYL!!” Shrieked the voice in my face. A few dogs barked and I wanted to do the same. No thought of turning in the direction of this Beryl wherever she was, just bellowing in my face.
“Sorry dear, what was it?”
“Erm, coffee, milk with one and a bacon and egg butty plea..!”
“COFFEE! MILK ONE SUGAR! BACON AND EGG! Soon be with you, dear. Enjoy your day and merry Christmas.”
“Thank you. Merry Christmas to you as well!” And with that, the owner of the Jekyll and Hyde voice disappeared into the morning darkness, leaving me with ringing ears.
I was slowly pairing up the corresponding voice in the dark with the outline of each person when my hands were full of food and a hot cup of coffee once again.
“Thank you!” I said into the darkness at the mystical being that had brought such nourishing gifts. Had it been Beryl? If so had Beryl heard my gratitude, being so hard of hearing, going on how the others communicated with her? I will never know.
“A-HEM!” gruffed a deep baritone voice. "Right, ladies and gentlefolk, into the club house if you please. Thank you!”
The gathering hustled and shuffled together like penguins towards one of the outbuildings and a light came on inside, illuminating two small windows. We were ushered inside and it was a free for all for seats.
“Geoff, manners please!” came the same voice.
“Sorry," replied the offender.
“The newest person gets the armchair by the fire, can’t be shoving them on the crap stuff now can we? Come, sit here lad!” I was gestured into the armchair that had once stood proudly in someone’s lounge or cigar and brandy room but now stood next to a wood burning stove made out of an old gas bottle. I pushed my way past a sprawling mass of legs and took my seat on the throne. To be honest I felt like Ronnie Corbett about to retell one of his stories with everyone’s eyes on me.
“First things first then………..” proclaimed the Ringmaster and then went on to talk about all manner of things regards the day’s shoot. It was the one they’d waited for and it was lovely to see all of the members making an effort to turn out. They’d had a good past few weekends with good numbers showing from the root shoot and the birch drive. There were still some goldies out there with a £50 fine on their heads so try not to pick them off if you don’t want your wallet emptying. There was also half a sandwich and a steaming pot of coffee in my hands which was more important to me.
After the conclusion of formalities and announcements everyone applauded the speaker and we were ushered outside into the now faint morning light of the day. I could finally put face to voices but still had no clue about names except Geoff and the ever illusive Beryl.
“Right, beaters here with me. Guns into the landies.”
What seemed like a thousand dogs orbited around me as I stood where I’d been asked to. There were about ten of us. Some of them were a fair bit older than me and some were similar ages and younger. Our general for the day was a short older gentleman but he was dead on point with how things were to be run. I was handed a stick with a feed bag taped to it like a flag from a bucket of other such implements and without too much delay we were following our general out of the farm yard and into the open fields.
Not much was said between the beaters on our way into the woods on the fringe of a stubble rape field, just a few exchanges of merry Christmas between three that it appeared had done this before. The general stopped and issued us our mission. We were to walk through the woodland keeping no more than ten yards apart and in a straight line on his mark. We spread out and I was second from the far right between two of the younger beaters. The general gave the command and we were off. I carried my bag flag a few yards before seeing everyone else sweeping theirs in front of them. I shook the flag free and began mimicking their behaviour. Some of the beaters on my left gave little chirps and “AYE UP”s whilst waving their flags around above the ground in front of them but I just stuck with the flag for the time being as I didn’t want to disturb anybody.
Not wanting to upset the general I was looking down the line but couldn’t see him in the darkness of the woodland despite the surrounding field being in daylight. There was some dissent in the ranks with some out front and some behind so already the line was fluctuating. Do I go with the ones out front or the ones behind? My mind was quickly made up with the sudden noise of shotguns not too far in the distance. Now acutely aware I was walking towards what was essentially a firing squad armed only with the national flag of the bird feed people, I would keep in line with the rear guard beaters.
The frequency of the guns increased as we made our way through the woodland, so something was a getting a pasting. As we made our way out of the woodland edge to the field we came to a halt, no more than sixty yards from the guns. By now I was waving my flag above my head in hopes of getting a reprise from the death squad but as the general bellowed to stop, everything went quiet on the gun front in exchange for voices commanding dogs to scurry here there and everywhere, returning moments later with mouths stuffed full of feathers.
We were congratulated on a successful first drive but encouraged to keep a more steady line. Whilst the guns took a bow and exited stage left we were marched back up the edge of the woodland and across a few fields to the edge of a long grass field with a hill rising in front of us.
A cackling noise came over the little radio the general carried and with a cry we were off again. This time I was between two beaters with spaniels pretty much dead centre. The spaniels rallied around to the commands of their handlers and I waved my flag watching them scurry through the grass, seemingly propelled along by their ceaselessly wagging tails. I figured with the dogs, the handlers commands and my flag there was no need to cheer and carry on so I walked along watching the dogs and enjoying the infrequent breaks in the cloud cover.
We reached the bottom of the hill and under further command to keep a straight line, began our ascent. It wasn’t until we were half way up and I’d nearly tripped several times over each spaniel hurrying and buzzing my feet in a perpetual state of sniff, wag, move, that the first sounds of the guns were heard. The line of beaters totally covered the hill so whilst the general on the far left went around the hill and the beater on my far right did the same, I was marching up the dead centre of it, the highest point.
At the peak I waved my bag flag, the hill would be ours by lunchtime lads and by golly it was. Beneath me lay a much steeper descent interspersed with pockets of rocks and rushes hiding rocks. I stumbled and staggered down the hillside giving a good show with my flag in the best fashion I could. I flushed out a fair few birds on that patch and I felt I’d done a good job, but my body wasn’t thanking me and Beryl’s coffee was now looking to leave me to go on and do greater good with my day. The hillside ascent had raised my heart rate and my lungs were now struggling to keep up with the demand for oxygen. The weight of the double breakfast was making everything in the middle feel a bit pogged.
Like a hero I saw out the drive to the end and then hot footed it over to the corner of the field where there was a jutting wall for the sheep to get behind or where the wallers had gone a bit wrong. Either way it provide a much needed relief area for recovering walkers, I mean beaters. I wasn’t the only one either and even one of the guns came over, congratulating us on our drives, mid-stream.
Another drive across a large stubble field and we were heading back to the farmhouse. Upon arrival it looked like poor Beryl had been busy putting everything in the farmhouse cupboards between bread or in pies. It was certainly a fine spread laid out before us as we all queued up to take a plate and fill it with delicious offerings.
Once our plates were sagging under the weight of crust and filling, everyone streamed into the outbuilding that was the designated clubhouse. On the large wooden table that everyone gathered around to eat were several bottles of port and whiskeys. I took a seat with the two lads I’d been between for the hill drive and the following stubble drive and was immediately offered a choice of the claret or a dram. Whisky instantly makes my body go into convulsions having been subject to a horrific top shelf pint incident on my eighteenth birthday. So, not to be rude and dismiss all the booze, I opted for the port. I’d never had it before so didn’t know what to expect. I let it rest on the table as I polished off my sandwiches. It was then that someone had the bright idea of making a toast so we raised our glasses, I crossed my fingers my sandwiches wouldn’t make an encore appearance, and knocked back the deep red liquid. Tasted like a sweet red wine, warmed me up as it went down and I had no ill reaction to it. Sold.
Glasses were topped up and various toasts were made throughout the lunch. The conclusion from those involved with the collection of the birds was that none of the bounty carrying golden pheasants had been taken so far, so everyone’s wallets remained topped up. As did the alcohol content of my bloodstream as more and more helpings of warm fruity tipple were poured into my glass. Eventually an ever growing collection of plates with various remains of Beryl's wares were placed on the table with exaggerated groans in accordance with the fulfilment of the participant until all plates were present and correct.
“I hope you’re all satisfied and ready for the afternoon’s activities folks?” A series of backbencher groans answered the ringmaster in unison. “Good. So without further ado can we have all the guns out into the landies and we’ll make our way round for the first drive of the afternoon session.”
As the first members began getting to their feet, those either side that remained seated would give them a push up and then once on their feet they’d turn and offer their hands to pull up the remaining seated members. It was a mixture of post natal and physical rehabilitation classes for the Beryl spread impaired.
The flow of people out of the door ended, leaving the footmen sat there awaiting command from the general. The noise of voices and vehicle doors closing around the yard outside was muffled inside the warm and cosy clubhouse.
The two dog handlers and myself were sat there and our intentions must have been obvious because the general piped up “We’ll be here a while as it’s a fair drive for them around the farm, but we’ve only to walk a few hundred yards so if you want some more refreshments help yourselves." No sooner had he finished, a number of arms shot out and grabbed various bottles from the table. Chinks of glass on glass, gratitude for pouring and then a collective "cheers” was followed by a brief silence before more chinks of glass and the process was repeated, how many times I cannot recall. What I do remember is that by the time the general called us up to leave the clubhouse and we gathered in the yard, some sneaky blighter had been around some of us and swapped our legs around. The atmosphere between the beaters in the morning and now was vastly different. This morning saw us being reserved and not exchanging much conversation, maybe it was early for many of us, but now we were in free flowing communication, some words clearer than others but connections were being formed regardless.
Making our way out of the yard, the first gate posed a bit of an issue to the general whereas this morning it had opened as though commanded. After some fiddling, it was unlatched and we were through with the last person now leaning on the gate slightly, trying to get the latch back on.
We assisted one another over the uneven ground that earlier in the pre-dawn light hadn't posed any real issue and soon we were on the edge of the recently ploughed turnip field for the first drive, just as the general promised. Spreading out to cover the width of the field the conversation and laughter got louder as the distance between folk increased. There was a crackling on the general’s radio. He shouted something incoherent, but pointed his arm forward and immediately there was a hive of activity and noise. No longer were we sweeping methodically with our bag flags with the odd “Whoop!” from the minority of the beaters! No! We had been transformed into merry savages on a rampage with bag flags being lashed with intent, each person now trying to out shout the next and the dogs, having picked up the new enthusiasm, had their tail propellers working on double time. Turnips were rolling down the land having been launched by boots. Despite the current lack of sobriety, the difficulty of any sideways staggering across the ploughed field meant we held the straightest line we’d had all day.
There was the flapping of wings and chuckling of pheasants everywhere. The discharging of guns reminded me of the New Year’s eve I'd bought a 100 big bang firework that had been made with an impossibly short fuse. I'd had to lie down on the ground to light it and after about half a second of fizzing next to my face it had launched into a cacophony of booms and bangs so violent I'd lain there, face down, waiting for it stop, and missed everything.
There was another drive or two that afternoon, to be honest I can’t remember a whole lot from the rest of the day, but somehow it seemed to pass without major incident. The only thing I can recall is one of the spaniels working through a woodland drive. It was white when it went in, but seemed to go through a genetic transformation midway as when it came out the other side it was green from nose to tail from all of the algae, lichen and moss it had rubbed up against in its eagerness to leave nothing unchecked.
Later I awoke in Jim’s passenger seat and could make out the lights from my parent’s kitchen window. 'What witchcraft is this?' I thought. Jim laughed as I gathered myself together.
“Yeh covered a fair yard today lad, told yer it’d be grand.”
We both got out of the truck and as I sucked in as much oxygen as I could with a yawn that almost dislocated my lower jaw, Jim dragged four pheasants from the bay of the truck and handed me them.
“Yeh certainly earned these. Blokes asked us if yer free next time as they certainly enjoyed having you?”
I replied with a semi-coherent agreement.
“Rayt, see yer next weekend then, aboot same time. Best be sleeping that off now!” and he climbed back in the truck, reversed out the drive and waved as he drove off.
I walked to the barn and hung the birds up on the wall, they could wait until the morning to be processed, then headed down the decking to the kitchen door. I was sat at the kitchen table taking my boots off when my dad appeared from the living room.
“Your mum’s asleep in front of the TV. You look shattered. Want a beer?”
I raised myself up against the back of the chair kicking my boots from my feet and sighed deeply, “Aye, why the heck not, it’s still Christmas after all”.