New Year's Shoot
Some years ago, we received an invitation for a New Year’s Day Shoot. My husband looked at me, as he so often in these situations, half bewildered and half amused, when I asked: What do you mean, a shoot? Like Downton Abbey? In my mind the Downton Christmas special was playing in a loop; the one where they go to Scotland for Christmas + New Year. After the party with Scottish Reeling and stunning gowns, they end up on New Year’s morning fighting over who will get to have Lady Mary on their peg (Matthew, naturally) and they set off into the countryside. Drama ensues. I can’t remember the rest, I just remember beautifully cut tweeds in a field, silver goblets of steaming wine being passed, well trained dogs, and the overall foreign glamour of it all.
So I tried to breathe normally as my husband explained that yes, it would be exactly like that but without the servants. I started wondering what gown to wear for the party. As with so many of my fantasies of living in England, the adventure went Modern British very quickly.
I was informed that we would be staying with his sister the night before, so we could leave at 5am to be on site by 7am for breakfast before the 8am start. On New Year’s Day. So, no party, no reeling, no gowns and no champagne. But first, we had to swing by his parents’ house to pick up his Plus Fours and gun.
It’s Britain, of course there is a traditional dress for shooting. My husband’s Plus Fours hadn’t been worn for some time, so they rather wore him instead. But, tweed lasts forever, so there is no point in buying new. He retrieved his shot gun from his father’s gun safe and was given shells that belonged to his grandfather. Yes, I was going out into a field to watch my new husband use shot gun shells from circa 1930 dressed like a golfer from the same era. I was wrapped in every layer my sister-in-law could find for me. She runs a mountain trekking company, so it was more Touching The Void than Downton Abbey but I was definitely warm. 5am came dark, cold, and early and we set off into the new year, me wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
Once we arrived, we were greeted in the Shooting Lodge with coffee and breakfast, we met the other guests. Then we met the gamekeeper, who runs the shoot. He explained the rules. Essentially, you do anything he says. Stand where he tells you, shoot what he tells you, shoot how he tells, and stop when you hear the whistle. We then loaded onto the wagon, which is basically a gypsy caravan with a woodburning stove in it and were taken to the first drive.
At a traditional shoot, there are a number of drives or rounds, then lunch, then 1 or 2 more drives, depending on the daylight. You are placed at your peg, a whistle blows and the shooting begins. You must keep your barrel pointed above the treeline and sweep left or right no more than 45 degrees in either direction. If the bird is outside that range, you must let your neighbour have it. As with so much of British life, this is about the proper etiquette. When the whistle blows again, shooting stops, the dogs retrieve, and the party loads up into the wagon, which takes you to the next drive. It is all very civil and organized.
This shoot is a family and friends shoot, which our friend runs every year as a gift. His children shoot, the youngest daughter being the Annie Oakley of the lot. Fathers bring their sons + share a peg. One neighbour brought a new field dog he was training. Wives sometimes come out. All the men were in Plus Fours looking as if they’d walked out of an ad for Farlows or Dubarry. It was a bright sunny day, cold but crisp. We tramped through the woods, over fields, all absolutely glowing in autumnal colours. The first field still had frost on the grass and we were glad to be back in the wagon near the fire. After the 2nd drive they greeted us with consommé topped with brandy or whiskey. The kids had sausages and Kit Kats. We chatted and stamped our feet against the cold. I walked out to my husband’s peg chatting with one of the gentlemen I’d met. He asked if I was going to shoot. I replied no, that I was quite clumsy and have no business holding a firearm. In fact, just recently, I went to turn the page in a book I was reading and accidently threw the book across the room. He very nervously moved his shot gun to his other shoulder. After the 4th drive, we went back to the house for a traditional shoot lunch.
It was exactly as I’d imagined. Long farmhouse table, traditional food, dinner party seating. Because we’d been married less than a year, my husband was across the table from me. Only newlyweds sit together and the longer you’ve been married, the further apart they place you, it seems. We had dessert. We had cheese. We had coffee. And then it was time for the final drive of the day. My feet had only just regained feeling, so I stayed in the shoot lodge while the kids, the dogs, and the men piled into the wagon and set off again, hoping to get back before the sun set.
When they arrived, it was a flurry of tea and biscuits, whiskey and brandy, more chatting by the fire. Who shot how many? Who had a spectacular fail? Are those cartridges really from the 30’s? They’re cardboard, for heaven’s sake! After tipping the games keeper, we left with our traditional brace of pheasants in a burlap sack. Brace, I learned, means 2 and is the traditional spoil-of-war for a shoot. We returned the shotgun to the gun safe, handed a bird to my in-laws, and then got in the car to head back to London.
My husband roasted the pheasant for me some months later. It was delicious and like nothing I’d ever had before. An old world, gentle taste, quiet even. As I sipped my wine, I took a deep 1930’s breath and prayed we’d be invited back. It’s a good way to start a new year.
Originally published in The American Magazine