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?

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.

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.

The Welcoming Gaze of Gazelles

Finally, I have experienced a moment of belonging! But I shall tell you about it properly, try and do it the justice it deserves. Let me set the scene.

My previously mentioned shooting instructor recently asked me whether I might be around and available one Sunday, to help out on a charity shoot being set up by an ex-colleague and very good friend of his. Of course, I said yes. My instructions included when and where to arrive (approximately at least); to dress in ‘smart-casual but country casual’; and to smile, be charming, answer any questions and generally ‘help’ – instructions as wonderfully specific as so much of this world seems to be! So I dutifully rocked up armed with comfy-yet-country boots, fleece waistcoat and tweed skirt, and without a clue as to what I was expected to do.

And what a place to ‘rock up’ to. A central circular bar had been set up in the centre of a vast hall that was the shoot lodge/building/welcome space, with what can only be described as an armoury of spirits, beers, fruit juices, glasses and citrus fruits neatly arranged as though on display under the bar. A casually elegant basket of Danish pastries was wafted in front of my nose, and warily clutching a pain-au-chocolat, I sipped my tea (somewhat stewed in the pot but easily rendered drinkable by the addition of a little milk and plenty of sugar) and looked around. It was extraordinary. Huge wooden beams floated metres above us, a clean and fresh take on ‘country’, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves set in either side of the fire, over which a mezzanine level had been built around the chimney. The rest of the room had been left open up to the (beautiful) rafters, with huge doors on either side of the room beckoning the daylight inside. Two water buffalo heads looked down sternly from one wall, while a few decapitated gazelles gazed down at us with an altogether more welcoming expression than the angry buffalo. After a few moments spent in my own world (pondering how I’d convert the room into a one-room-house – it’s easily as big as the house I currently live in and a lot lot lighter to boot), The Day Proper began.

My ponytail anchored a James Shouler Shooting baseball cap firmly on my head, (James being the man running the shooting side of the soirée) and so bestowed on me the official role of Staff. There were sporting clay traps set up along one side of a upward-sloping field, and at the top of the little hill sat the flurry – my domain for the day. My job was to sit on the flurry, lounge in the sun with tally counter in hand, back to the cages and the shooters within, and count the missed clays. My old instructor (at this point I feel I should start calling him by name or as simply my friend, but for the sake of anonymity and also for story-telling purposes he will remain My Old Instructor) released the ‘flurry’ of clays over the four cages, spitting clays out at random angles and intervals, in an attempt to mimic a flush of real birds on a game shoot. Scoring and boosting morale for the more amateur shooters was a remarkably easy job, especially on such a beautiful day in such stunning surroundings. The attitude of the competitors was wonderful – as a charity shoot, no-one cared too much about losing (though of course everyone wanted to win) and the day was a huge success with staff and guests alike wearing sunshine-and-daisy smiles throughout. However, I’ve somewhat missed the point – my moment of belonging.

Walking out of the ladies’ alone with cap in hand, soon to be on head, I passed a group of women with perfect hair-dos and elegant (but highly impractical) white aprons, one of whom had so generously wafted temptation under my nose earlier in the form of the pain-au-chocolat . As I stepped onto the terrace, she spotted my cap and whispered to me conspiratorially,

–       ‘I wonder, can you tell us, what exactly is a flurry?!’

She went on to describe how she and the women she was with had sat around committee meetings about this charity shoot, smiling and nodding every time someone mentioned ‘The Flurry’, without the blindest idea what it actually was. I smiled and explained – terribly professionally of course – and joy of joys, they actually understood what I’d said, including my tentative references to game shooting (my experiences of which number to exactly nil).

The shaky sense of ‘I might actually know enough to pretend I belong here’ was reinforced by a fortunately overheard exchange between one of the instructors and one of the women actually shooting on a stand. Gun in hand and appropriately kitted out in tweed skirt and Dubarry boots, she was asked whether she was using a 12 or 20 bore shotgun. She glanced down at the gun she;d been using all morning and replied,

–       ‘I don’t know, the one with the little holes’

demonstrating to me without the tiniest hint of a shadow of a doubt, that I am not the least informed person within the world of shooting.