A Little Bit of Rough

Before I begin, please go to your fridge. Open the door, and take out one of the bottles of champagne that I know you keep ready chilled for the spontaneous celebration of surprise engagements, unexpected promotions and Tuesdays. Find a flute (or more than one if you’re not reading this alone) and then carefully remove the foil and cage from the bottle. Hand over top of the cork. Twist the bottle slowly. Steady now… Okay, ready?

I’ve been shooting for four years, and last week, finally, I bought my own gun.

That was the point at which you should have popped the cork. If you can, avoid spraying it around the room in your excitement – if it’s all the same to you, a) it’s a waste of champagne and b) I’d rather you didn’t get any on the barrels of my new gun. A few weeks ago now I attended the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club annual conference, a wonderful event about the subject of my last post and first in over a year, Being a Chelsea Bun. Not only has Victoria, Bun Club creator extraordinaire, filled my life with fabulous cake and – though you may well not think this possible – even more fabulous women, and helped me maintain a firm hold on shooting sans-man, but she has also indirectly helped me get my first gun by introducing me to shooting instructor and sharp shot, Ed Solomons. Now I shalln’t embarrass Ed (or undersell the ladies) by calling him as fabulous as they, and nor shall I inflate his ego by calling him easy on the eye – if Facebook is to be believed he gets more than enough of that as it is – but I shall be forever grateful to him, for he found a gun that works for me within my very meagre budget.

I said to myself last year that I was going to save up a grand for my first gun. Then my licence took weeks and months and more months to come through, by which time I’d given up hope, stopped saving and used the money. Then, hurrah, hurrah! My licence came through, and so I started saving again, but unfortunately starting from pretty much scratch. I was just getting somewhere, but then my car needed a new clutch. I can’t remember what came next, but the point is that life gets in the way of saving up for guns. I realised that, until I get a pay rise (*hint*), a grand didn’t seem a viable amount to save up if I wanted a gun any time soon. After hearing Ed speak at the conference on the seventh of June, and meeting him afterwards, I asked his advice. Just two days later he told me about two guns I could actually afford. Not only that, he had one set aside for me. A Lanber Sporter Deluxe, 12b with 29.5” barrels and a set of five chokes, complete with key and little case. So last week I took a day’s holiday, jumped in my little baked bean can of a car, drove up to a lovely M25 traffic jam and after a couple of hours there, on to Sporting Targets in Bedfordshire. And after taking it out for a go, I bought it. It worked; I broke clays. People say you need to go out and try, try, try before you buy a gun, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can break clays with it, and it’s under £400, get on and buy the damned thing. And if you have change from your budget, spend it on shooting a bit – which was exactly what I did with the small amount I had leftover. It may not be the most beautiful gun in the world, nor the stock in absolute pristine condition, but it works, it will provide me with consistency in my shooting, and it can be fitted to me. More than that, it’s mine, and I already love it. My good decision was confirmed in my change-funded post-purchase shoot with a couple of Bun Club ladies (and an associated gentleman) and continued to break clays. Ed got me to have a go shooting with both eyes open and I even broke clays that way, though more practice is most definitely required. I am now armed not only with my very own 12b, and therefore have some consistency, but also a new determination to free up time in my diary to shoot more and practice, with a view to one day, just maybe, competing.

***

A month ago to the day I moved house. Having somewhat abandoned city life, and given that one of my caveats of a new house was that I could have a gun cabinet fitted if one were not already available for use, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that I ended up in a house that I can confidently say is as Country as the old, if not more so, complete not only with Aga but also with inglenook fireplace and a row of old fox tails hung up in the hall way. My live-in landlord, disturbingly young (i.e. younger than me) though you soon forget his age once you’ve met him, is a chimney sweep. To answer my own first question, yes, they still exist. I’m sure you knew that if you are even a little bit Country, but until moving here my only experience of chimney sweeps is of them jumping into chalk drawings and dancing on roof tops, all the while singing with an awful cockney accent. When not getting dressed up to appear at weddings, something I’ve unfortunately yet to witness, my young landlord sweeps the chimneys of many buildings, known and unknown, and some of which you may even have heard; Hampton Court Palace anyone? Or how about Buckingham Palace?[1] But more important even than the Queen’s chimneys, if such a thing is imaginable, is the fact that he took me out for a mini-rough shoot last night, and I shot my very first (and second) pigeon.

Lessons learned: 1) you don’t need all that many cartridges if you’re shooting pigeons in our field, but I guess still better safe than sorry. 2) walking around the field with an unloaded gun with broken barrels and cartridges safely stowed in your pocket isn’t the fastest way to get lead in the airm, should a bird fly out. Luckily, I had a good teacher. And lesson three was: be patient. We traipsed around the fields in vain until a pigeon finally flew out over our heads. Typically, it was a pigeon sufficiently savvy as to do this at the moment when the resident chimney sweep was holding my gun for me so I could climb over a fence, thus rendering the irritatingly clever thing absolutely and entirely safe. All we could do was look up at it and swear. We clambered over a couple of fences, and, very inelegantly on my part at least, through another, but still to no avail. Eventually and with some effort, we found a couple of the pesky birds. ChimneySweep kindly flushed them out for me (read: clattering about in the barns trying to scare out two very stubborn birds by making noise and ultimately throwing sticks at them), and thus, as they eventually flew out into the evening air, my gun was christened.

 

Take two pigeons, add a new-to-me gun, sprinkle over with the lead of three shots fired, and wait until the feathers have settled. Two dead pigeons. Unfortunately feral – so much for pie – but still not a bad start for a gun if you ask me.

One new gun, two dead pigeons, three spent cartridges.

One new gun, two dead pigeons, three spent cartridges.

[1] If you live down south and need a chimney sweep, give him a bell. If he’s good enough for HRH, surely he’s good enough for you?

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Being a Chelsea Bun

As anyone reading this is likely to know, I haven’t written for this blog for really rather a long time. When I used to write more or less regularly, the topic was usually an assortment of shooting tales, recipes and recollections of various country-based faux pas I made as I delved into the country world. I’m hoping I might begin to write again (not even remotely avoiding commitment there) but I can’t promise the subject matter will always stay the same. My life has changed immeasurably since I started writing. For one, the wine world is much less countrified than the shooting world. For another, I’m also ever so slightly more used to the country world, which, though I wouldn’t yet consider myself as ‘belonging’, does thankfully mean I don’t embarrass myself quite so frequently. The downside to that is of course having fewer entertaining things to write about.

As you may or may not have read, I started clay shooting at university. Shortly after I left I started dating my instructor, Sir Pheasant’s Farmer, which as you might imagine meant I kept shooting fairly regularly, but always with him. He taught me, he had the licence, he bought the shells and he owned the guns, including the Beretta with which I learned to shoot. I soon realised I was only shooting with him, and pretty quickly developed a fear that, should the relationship end, I’d lose my hobby as well as my boyfriend. Not long after this minor epiphany I attended my first shoot with the wonderful Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. Joining a ladies’ only shooting group seemed a very reliable way to maintain some shotgun action in my life outside my relationship. Lo and behold, around a year later Sir Pheasant’s Farmer and I went our separate ways. In the 18months that followed, I left my job, moved back to my parents’, was diagnosed with HNPP, got a new job in a new industry, moved into a new house, got my own shotgun licence, was promoted, ran my first 10k race and moved house a second time, to name but a selection. And through it all, I have continued to break (and miss) clays, all thanks to one incredible, inspirational lady called Victoria Knowles-Lacks and her marvellous creation, The Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club.

The Bun Club has introduced me to countless new friends, and we all have two things in common. One: we love to shoot, and two: we’re Women with a capital W. We refuse to leave the guns to the men, and not only that, but damn it if we can we’re going to shoot better and, results regardless, with a cartridge bag-load more panache. As well as a shooting group and a curse on any weight-loss goals, the Chelsea Bun Club is a network of friends. I haven’t met them all yet, some of the women I have met I confess I don’t remember their names, some I may never meet, but all of them are friends. It has also introduced me to personalities in the shooting world, from the unforgettable Robert at Hull Cartridge, to David, the Tom Cruise lookalike from Browning, silver-tongued Peter Glenser who, two years running has had us all in fits of giggles, the marvellous Ed Solomons who within a few days of the 2014 conference may have found me a gun within my budget (the subject of a future post if I’m lucky) and who can forget Miss Sue Flay and her etiquette guide at the 2013 conference? I’ve met female medal-winners from various disciplines, most recently Abbey Burton with her fantastic story and surreal shotgun stock. I have attended two incredible conferences where I’ve learned about everything from the psychological aspects of clay shooting (and how women are better shots psychologically!) to how birds are reared for commercial game shoots.

There is so much more to shooting than people think. It’s social, educational, inspirational and fun, as well as a curse to WeightWatchers and the like with the hampers of sausage rolls, bottles of champagne, hipflasks sloe gin and mountains of cake. And just for you, a gun mounted in your shoulder slows down the world around you. Looking at the world down the barrel of shotgun seems to hit the slow motion button. All that matters is the trigger and the clay. Of course, if you are me – or are stood behind me while I’m shooting – there’s the almost inevitable interruption by the automatic safety. After a (second) call for your target, time begins to slow and stretch, for most targets at least, and you stop thinking. Watching the world in slow motion, instinct takes over, and if you’re lucky, the cue for the world to resume normal speed is a firework of clay fragments in the sky above you. Clay-concentration takes over from everything, pushing Erasmus’ opinions on the nature of war (thank you university) or the quantity of Argentinian wine being sold in UK supermarkets (thank you work) not only to the back of your mind, but out of it entirely for a moment or two. After a shoot, good or bad, it’s as though all the cobwebs have been dusted away and you breathe a little deeper.

I’m certain that any and all members of The Bun Club know what I’m describing, even if shooting gives them a different experience than it gives me. And for anyone who hasn’t shot before, I’d encourage you to come along and give it a go. If it wasn’t for the Bun Club I’d have likely lost one of the best hobbies I’ve ever engaged with, not to mention hundreds of friends, and worse to say I’d have lost it all because of a man. There are Chelsea Bun shoots around the country, and at all of them you can pick up a shotgun and maybe change your perspective on the world around you. You’ll not only meet new people and make new friends, but over time you’ll become part of something bigger, know you have friends, known and unknown, all round the country. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a new love* and meet a new side of yourself.

 

The Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club

 

 

*Your hobby, not your instructor…Or at least not always.

Horses for Courses

Welcome 2013. I’m not a big one for turning my life around on January first. I struggle to turn my car around sometimes  –  six-point turns in bad weather on roads with a serious camber = nightmare  –  so anyone should expect anyone else to turn his or her life around in a single day is beyond me. The logistical struggle aside, I quite like my life and don’t necessarily fancy changing it entirely, even if it is the dawning of a Brand New Year. However, this year I have compromised a little and made my first ever New Year’s Resolution:

– Learn to ride a horse.

 

I have ridden once or twice in my life, but only ever as a tourist. Most recently was in Nicaragwah on my Gap Yah and it was rather entertaining. The girl I was travelling with at the time was a rather more experienced rider than I and knew what she was doing. We had placidly plodded to the end of the beach with our guide when he stopped to adjust his stirrup (the metal loop where you put your feet). My friend decided she was bored of our snail’s pace, expertly turned her horse around and disappeared back down the beach in a mini-sandstorm. Whether it was a gallop or canter I don’t know – I couldn’t estimate the MPH and wouldn’t know the horsey translation even if I could. I was more concerned with the fact that my horse evidently liked her horse, as during the seconds that I sat gawping at the cloud of sand that had been a girl on a horse, my mount decided:

– To hell with it, we’ll go too.

I felt like a driver who didn’t know where the handbrake was, what a gearstick was, which way to turn the steering wheel, or for that matter what this thing is that I’m sat in – only on a horse, you’re sat on it not in it and there is no seatbelt or airbag. Should the horse so decide, I could be catapulted any which way, only secured by my toes so loosely slipped into the little loops of metal and it was therefore still perfectly possible that I could be dragged along the beach by my feet. I remember holding onto the reins for dear life and thanking the heavens that I was galloping through the shallows on sand instead of the tarmacked roads where I’ve seen people riding at home in Bushy Park (where incidentally I daresay the horses are much better behaved. Nicaraguan horses have a thing or two to learn if you ask me).

Luckily, my horse deigned to stop when its fellow did and so I didn’t canter (gallop?) on to the ends of the earth. Scary as it was, I didn’t fall off and there was a proud moment hidden somewhere under the gasping relief.

Since my last post I have moved house  –  and been ill, attempted to learn more about a world of wine that is apparently expanding faster than our universe, been ill some more, cooked Christmas dinner, attended a couple more Chelsea Bun shoots and actually won one of them for shooting and not for cake. It’s been a busy few months. The bit that’s relevant to this post however is the moving house. I now actually live on a Horse Farm. Those of you who have read this blog from the outset will know that the Horse Farm vs. Yard debacle was one of my defining faux-pas in venturing out of the city. There is therefore both a sense of irony and of belonging in my new abode. The house is a 17th century farmhouse in West Sussex, complete with Aga, tack room, wood-burning stove, dogs and plenty of mud. It also comes complete with a small riding school run by my landlady, and the accompanying stables, ponies and horses. Before I’d even agreed to move in I’d been told I must learn to ride and I would be more than welcome to help out with the horses, and so I’ve decided that whatever the Chinese say, 2013 will be the year of the horse.

Please don’t think I’ve forgotten about shooting. My licence application is on the table beside me, complete with countersigned photographs. I have my very own gun cabinet tucked away downstairs, the lack of guns inside it leaving plenty of space for my ambitions to one day own one. And finally I have my first  –  and second  –  game shoots coming up later this month, along with a couple of days’ loading for Sir Pheasant’s farmer. I’m spending a day at Garrowby with Lord and Lady Halifax, and have been promised that I’ll see some of the highest pheasants on offer in the UK. Somewhat sadly, this is in fact the first game shoot I will ever actually see in the flesh. Please don’t misunderstand me; it will be a magnificent introduction to game shooting I’m sure, but I am a little worried that it’ll ruin me for more ‘normal’ shooting. Along with this worry and another about getting sopping wet and freezing my little toes off, one of my big, if slightly odd, concerns is that I won’t actually like it. I’ve got a week booked out in the field and I’m terrified that I’ll get to the end of the first drive on the Monday and decide that it’s just not for me. I’ve only once ever killed anything bigger than a fly, and that was a lobster that made its re-entrance into the world as lobster mousse ravioli with a seafood consommé. Not exactly the same thing. Smashing clay targets I love, but I don’t know how either my conscience or squeamish gut will fare knocking the pretty little birds out of the sky. One thought keeping me going is that just like the lobster, they’re pretty tasty  –  pheasant mousse ravioli anyone?  –  and conscience and gut both agree that I’d rather be a game-shoot pheasant than a chicken whose life ambition is to make it to the top shelf in the supermarket refrigerator cabinet. Remaining true to my philosophy roots, I’ve got my book on The Ethics of Hunting, but there’s only one way to find out for sure and so I’ll plough on (metaphorically this time) and see what the end of January brings.

Back to my equine ambitions. One of my horsier housemates has accepted my resolution, and a couple of the boys are even going to join me in my pursuits. One can ride but wants to learn to hack; the other is a novice like myself. I’m not sure what hacking is, but I know that there are special jackets available for it – a potential reward if I stick to my new year’s resolution?

I will end my first post of 2013 with another faux pas, and a slightly horsey one at that. I may now have an officially country postcode – there are now only a handful of addresses sharing my postcode, as opposed to 36 in London – and I may know how to shoot, own a pair of ‘proper’ waterproof boots, no longer fear The Mud and wear tweed to work; but I am still tripping over plenty a stumbling block on my journey of discovery. Last night I sat in the kitchen with my new housemates, discussing polo (yet more unexplored territory – I’ve been promised a trip to a polo match and someone even tried to explain ‘chukkas’ to me after I asked about ‘half time’ – apparently there is no such thing in polo). One of the boys walked in and a comment was made about his polo shirt. This was the moment when I discovered that much as a rugby shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of rugby, a polo shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of polo. It had honestly never occurred to me, but my loud outburst of realisation was enough to fill the kitchen with laughter. I then asked whether in winter people played polo in polo necks. But no, apparently that’s just silly.[i]

The view from my new bedroom window

The view from my new bedroom window


[i] After my discovery that ‘polo’ is in no sense a term used by tailors or seamstresses, as I had previously assumed in a not-ever-thought-about sort of way, I’m sure there must be some link to polo in the term ‘a polo neck’ or else it would be called something else. If anyone is an expert on either the history of the term or the sport or both, I’d love to know more.

Pies and Prejudice

Fabulous Fortnight Part 3

 And so we come to the end of the life-changing fortnight. Though the life-changing bit had actually already happened, a long-awaited diagnosis and new career, the (hopefully annual) Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club Competition and scrummy BBQ social topped off the fortnight perfectly.

As with every meet of the Bun Club, there would be baked offerings of all sorts from members. After the success of my tiramisu at the Hen Party, I decided to make tiramisu cupcakes. The sponge, idea of how to fill them and the base for the icing were all borrowed from the wonderful Hummingbird Bakery, but the recipe for the actual icing and filling were my own doing. By digging out the middle of each cake, slicing it, soaking it in a sinfully boozy coffee-amaretto mixture and layering with creamy filling and grated dark chocolate, I hoped to create a mini-tiramisu in each pretty cupcake case. I topped them off with an amaretto-mascarpone icing with just a hint of coffee, and with a final a sprinkle of cocoa they were ready for the competition. I gently popped them into cake tins – they had to go into three separate tins; no chance of layering these cakes without smushing the icing.

Before the S&CBC competition, I drove over to Barbury Shooting School in Swindon with my old instructor and shot the 100-bird challenge. I was pretty happy with how I shot I have to say – a one or two sloppy mistakes from lack of practice (and concentration), and towards the end some very frustrating misses as my HNPP-sore hands refused to do what my brain told them to. But I came out with a not-embarrassing score, especially compared to the ladies who had shot before me, so I’m pretty content. More practice required I think. Once I get settled in my new job (insert squeak of excitement here) my plan is to find a local shooting ground and get trigger-pulling.

Shooting a 100-bird competition the day before my Proper Competition with the Chelsea Buns was perhaps not a great move for my chances on the day, fun as it was. I turned up with a stiff back, still-sore hands, sore legs to boot and a slightly tender shoulder; not the best state to start a competition. Again, my kills I did shoot well, with only one really chippy break – I actually thought I’d missed it but spectators and the scorer thankfully disagreed. Some misses were good – as long as I know where I missed it, I can correct it. You actually learn more from a miss than from a break, as long as you’re concentrating. But more frustrating/sloppy mistakes meant I lost any chance I had of winning fairly early on. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to finish the competition by straighting the final stand – always nice to go out on a high.

I volunteered to score for the afternoon’s open shoot, and while juggling clipboard, ear defenders, pen and plate stacked high by the generous BBQ man, I traipsed around the stands again to watch people who actually knew how to shoot – and shoot well – have a go at it. Once we got back to the clubhouse, I was both disappointed and thrilled to find that all sixteen of my tiramisu cupcakes had been eaten. Good news as it meant they obviously liked them, slightly sad that I hadn’t had one – but this was quickly appeased when I remembered that I had hidden four in the car in case of some late-arriving friends. And after stuffing my face with cake, decided that they were really rather tasty even if I do say so myself. Luckily for me, my arrogance was justified when Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria announced that they had won Best Cake. So I am now the proud possessor of a pink rosette for my cupcakes. Hurrah!

Earlier in the week, after finding out I’d got the job, I went out for (of course gin-based) celebrations with a friend. He jokingly commented that the exclusion of men from the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club was quite sexist, that they needed an ‘Emilio Pankhurst‘ to protest on their behalf. Though I know he was joking, it still was a little thought provoking. Another male friend from university, keen on both baking and shooting, has commented before enquiring about whether he could join. And the answer is, in general, no. The social this weekend was an exception, when the menfolk were not only welcomed but even invited to shoot. Nevertheless in general it is an exclusively female club; no Y-chromosomes allowed.

Does this make us sexist? I guess in some ways the answer is yes by definition: men are not allowed to join most shoots, in virtue solely of their being male. But the club is actually helping to redress the balance in the world of what is a predominantly male-dominated sport. Most shooting grounds will find that their client base is much more blue than pink, and guns are designed and shaped for the average male build – otherwise they’d have far higher combs and there would be no need for gadgets such as Jones stock adjusters (a life-saver for any woman with breasts above a B-cup) or comb raisers to let us dainty females keep our heads straight on the stock and thus shoot straight even if blessed with the highest of sky-high cheekbones.

I suspect it initially stems back not to discrimination of women, but to the hunter/gatherer instincts of the human race. Hunting is, as I’ve said before, embedded deep within human nature. It makes sense that we can still find satisfaction in it, even now in our grandesuperskinnyicedfrappemochaccino times. Our base instincts haven’t evolved as quickly as our taste in coffee. Back before the advent of Starbucks and even further back, if there ever was such a time, the male of the species did much of the hunting, while females were bogged down with all the child-bearing malarkey. But now in our modern, post-Starbucks world where women have proven their ability to multi-task, taking care of themselves as well as bearing offspring, why shouldn’t we be given the opportunity to shoot too? The ladies-only Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club goes some way to help redress the balance – not by excluding men, but by giving women a chance to ‘catch up’; to shoot in the company of other women and build their confidence without fear of either embarrassment or being snappily told to stop talking. It gives some inexperienced ladies a chance to learn how to hold a gun properly, and realise that they can actually break targets. And those that can already smash a clay nine times out of ten can simply practise doing so in good, girly company with plenty of tea and cake. The club would never do anything other than encourage a lady gun to go out shooting with male friends and companions in between and even sometimes straight after the ladies-only shoots, nor would it discourage men from shooting (or possibly to start a male-version of the club, for those baking-mad guns out there – The Shotgun and Homemade Pie Club perhaps?) So Emilio Pankhurst can step down, the club is not sexist. From where I’m sat, it exists simply to promote good girly fun, enjoyment of a fabulous sport and of course, practice practice practice.

Proof: a man shooting at the S&CBC Competition, taken by Kay Thompson

The weekend’s competition was a huge success. The ladies-only beginners’ and novice categories gave the girls a chance to experience a proper CPSA competition format without the pressure of shooting amid a crowd of experienced male guns. The afternoon let the Chelsea Bun HABs[i] have a go too, with the open shoot there for anyone to compete in. The BBQ on site provided more than enough tasty burgers, proper sausages and crunchy coleslaw. The bar issued numerous drinks as the clock stuck Pimms O’Clock and a couple of hours later Gin O’Clock, and the clubhouse gave home to the traditional S&CBC tea and cake, complete with tea sets and beautiful cake stands made by Victoria herself.

Having built up an appetite so large that even a BBQ and an award-winning cupcake couldn’t satisfy it, the cherry on the cake that was my fabulous fortnight was dinner at the famous pie pub in Deddington, Oxfordshire. My chicken, ham and leek pie appeared with a cloud of puff pastry rising out above my pie dish like a flaky sky-scraper, hiding a scrumptious filling that went perfectly with my glass of Chardonnay (I need to get to grips with some of this wine stuff now, if I’m going to be working ‘in the industry’) And it was a Proper Pie, with pastry lining the pie dish as well as adorning the top. As if one wasn’t enough, I ordered the apple and cinnamon pie for dessert. It arrived and took my breath away – along with my confidence in finishing it. It was the same size as my main, with the same tower of flaky pastry this time drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with icing sugar. With deliciously creamy vanilla ice cream hidden inside the pastry of all places, it was heavenly. And finished completely – only one step off licking out the dish.

A truly fabulous fortnight, and just in case anyone involved is reading this, I’d like to thank those involved: the Lancastrian Chelsea Bun for her recipe; Dad for enjoying his chips and friands, for making that Kichen-Day a success and for the celebratory bubbles after getting the job (and Mum for celebrating with me); NeuroDoctor for finding an answer to The Mystery Of The Numb Hand/Knee/Leg/Feet; Mr and Mrs Newly Wed and their wedding elves for the most wonderful First Wedding I could have been invited to; my interviewers for agreeing to give me a chance (sucking up even before day one – brownie points??); a certain someone up in York for putting me onto the job in the first place and for recommending me, and her fiancé for helping confirm the address for her thank-you flowers; the Chelsea Buns for enjoying my cakes enough to give me the rosette – my first ‘award’ for baking! – and Chief Chelsea Bun Victoria for organising such a splendid event, and for creating such an incredibly inclusive, friendly, not-at-all-sexist and encouraging club. A joy to be a part of it, not least because of all the cake.


[i] Husbands and Boyfriends

Blueberry Gin With a Twist of Sublime

At the beginning of this month, I paid my deposit for my first ever game day. A bit of a shock to both the system and bank account, but it means that the 2012-2013 season, due to start in just four days on the Glorious Twelfth, will now definitely be my first Proper game season. Last year was the first season I’d ever been aware of, and this time round I get to actually shoot some birds – or aim at them anyway. Needless to say, I’m doing star jumps and cartwheels inside (somewhat lacking the space to do them for real, not to mention the athletic ability).

The closest I’ve got to joining a proper game shoot is walking up and down a couple of drives on a Yorkshire shoot, in lovely bright sunshine on a wonderful day out while being followed by a herd of curious cows. My eager imagination did its very best to send pheasants streaming out over the treetops, my fingers wrapped around the fantasy trigger of a make-believe shotgun. As well as my imaginary friends and I did on that day, having never seen a shoot I’m not sure it quite counts as experience.

My wishful subconscious, still with her tweed cap on, has her fingers tightly crossed, imagining the perfect shoot, picturing a group of women, guns and instructors in tow, strolling up the drives on a bright, crisp day through beautifully settled snow, and of course none of us would feel the cold, being oh-so elegantly wrapped up (layers are the key to success I’ve been told). Plenty of tweed, plenty of gin for later, and even more champagne to add it to. Beautiful shiny guns, spicy-smelling leather cartridge bags and that lovely smokey smell of gunpowder. An array of wonderful birdy targets, easy enough to shoot but challenging enough to make it fun and something to be a bit proud of, all with enough meat on to do well in an oven. In short, a day nothing short of perfect.

On the other shoulder, the pessimist in me is telling me to prepare for rain. Hail. Sleet. Sludge. Cold. It will be winter in Yorkshire after all. Fingers and toes, ears and nose, all blue with cold and about to drop off, despite wooly jumpers enough to turn a woman into an abominable snowman-lookalike. And she continues: once I eventually manage to mount a gun through the inches of thermal padding that won’t have worked, I’ll likely fire shot after shot into the sky, with the birds whipping away scot free and me simply peppering the greybrown carpet of sludge on the drive with lead instead of pheasants.

In an effort to steer reality away from the prediction of my inner pessimist and towards the romantically idealistic dreams, I have set about my preparations already. After all I am nothing if not prepared. Thermals, a cap, footwear and gloves are already on my Christmas list. I have already secured myself an instructor – none other than my old instructor, the man who taught me how to hold a gun, also known as Sir Pheasant’s farmer (if you’ve been following me long enough to understand those references, I thank yoy!) – who will accompany me on the day and attempt to teach as I shoot, how on God’s green earth I’m supposed to hit a target with a mind of its own. If I sound sceptical of my chances of success, I do not doubt his instructing ability, but simply my ability to follow his instructions. And aside from practise, practise, practise, stocking up on super-thin, super-warm thermals and something warm/piping hot to pop on my tootsies for the day and securing reliable guidance for the day is about all I feel I can prepare this far in advance, at least for the shooting side of things.

But then there is afterwards, the after-shoot. And so we come to the gin. I confess I’m not yet quite tough enough to sip neat gin – indeed, when I accidentally took a gulp of neat gin from a glass during the Jubilee celebrations, thinking it was the remained my ice-cube diluted G&T from earlier, I very nearly spat it into the face of my my laughing friend and pulled all manner of unflattering faces. But the lovely fruit gin I purchased at the mini Game Fair is another matter entirely. Sadly, I’m not sure my raspberry or damson gin will last me quite long enough to fill a hip flask come shoot-time, but never fear: I am prepared! I currently have some blueberry gin in the making (resting? Brewing? It’s all sat in a Kilner jar at any rate!) I have no idea if it will work, but following the same principles as the sloe gin I made last Autumn after the Wonderland-worthy Hunt Halloween Ball, I have introduced to each other some sugar, tasty blueberries and last but not least, some gin. On a slightly different tack however from the sloe gin given the lack of frost around in August, I decided to heat up the blueberries to release more of the juice. No doubt this means the gin will need extra straining at the end to get rid of any excess flesh or seeds that may escape the skin, but hopefully it should lead to a tasty drink. It’s looking a lovely deep purple colour already – and just a week or so in. My plan is to keep it at least until the raspberry and damson gins are finished, and fingers crossed it might last me until the shoot. The only question now is what to call a blueberry gin and champagne cocktail? As all S&CBC girls will verify, sloe gin mixed with champagne is a ‘Sloegasm’ and Foxdenton Estates have taught me that damson gin with champagne was most imaginatively and wonderfully christened ‘A Damn Shame’. I’m not sure what a raspberry champagne cocktail would be either – except beautifully pink and sparkly! Anyway, I shall set my imagination to work on those two, and any suggestions will be welcomed with open arms; I believe you can post comments below this post if you want to.

Gin aside, I’ve been broaching other culinary borders recently too. While I’m certain it would not be suitable to take along on a shoot, and therefore it is somewhat unrelated to the general topic of this thread, I am going to share with you my adventures into the world of Almost-All American Baking. Last week I made my first ever Key Lime Pie, complete with fluffy meringue! The only reason that it didn’t quite qualify as All-American Baking was the lack of graham crackers[i], as I have been assured by my lovely, most definitely All-American colleague from Tuscan, Arizona (“give her the wings to fly through harmony and she won’t bother you no more…[ii]) that a proper American pie with a biscuit-based crust simply must be made with graham crackers; nothing else will do. That said, I managed okay with good old chunky British Hobnobs, though I will admit that I found my crust a little thick. Perhaps graham crackers do give a more refined crust. If I ever get my hands on any graham crackers, I’ll test that theory.

My inadequately-British Hobnob crust prepared, I set about zesting and juicing four limes. Once prepared, the very limey filling was poured into the base and I set about making my meringue. Time for a confession: I have never successfully made meringues before. And last time I tried was so long ago that I didn’t even have an electric whisk. But it was wonderfully easy. The soft peak stage was reached in less time than it took me to fluff up the whites even a little with a hand-held whisk, and with sugar and whatnot added, the stiff peaks arrived in what felt like an instant, glossy and white as though just covered with fresh (shiny) snow.

All in all, despite the slightly thick crust, my pie was a success! The meringue was very light and fluffy, sweet and foamy, and just turning golden brown on top, and the whole pie was demolished by my brother (the birthday boy for whom this pie was made in place of a birthday cake) and me, Mum and Dad helped him just a bit. Or two bits. Each. Or maybe three.

Pie done (evidence above) and I have another family birthday this week, so we’ll see what baked goodies stem from that. Until then, I shall leave you pondering names for luxuriously decadent fruit gin cocktails. My subconscious is standing, glass in hand and doffing her tweed cap at you all saying,

– “Cheerio old chaps!” (or whatever the female equivalent is.)


[i]Graham’ is apparently pronounced ‘gram’, not ‘Graeme’, with the A drawn out to aaah, in that lovely American way that stretches it further than any A has gone before, ‘graaaaaam’.

[ii] I apologise if you don’t get the reference – a lovely song by Paul Simon called ‘Under African Skies’.

 

A Shotgun Salad

And so the cakes that starred in my last post were carefully placed into my beloved Garden Trading cake tins and accompanied me around the M25 and up the M40 to the E J Churchill’s Mini-Game Fair, where they became well acquainted with some members of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club and a few others to boot.

The mini fair was great – and incredibly was pulled together with little more than two weeks’ notice, when we all heard the tragic news of the CLA’s cancellation of the Game Fair proper. I was introduced to Rob Fenwick, the MD of E J Churchill, of whom I’d heard previously. Rather more excitingly (no offence to Mr Fenwick) I got to see the infamous Mickey Rouse, the former world sporting champion, trick shooting – but more on that later. We wandered up the track to the clubhouse, to be handed a slurp of The King’s Ginger Liqueur on our way into the showroom – delicious, sweet and strong with a powerful kick of ginger.[i] We paused here and there to peruse a few stalls on our way up, and after having a typically country chat with Scott in the shop about wellies and tweed and that sort of thing, we made our way into the tents to examine the main array stalls. I had another twang of that feeling of ‘belonging’ when one of them men on the Hunter stand waved at me as if he knew me. On closer inspection, he turned out to be Gary, the Hunter rep from William Powell with whom I’d dealt in the past (incidentally, their new catalogue is out soon and new website is in production – very excited!) Knowing someone (and luckily for me, a friendly someone forthcoming enough to wave) my genuine-country friends didn’t made me feel very self-satisfied, not to mention a little bit relieved that he thought I was nice enough to be worth waving to. My subconscious stood there smugly, her tweed flat cap fitted firmly on her head and one hand on her hip saying,

– “See? I do belong here!”

The array of leathery feathery tweedy and altogether undeniably Country goods on offer was wonderful, from candlesticks made out of antlers (they’ve joined the pistachio green mixer on my mental somewhereovertherainbow-maybeoneday wishlist) to tweedy iPhone covers and snuggly coats for your hipflask. Beautiful photos on card and canvas, gorgeous cashmere knitwear well out of my price range, and delicious fruit gin from the wonderfully friendly Nick at Foxdenton Estate, from whom I purchased two bottles of wickedly delectable gin – one raspberry, one damson (and you can really taste the plums!) More cakes in the offing I have no doubt! The prize for the S&CBC Open Shoot on 18th August was proudly on display – a stuffed fox standing on his hind legs, with a just-as-stuffed pheasant under one armleg and gun over the other. My not-quite-determined views on taxidermy aside, this prompted some cheeky giggling with the S&CBC girls as my friend said he that was determined to come along, win the fox, then place it in the road to confuse some unsuspecting driver, later to be stood at the side of the road saying “Hello? Police? I’ve just hit a fox and it was carrying a gun!” Probably not as funny as at it seemed the time, but sufficient giggles ensued to entertain us. Any way, Mr Fox stood proudly on the stand next to the CBC girls: Bettina with her beautiful bracelets (also on my Wishlist, though promoted from ‘somewhereoverhterainbow’ to ‘next pay day’), Kay with her lovely cards, and Lili of Forbes and Maude displaying her tweeds. Possibly unfortunately we were attending the fair on the Friday, which was very much the quieter of the two days from what I’ve heard. However, we had fun wandering around, and and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to eat a cheeseburger complete with onions and ketchup without getting any on my white jeans. My view on white jeans is you should only wear them if you’re prepared for them to get mucky – if you’re going to be precious about it, wear blue ones or something else altogether! However, bright red grease stains wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought that as I put them on earlier in the day, so I battled with my burger and came out on top, my trousers surviving the ordeal and thankfully appearing on the other side of lunch ketchup-free. A perfect canvas for the various shades of proper country muckiness they would no doubt accrue throughout the day.

As well as those S&CBC girls who had stalls at the fair, we ran into a couple of other key actors in the Chelsea Bun Show on Twitter: Jane Macnab, a trickster with a stage name that lulls you into a false sense of security, believing its her real name, until she shatters the illusion by saying ‘Hi, I’m Lucy!’; and Urban Gundog, with bosses in tow. Mrs Macnab had brought along her faithful CBH (Chelsea Bun Husband), Dr Macnab, and Urban had brought along Deputy Boss (another CBH) to accompany him and The Boss. The Macnabs had even brought along Little Miss Macnab, of whom I am very jealous due to the fact that she was treated to both an ice cream and a lovely tweed dress. But to make up for the lack of a tweed dress, Urban[ii] honoured me by christening my white jeans with the proper sort of muck white jeans should pick up. He graciously bestowed upon me the most perfect paw print that I have ever seen – and that’s after years of trying to ink my dog’s paw to get him to ‘sign’ birthday cards, unerringly ending up with a coloured smear in the card and numerous matching smudgy patches on the surrounding floor. I have never seen one so accurate and un-smudged, and was so chuffed that I even took a photo – though for the Boss’ sake I won’t post it, as she didn’t seem as excited about it as I was. But Urban (we’ll stick to stage names here), I thank you!

Stalls done and two bottles of gin the richer, we headed over to watch Mickey Rouse trick shooting. And it was wonderful – both impressive and hilarious. Renowned as an absolutely fantastic clay shooter, we watched in awe as he shot balloons that appeared to be floating way out of range, and in the order of preference we the crowd shouted out to him as the targets drifted further and further up into the sky. He shot clay after clay, all from the hip. He lined up volunteers and had them throw eggs in the air – and then, you guessed it, he shot them. Using a pump action gun meant he had to physically reload between eggs, a feat not to be sniffed at. He carried on by chipping golf balls higher with his shotgun than I’d probably manage with a club and a set of lessons. Using a 10-shot self-loading gun, he fired a shot, then shot the spent cartridge as it was ejected and continued the series until he’d run out of ammo. Last but not least, he more or less prepared a salad with his shotgun. He balanced a tomato on the end of his barrels, flicked it up into the air and shot it barely a metre away from the end of his gun. He then threw up a melon, which was blasted into pieces, and finally and most spectacularly did the same thing with a couple of cabbages. As you can see, it turns out cabbage explode rather marvellously when shot with a  12gauge shotgun:

Cabbages done, and we return to the cakes. I said previously that the verdict on the cakes would come later, and so here it is:

The lavender cakes I was a little disappointed at – the icing was nice, but wasn’t as floral as I would have liked – more experiments needed to make that one work. However, the Chelsea Bun girls seemed to enjoy their cakes, and I was delighted to hear that Kay thought she could taste the lavender – so maybe my taste buds were marred by the intense scent of lavender in our kitchen from the preparation. The delicious blueberries were altogether too scarce – more needed next time!

My mother was very happy with the carrot cakes, as was I. I would even go so far to say that it was one of the best cakes I’ve made in a long, long time and is definitely one I will be trying again in the not-too-distant future (and if you’re lucky, I’ll put my recipe up when I find the time!) But the biggest endorsement for me was when I gave Mickey a carrot cake. He of cabbage-shooting glory turned out to be an acquaintance of one of my friends, and joined us for a cup of tea. After accepting the offer of a cupcake, declared with a mouth full of carroty sponge,

– ‘That’s seriously good cake.’


[i] I’ve been wondering what that would be like in a ginger cake… Or perhaps in the icing… We shall see.

[ii] It turns out this is also a stage name; his real name is Monty. I shall have to keep an eye out for all sorts of espionage at the Chelsea Bun Club it seems.

Curiouser and curiouser

To start, an apology and an explanation…

Those of you who have read this blog before may have noticed a distinct diminishment in the number of posts recently. For this, I am sorry. I mentioned before that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel. Well, since then the symptoms of numbness, aching and random stabbing pain have spread to both hands, arms, feet, legs, lower back and more. Honestly, you’d think my body had something against me! I’m not dying or anything (had the blood tests to prove it), but I am baffling the doctors so far! That achievement aside, I’m happy to say that life is now on the up: I’m done with the resting (it makes no difference) and am on some lovely new pain relief drugs which should kick in fully soon. I’ve  got a lovely job that is willing to be flexible around my hospital appointments, drug-induced dizzy spells and discomfort, and I  have upgraded to a shiny new iPhone that I love love love love love, not least because the lack of having to press buttons makes it so much easier/less painful to type on! The above should hopefully explain my apparently paltry efforts when it come to new blog posts in the recent past, and it has all led to a moment of inspiration for a new blog post.

Now aided and abetted by my beloved iPhone I have as I explained before reignited my involvement with Twitter – my Twitter account was created years ago, but only reactivated when my work and my mum both created accounts and demanded faithful followers. My old account was resurrected, given a whole new look (@TheFirstFrost of course, complete with lovely sloe berries as a background) and suddenly I had a whole new life online. Ladies from the aforementioned Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club are rife on Twitter, and between them can easily absorb hours of my life with talk of cakes, discussions about guns, shooting and associated accessories, lovely photos, beautiful sketches and enough tweedy goods to tempt me and my far-too-empty purse, before I notice and drag myself away from the screen. The acquiring of Twitter followers is a whole new experience – at first it almost feels like you’ve got fans! After a while you start to realise it doesn’t actually mean quite as much as an adoring fan club with banners saying “I ❤ The First Frost” but it’s still rather exciting when you first reach your first 10, then 20, then 50 and most recently for me, 100 followers. And it was my hundred and one-th (hundred and first?) follower that provoked me into writing this.

And now on to the main event…

Mr 101 commented (very kindly!) that he enjoyed my blog and always liked to see ‘country converts’. I replied saying that, truthfully, I was coming to love the country, but that it was a very strange world indeed. And this, to my surprise, surprised him.

Though I’m well aware I’m not a full-blown member of the secret society that is The Country, I feel I’ve fallen comfortably far down the rabbit hole to be safe from burrowing border terriers looking to drag me out by my heels, and thus close enough to Wonderland to able to pass some judgment.[i] And what I’m seeing is intriguing,appealing, confusing, educational, fascinating and very wet and muddy (I suppose as one might expect a rabbit hole to be.) While I am most definitely on my way to becoming a country convert, I am, as I told the lovely man on Twitter, finding a lot of it rather strange.

First is that the country world is far more old-fashioned in a lot of ways than the cosmopolitan environment I’m used to. It seems in a few ways rather behind in the ways of modern technology. Don’t get me wrong; the tractors and other farming machinery I’m sure are built with the newest of new technologies, but for the first time in perhaps as long as ten years, I’ve met fully grown adults who don’t have email addresses. This is astounding to me, a girl who could reasonably comfortable type before I could reasonably comfortable write. I’ve used computers since I was three years old, and have had at least one email address and generally two or more at all times since the age of ten or eleven.  It seems alien to me that anyone could function without regular access to the internet and email communication. Similarly, some of the country businesses, organisations and companies I’ve come into contact with in this new world have websites as advanced and complex as the ones we built for our GCSE IT. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to live a life devoid of email or so un-reliant on the Internet, but it is in my mind peculiar.

Technology aside, the country seems slightly old-fashioned in other ways. I’ve met people of my own generation (early 20s) who admit to having only ever met one or two people of African or Afro-American origin, including  someone who said he once proffered an introduction along the lines of ‘I’m sorry if I’m weird around you, I’ve just never met anyone black before’. I grew up oblivious to skin colour. You might not believe me, but I really did. Accents I noticed, but the colour of someone’s skin meant absolutely nothing – my school was a rainbow of skin colours, and none of them had the slightest of impacts on our opinions of each other – your performance in inter-house challenges was far more important! My mum will back me up with an anecdote about some friends and me sat in the back of our car discussing how a girl we knew looked like Sandra Bullock. My mum sat in the driving seat somewhere between astounded and amused, as the lookalike in question was from an Indian family and thus had completely different colour skin to Sandra Bullock. But that was irrelevant – she really did look like Sandra Bullock! Let me be clear: I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone in the country is racist. Far from it. This is probably more of a comment on those people not-in-the-capital-city. But the slight, unintended racism of a few of the people I’ve met in the last year or two is incredibly strange and slightly shocking to me. I thought that sort of stuff had mostly died out, at least among ‘people like me’. Shows how closeted I’ve been in my capital-city life.

Similarly, I’ve personally encountered more sexism since discovering this world than I ever had before – for instance, gentlemen assuming I would know nothing about guns (problem here is, they’re right) or ammunition (I know a little more about cartridges I’m proud to say) and automatically turning to a male colleague to ask advice. Or more simply male customers looking unsettled in receiving ammunition advice from someone who dared have both a matching pair of X chromosomes and an interest in guns. Surely not! I’ve met women who volunteer to help on a shoot only to restrict themselves to helping with tea, coffee and refreshments. Now, I’ve made my love of tea and cake abundantly clear, and if you’ve read my blog and not realised that perhaps I need to work on my writing. But simply because a woman enjoys baking, does that mean she should be limited to the kitchen? Why not bake and help with the shooting side of things? Or god forbid, shoot yourself?! This is definitely NOT a problem affecting all country folk – if you possess said pair of X-chromosomes and find yourself sat at your computer agreeing or shouting “YEAH!” then I highly suggest you find your next S&CBC meet and come along. Join us in our ambition to prove to all menfolk that we enjoy baking and take pleasure from our beautiful kitchen aid mixers (wishful sigh) while simultaneously enjoying shooting and taking pleasure from our beautiful shotguns.[ii] Call it multitasking. If you like the sound of that, come along and you’ll meet plenty of like-minded women I promise! Anyway, I digress. Until I left university I was coming to the conclusion that from my own (admittedly limited) experience, sexism was far less prolific than some of my more feminist minded friends made out, and as long as I stood my ground I’d be okay. But if it’s still in existence in country life, evident to me in under a year, then who’s to say they’re not right that it is prolific in other worlds too. I’m growing to really like the country, and love the history and tradition – seeing no point in change for change’s sake, and valuing hugely a lot of things lovely and old-fashioned – but some things have changed for a reason, and these isms are one of them.

The second odd thing I wish to comment on, and that I can ramble on about for some time if given the space (but I’ll try not to), is the acceptance of the roles of nature and death. I’ve talked about it before, but Country Death is not a horror that lurks in the corner in a black cloak with a scythe just waiting, revelling in the general fear and loathing that people hold towards him until the time comes for him to hack your head off or whisk you away into The Beyond. Death is accepted. The animals shot for sport are respected while living, treated well, looked after and protected while still left to roam free. And yet their deaths, and the achievement of killing them, are celebrated and glorified with photographs of dead birds laid one atop the other, or a shooter photographed and so preserved for all eternity, posing behind the dead of a just-shot dead, one hand on each antler holding it up. Animals are frequently killed on a regular basis – a farming friend casually mentioned that he was going out ‘blasting bunnies’ later on, as they were causing problems in his crops. I won’t mention the hunts-on-horseback at this point, but foxes are still shot regularly as pests, and photos will often be taken of the carcases as the norm, even just friends snapping pics on iPhones. Taxidermy – a practice which I had thought antiquated and old-fashioned – is very much still alive, with stuffed birds dotted around country shops and living rooms, the heads of decapitated buffalo, stag, antelope and countless other animals mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in shops, shoot lodges and hallways. From a city perspective, this means that someone has taken it upon themselves to track down a living, breathing animal, end its life, carefully gut and empty the animal of all its bones, muscles, arteries and other live-preserving matter to leave only the outer skin, fur, feathers, eyes, feet horns and so on. They then stuff the dead animal (and use other much more complicated techniques) to ensure its preservation, and proceed to display this emblem of a life ended too soon as a pretty ornament. City girl says: what’s wrong with a painting or sculture?

I think I’m starting to be able to rationalise it, and even possibly understand it (and I’ll save that ramble for another day) but the problem is that however rationally I explain it in my head, the fact is that I’m still pretty squeamish when it comes to dead stuff. Or dying stuff. Once it’s dead in my kitchen, it’s not a problem; it’s not an animal that recently died; it’s meat, even if it is still fully clothed in fur or feathers. I’m just not phased by dead animals when they are obviously there to be eaten. But that act of killing them still turns my stomach slightly, the idea of a stately stag in the wild standing proud one minute, and lying dead the next with a bullet through its neck (or head or heart or wherever else they’re shot), blood spilled on the grass and then dragged back home. Then again, once it’s strung up to be skinned and gutted, I have no problem – it ceases to be a deer and becomes venison. But still the middle bit, the transition from dead to alive, the idea of people and children in particular being so close to that moment, and the successful hunter taking quite so much pleasure in it… much as I possibly shouldn’t admit this to some country-friends, my head may have manage to get around it, but my heart and stomach still haven’t. I’ll admit, I’m far happier with the idea of shooting birds than I am deer and stags, so I may simply be suffering from a case of Bambi-it is. Nonetheless, it took some serious thinking to find the idea of what I first saw as ruthlessly shooting a bird down mid-flight not unpalatable, and I still find the ‘country-folks’’ complete, nonchalant acceptance of it all rather peculiar.

The last thing I’ll comment on today that I find strange looking down the rabbit hole is the amount of money people spend on clothes and footwear. I come from a world where you buy your day-to-day things cheaply, be it H&M to M&S, but the extravagant purchases are a beautiful pair of heels, or a dress for a special occasion, both of which you may wear only once a year – if that! And I know someone who buys the absolute cheapest wellies he can, once a year for a festival, leaves them at the festival and buys another next year. But suddenly I fall into the Country, and meet countless people who own £300 wellingtons (leather-lined, of course). But it does make sense – a lot of people will spend days, even weeks on end in their wellies, wearing them all day long, day in day out. They need to keep their feet dry, comfortable and warm. Similarly, a £500 coat isn’t a designer item, it’s a heavy-duty, waterproofed affair – tweed of course, if you’re of a traditional persuasion and going on a game shoot – but still Goretex lined with these storm cuffs, that drip stopper thingy and those draining holes (in the pockets of course, to keep your cartridges dry!), and countless other sensible touches, instead of the frills and fripperies of the city. This makes so much sense – I’ve even started adopting it in my every day life, spending less on dresses and heels for occasions and more on my day-to-day shoes and clothes – and you know what, it works! My clothes wash better, last longer, and are quite simply fit for purpose – so much more worth the money I spent on them than a £200 dress I might wear once or twice. Though I’m still not in the market for £300 wellies – I just don’t wear mine enough. Amazing, wonderful, sensible, logical, and most definitely to a girl who grew up in the city, just a little strange.

Strange isn’t bad, it’s strange. The Country is my wonderland, and assuming I stay safe from decapitation-hungry monarchs that torture hedgehogs with flamingos, I’m eager to see more of it. I promise that as I keep falling down the rabbit hole, I’ll let you know what else I see. In turn, if you farming folk would be so kind, should you find yourselves out ‘bunny-blasting’ please avoid any flustered looking rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches.


[i] A country friend recently confirmed this for me, as I, a humble girl from Twickenham, referred to her local country town as “Chippy”. Apparently this means I passed some sort of test, and am well on my way to becoming ‘country’. Though apparently not there yet, as I still own Hunters, and insufficiently muddy ones at that (and love them).

[ii] For the record, I don’t recommend baking with shotguns or shooting with cake batter or even sultanas. Neither will yield very good results.

Time For Tea

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has brought to the fore a more patriotic spirit than I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-three and a bit years of life. Perhaps it’s linked to the Olympics (#London2012) or building on the hype of last year’s Royal Wedding festivities, but I’ve seen more red-white-and-blue than ever before, from bunting on trees to Union Flag manicures. And I’ve found it all rather heart-warming. On International Day at school, surrounded by girls in glittering saris, silky Korean hanboks and intricately embroidered kimonos, I often lamented the lack of an English national dress. The British, in particular the English, truly are in my somewhat limited experience the masters of understatement and not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss, and the general disdain with which much of the population look upon the closest thing I can think of to a national dance – Morris dancing – I thought spoke volumes about our national pride or lack thereof. But the marriage of William and Kate – now Katherine – last year contradicted me, and this year’s Jubilee festivities have solidified that still further. My delving into the world of the countryside has shown me and continues to enlighten me about a new side of British life, and the combination of these two worlds – the city and the country – has led me to the conclusion that British tradition – or rather English tradition, for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all proud enough to have and to celebrate their own national dress and traditions – does still exist, if in a slightly subtle form. I may live to change, alter, regret or even deny this assertion, but it’ll do for now.

Yesterday I went to my second gathering of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, and it was just as good as before. Three stands, three pairs of clays per stand and plenty of cake! The highlight was most definitely the wonderful, adrenaline-fueled simulated flush put on by John, Derek and Sid, our lovely instructors. I thought I loved shooting, and my second simulated experience (the first being a 20-bird sequence shot from the grouse butt at RBSS) has cemented what the first confirmed – it takes it to a whole new level. You have no time to think, it feels so much more instinctive and you do get a real adrenaline rush. I shot RBSS’s Classic Handicap with an A Class shot, and was thrilled with my 8 kills out of 20 when he only hit 12! The flush yesterday reminded me of that, and I was delighted when I managed finally to open my barrels and let the ejectors do the work (at the beginning I carefully removed my spent cartridges and looked around mid-flush for the bin to put them in). I reloaded at record-breaking speed – a personal record but still… – mounted the gun and ‘killed’ a clay that had been launched while my gun had been broken. The cherry on the cake was to hear expert instructor John King behind me say “very good shot”, a self-esteem boost if there ever was one. Needless to say I can’t wait for my first game shoot.

Shooting and hunting are, of course, part of British Heritage, dating back to Idon’tknowwhen. Having graduated from and thus left university, I think I am now safe to reference Wikipedia (and will admit a mixed feeling of guilt, rebellion and liberation in doing so) when I say that the first recorded instance of hunting a fox with dogs was in 1534. The relaxation of the law in 1831 meant that shooting was more accessible to the masses. The association of hunting (and I include shooting under that umbrella of a term) and the monarchy help give shooting its terribly British reputation – though, I believe, HRH herself doesn’t shoot, Prince Philip does, and the newest member of the Royal Family, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been photographed shotgun in hand.

A yet more quintessentially British tradition is that of drinking tea. Tea is the lifeblood of the William Powell office, and I’m sure many other offices around the country. I don’t think my mother could function without it – we used to take little sacks of teabags on holiday with us, as she could never find tea good enough abroad. It was presented to the Britons by Asterix in place of the Magic Potion, and, drunk with ‘a drop of milk’ led them to win the battle against the Romans[i]. Despite being grown abroad and only becoming popular in the UK in the 1800s, tea is most definitely an English tradition, particularly when served with cucumber sandwiches and scones – which should be pronounced ‘sconns’ not ‘scoans’ – with clotted cream and jam (my mother and I disagree on the order of application of jam and cream, meaning it was a hot topic of debate around our tea table today… opinions welcome!)

All of the above means that a meeting of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, guns and teapots at the ready, on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed most wonderfully fitting. I successfully managed not only to make a cake for this meet, but not to drop it; I did my bit, arriving with both my orange and hazelnut brownies (loosely based on Leon’s ‘Better Brownie’) and my pride intact. My brownies joined the cakes brought along by the ladies were not only of the same spectacular standard as last time, and to mark the occasion, they were adorned with red, white and blue stars, and union flags both edible and paper. Bunting decorated the lodge, and the beautiful LadiesShooting tea cups, saucers, side plates and teapots stood about proudly, waiting to be filled with hot delicious English Breakfast tea.

I was surprised again yesterday, this time by a spontaneous act of patriotism at a friend’s barbeque in the evening. In my role as sensible driver, I was amused and somewhat impressed when the slightly tiddly group agreed to add a new rule to the drinking game, Ring Of Fire. While the various rules are much argued over, interchanged, debated and tweaked, I’ve not yet actually witnessed the introduction of a new rule – until last night. To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s sixty years of reign, it was agreed that upon drawing a queen from the ring of playing cards on the table, the whole group had to stand and sing the national anthem. And despite their small size, sing they did. Twice before the game was abandoned did the walls of the shared house vibrate with passionate, tipsy renditions of God Save The Queen. I had the forethought to film the second performance, but sadly as it was on someone else’s camera I can’t post it on here. The gusto with which the anthem was belted out perhaps says more about the quantities of G&T and Pimms-and-lemonade consumed, but I believe it also shows that at their heart, even a group of proactive and intelligent students and ex-students with political views ranging from the redest of reds to the bluest of blues, share a love of their country and their monarch – if not the monarchy as an establishment. But I’m not going to dissolve into a debate about the monarchy here; suffice it to say, the enthusiasm and general joining-in-ness was really lovely to see.

Today I celebrated the Jubilee by enjoying afternoon tea with my family, watching the slightly damp pageant on the River Thames, followed by the Diamond Jubilee special “entertainment extravaganza”, all with yet more tea, homemade elderflower champagne, cordial and Lemon Shrub (more on those to follow in a later post) and plenty more cake. I spent last Friday baking a variety of cakes: the aforementioned orange brownies with toasted hazelnuts; wholemeal scones; a lemon drizzle cake with a hint of ginger (could have done with a bigger hint in my opinion but a nice moist loaf nonetheless); and the best Victoria sponge I’ve made to date, consisting of two wholemeal sponges that actually deigned to rise rather well, sandwiched together with only-slightly sweetened cream (a hat-tip here to the ex-colleague who introduced me to this) raspberry jam and fresh raspberries, and topped with more cream and a fresh-fruit Union Flag, inspired by yesterday’s winner of the S&CBC rosette for Best Cake. The plan was for leftovers to be vacuumed up by my friends on Tuesday after a street party here in Twickenham, but I fear the half a lemon drizzle loaf and two wholemeal scones that are left may not quite fill us up. Luckily I still have some elderflower champagne and more potent lemon shrub left over, which should hopefully distract my guests.

Shooting, barbeques, mini-flags, friends, family, copious amounts of tea and cake, pretty red-white-and-blue napkins and plenty of patriotic spirit have made the Jubilee weekend rather wonderful so far. This is history in the making, and we are living through it. We are celebrating only the second monarch ever ever ever  to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. (The feminist in me wishes to point out that both of the monarchs to achieve this were women. Long Live the Queen indeed.) If HRH lasts another four years – and I can think of no reason to doubt her – we will have cause to celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history; truly something to celebrate. I’d better get planning those cakes.


[i] I still think Marcus Ginandtonicus should have played a key role in ‘Asterix in Britain’, if only due to the fabulousness of his name!

Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.

Casualty of the Clay Ground

Arriving at a competition at the West Midlands Shooting Ground, I was nervous; the competition was in February and I had barely fired a gun since the previous May (and those shots I had fired were on a beginners’ day I joined my family on – hardly challenging targets). I met the rest of the people I was shooting with on the parking site provided by the ground, where the torrential rain I’d driven through to get there, combined with the muddy field, illustrated fairly effectively why so many people in this world drive four-by-fours. (Note to self: I must stop ridiculing my friends for driving Chelsea Tractors.)

The gun I’d learned to shoot with had kindly been sent down for me to use by my old instructor, and one of the boys in the sporting agency at work had equally as kindly loaned me a loader’s bag for the weekend to lug around our squad’s ammo for the day (I also tucked a bag of soft liquorice in amongst the cartridges – the people doing the shooting need ammunition as well as their guns). Gun slip slung over one shoulder and a somewhat heavier fully-laden loader’s bag over the other, I trudged off with the rest of the group to sign in and find our starting peg. The last time I’d shot with these girls I’d somewhat taken on the role of amateur instructress – I used to listen carefully in every coaching session in order to try and help the other girls in competitions, where instructors are strictly forbidden but helping your teammates fortunately is not. I’m also lucky enough to often be able to see the shot, so was able not only to help the girls with their bad habits (one girl always seems to close the wrong eye when following the clay) but able to tell them how far above, below, in front or behind they are on most shots, helping them recognise the problem to solve it with the next pair. Better a late break than none at all.

Having not shot with them, or at all, since May, I was uncertain as to whether I’d remember any of this, but was happy to find myself more comfortable in my old role than I’d anticipated, until the scorer called my name and I realised I actually had to fire the gun myself. I decided at this point that instructors have a far easier job of it than they let on – they can take credit for any good shots, as they instructed the shooter, but don’t have to take responsibility for missed clays, as they can always claim that their instructee didn’t listen.

I pulled my gun from its slip, stepped into the cage, practiced mounting my gun once in my shoulder, and called for my target,

–       Pull.

It was gratifying to learn at that moment that once ingrained, the ability to shoot doesn’t leave you; I hit 7 of my first 8 targets. You may become rusty, out of practice, and after 40 or so clays I must admit my arms ached from the weight of the Beretta I was shooting, and my performance had worsened. I’ll also employ the excuse that I’ve been experiencing some trouble with my hands recently, and between every peg was strapping my right wrist up in a splint, removing it only to shoot.

This disability remained my excuse du jour, though the reason for my waning number of breaks was probably just that I was out of practice. For one of these reasons, or perhaps a combination of the two, during the second half of the day my arms and wrists ached from the weight of the gun, my shots were sloppier, and more clays shattered on impact as they hit the ground than as a result of my firing at them.

Despite this, and though frustrated from the knowledge that I’d missed some easy targets later in the day, I was very satisfied at my performance during the first half. In total, I actually scored more than the previous year, by a great big one whole clay. But mostly, it showed me that, under any circumstances, rain or shine, on a good streak or bad, and even when in pain, I love shooting, and don’t ever want to give it up.

Yesterday that was reinforced, as I went out for a little shoot with the new gunman from work at the local clay ground. He brought two of his guns and I tried both – first, a side by side, and it was the first time I’d ever shot with one. It is peculiar to shooting with one, when you’ve only experienced an over-and-under. The picture you see at the end of your nose is entirely different, though I think I could have got used to it had I been able to see over the barrels. However, the combination of a short, low stock, and much heavier cartridges than I’m used to (28g vs the 21g I’m more accustomed to) meant that it kicked like an angry donkey, and after the first peg he generously loaned me  an over-and-under instead– 12b a semi-automatic Beretta, which provided a much more familiar picture. However, despite this advantage (or lack of disadvantage), a stock a little short for me, and too low a comb to boot, meant that I spent two hours being beaten around the face with an ill-fitting stock and was just a little tender in the jaw this morning. But I’d go straight back out and do it all again tomorrow, bruises and all. While I missed a huge percentage of my clays, I was somewhat mollified when the gentleman buttoning the compact for us said to me at the end that it was obvious I could shoot, but would perform better with a more tailored gun and cartridge combination. I stress at this point that if you’re interested in shooting at all, make sure your gun fits.

My requirements are not particularly complicated, but are uncommon – surprisingly as a woman, I need a long stock, thanks to the long arms I was graced with by my mother’s genetics; and as far more women will find, I require a comb raiser (or two) on the stock. This is because women have a tendency towards longer necks and higher cheekbones than most men, and the measurements of shotguns were originally tailored to a gentleman’s build. The comb height in particular is important – if I rest my head properly on the stock of the semi-auto I was shooting with yesterday, or for that matter the side by side I tried, not to mention most of the guns in the showroom at work, I cannot see over the barrels. This makes things tricky when the target I’m aiming at is the other end of them. By lifting your head from the stock, you leave your cheek vulnerable to recoil, resulting in a fair walloping from the stock with every cartridge fired, and the flinching that ensues will often distort your shot and cause you to miss the target. My two tips for today therefore, are first to make sure, if possible, that your gun fits you to some degree at least; and second, if you cannot arrange the first, try to ensure that you can at least see your target over the barrels of your gun.