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?

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.

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!