Hunters on the High Street

This season, for the first time in a surprisingly long time I have High Street trends on the brain. As it’s my first foray into this area for a while, I’m being restrained and am not going all out and fantasising about wedge wellies but am confining myself to two trends in particular: country sports clothes being all the rage, and country sports magazines being forbidden to the “underage”.

Ten years ago London’s streets were filled with welly-wearing waxed-jacket owners marching in protest against the hunting bill on the Liberty & Livelihood march. This year there are more Hunter Boots and Barbour jackets than ever before in the capital, but does this signify a swing in public sentiment?

In addition, pretty much every clothes chain on the high street has a “country chic” collection this autumn: from the very worst type of made-in-china-polyester-psuedo-tweed, to some really quite impressive British made woollen wonders. Everywhere you look there are pheasant and stag prints and motifs. Both ketchup and mustard colour trousers are properly “fashionable” for the first time since goodness knows when.

And it’s not just for teenage fashion gurus, there’s something available in this trend for everyone, no matter how young or old. Just take a look at Next’s “Heritage” range to see how easy it is to dress your tiny tot of a son (or daughter) as if he were heading out on the shoot bus rather than the school bus (just be careful what you put in his flask).

Plus, there’s no need to stop at your wardrobe, tweed throws and cushions abound in interior and furnishings departments, and Zara, for instance, had a rather natty line in pheasant-feather trimmed cushions and is even selling coasters decorated with Victorian hunting scenes.

So, according to “popular opinion”, it’s ok to deck out yourself, your family and your home in country sports kit. It must be, the High Street has spoken; 10 million sweatshop workers can’t be wrong. However, like all good oracles, the High Street is unpredictable and often self-contradictory. It has also pronounced, via its largest chain of newsagents, WH Smith, that it is not ok for children to read about shooting. There are also calls for short people to be discouraged from reading about guns by keeping shooting magazines strictly confined to the top shelves,
presumably to leave more space on the eye-level shelves for fashion and celebrity mags filled with images of “celebs” in their boots and Barbours.

So where have these two apparently contradictory trends come from? Does the urban vogue for rural chic indicate a deeper understanding of country ways? Or is it just a response to the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge looks hot in wellies, Downton mania, and the wettest, coldest summer in living memory? (Even “townies” need to keep warm and dry). Does the hoo-hah over magazine sales show that the gulf between hunters and hunt-nots is as wide as ever?

Regrettably, I don’t have the answers. I suspect that the magazine mess is yet again a small and mis-informed minority making life difficult, and not representative of majority opinion. I’m also rather sceptical about some of the “country” clothes that make up this season’s collections: a lot of them are as impractical and unethical as ever and do almost nothing to boost British designers and businesses.

However, I do see plenty of grounds for hope. Some ranges are heading along the right lines, if not there already, with good quality products sustainably made and designed in Britain. And, regardless of magazine sales, there are a number of shooting groups doing marvellous things to open up shooting and country sports in all forms, which can only be a good thing: favourite examples of the week are the Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club and BASC bringing more young people and women into shooting, and Countryside Alliance backed schemes for schools to learn more about hunting by “adopting a hound”.

And, of course, I have done my bit to support the British High Street in these tough economic times. Real tweed should be encouraged….especially in the form of Brogues…

20121030-151909.jpg

20121030-151920.jpg

Advertisements

Stone Age, Bone Age!

Little Miss Macnab is getting spoilt rotten at the moment: people just keep giving her gifts, not that she is complaining. Two weeks ago she got a beautiful cast antler from our favourite stalker, this week a book from an old friend’s daughter, titled “Stone Age, Bone Age!”.

As children’s books go, it’s a rollicking good read: cave paintings, dug-out canoes and deer hunting. Penned by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom and published by Franklin Watts, I assume it’s available from all good booksellers (and, obviously, not from WH Smith, who would no doubt see its cartoon-carnivorous-caveman content as the worst sort of child-corrupting filth).

After describing hunting in, admittedly, fairly broad brush terms, the book goes on to say how back at camp, a Stone Age child could “learn the art of knapping a flint, or skinning a deer”. It then says solemnly that “hardly anyone can do these things today – but just about everyone knew how to do them then”.

Now, usually when I am reading to Little Miss Macnab, she asks a lot of questions: she is three and a half, it’s her job to ask them, about everything, twice – I think someone’s paying her 50p per “why?”…but that’s another blog. Sometimes it can be tricky to answer or explain in a way she can relate to: I had to pretend to “knap” a courgette, and my description of flint met with a blank and faintly disapproving look. No such problems when it came to skinning a deer however: Little Miss has not just been spoilt with modern material gifts but also with having been allowed to take part in exclusive neo-Stone Age experiences…far more exclusive than the average Barbadian beach-club bragged about at school gates across North London.

We were lucky enough to come across a ageing royal during a stalk two weeks ago (that being a stag with 12 points on his antlers, in case anyone has Prince Charles on the brain). The friend who shot him decided that if this was be one to have stuffed (it seemed eminently logical at the time…). We were therefore lucky enough to witness a skinning back in the larder.

While I suspect that there are slightly more than a “handful” of modern humans about who know how to skin a deer, it is still a pretty rare occurrence these days, even on a Highland sporting estate. R, the stalker, told us that clients hardly ever want to mount a whole head, and that he himself had only been asked to prepare a beast for a head mount (or more) on two previous occasions.

It was fascinating to watch: not gory or remotely disgusting, but a real art, and one which has gone hand in hand with food preparation for tens of thousands of years. In these times where the majority of meat preparation seen by Joe and Joanna Public is removing a joint from a shrink-wrapped, vacuum-packed polystyrene package, it was refreshingly natural. We felt extremely privileged to be there. And when I say “we”, I mean Dr M, myself and Little Miss.

We have always taken Little Miss into the larder, it’s educational and, the way I see it, a darn sight more honest than giving her the impression that “meat” grows on trees in the form of sausages and chicken nuggets. She has never been remotely traumatised by it and was thrilled to be able to see how muscles, skin, blood and bones actually fit together. The only nightmares she’s had recently were when Dr M told her a story about a girl eating so many apples that she turned into one.

I’m aware that not everyone thinks a game larder is a suitable place for a young child, but, in many ways it’s a darn sight more suitable than your average supermarket or high street chain of newsagent filled with over-processed, over-packaged and over-priced tat. We’ll keep taking her with us until she asks not to come, and I’m hoping that if (when?) she does decide not to join us it’ll be out of teenage boredom and not unnecessary squeamishness.

Luckily for her, and us, there are no age restrictions in operation in the larder. As it is at the moment, Little Miss isn’t bothered by WH Smith’s age restrictions on shooting magazines: she loves magazines, but isn’t a huge fan of Shooting Times et al as they do not come with free stickers (something I think would make them even more attractive…I’d love to stick on pheasants, antlers, little pop-art style “bangs!”, but again, that’s another blog…). As a matter of principal, I hope that WH Smith changes its misguided policy before she is old enough to come up against it. As a matter of taste, I’d be happy if they didn’t as it gives me a valid excuse to avoid their poky, dingy stores and keep Little Miss well away from the vile pre-teen magazines that spill off the grubby shelves onto the stained carpet tiles of the floor.

Now, I must see if I can organise a flint knapping session next time we go to Kent….

20121024-184750.jpg

Great Expectations – part 2

So….as I left off in “Great Expectations – part 1″…..
It was 2.30, we had two stags down, gralloched and ready to go and the stalker had just asked if I fancied a peek over the hill to see if we could find “one for the road”. Of course I said yes. It would have been a shame to head home so
We were just going to take a look after all.

The hill had settled relatively quickly after J’s shots so we started to climb again almost immediately. We snaked around the back of bluffs and crept beneath ridges until we came to the very top of the hill.

It felt like the top of the world. The air was so clear and still that for a ridiculous moment I was reminded of an advert for HD television. We could see all the way to Glencoe, beyond the vast Rannoch Moor, in the north and to Ben Lawers and beyond to the south. We were warm after our climb but the peaty puddles around us were still covered with a thin layer of ice crystals in fascinating triangular formations that neither J nor I had seen before. At our feet, tuft of heather was linked to the others amidst a network of spiders’ webs, glittering in the afternoon sunshine. It was truly breathtaking.

The roaring of the beasts below and ahead drew us on and we dropped into a series of gullies from which the stalker was able to spy any potential cull animals. It wasn’t long before he crept back with a grin and informed me that we were on.

I left J with my baggage and binoculars and R and I set off on hands and knees with the rifle. “Now,” said R stopping after a few minutes and handing me his Swarovskis and pointing into the corrie below us “that’s not our quarry today but you might want to have a look at him anyway.” It was the most beautiful stag, a huge fellow with a head and physique that would have made Landseer gawp and scrabble for a pencil. No offence to the regal beast J had just put down, but this boy was like Henry VIII compared with J’s Charles I.

After I had finished gawping, we left J to have a snooze and R led me on to the next crest, from behind which we heard a hearty roar. He slithered forwards and set up the rifle. I slid into position next to him and pulled the stock into my shoulder, sliding my cheek along it until I had a clear view through the scope. As I did so I noticed three sheep moving purposefully below me in the direction of the stag. Bugger, I thought, that’s him gone then.

He was on the move alright and climbing steadily towards the far side of the corrie, but he was not entirely lost. He stopped and roared around 190 yards away. “Have you got him? Are you comfortable?” Whispered R as the stag turned broadside to us “Right, I want you to aim just three to four inches higher than usual.” I did as I was told, keeping calm, breathing steadily and thanking God that I had put in those hours at Bisley over the summer.

The shot felt good, really good, none of the usual “did I pull it?” panic, but the beast barely seemed to notice. My few previous stags had either gone down immediately or reared up dramatically and run a final adrenaline fuelled 30 yards before dropping like stones. This one merely took a slight step sideways along the steep hillside and then sauntered on along his previous course. Bugger, I thought again and reloaded, bugger, bugger, bugger. And I was just about to think it for a fifth time when the stag dropped like a stone and tumbled down the slope into the bracken.

J was a little miffed to be denied a nap but scurried over with rifle case and my handbag (yes, I took a handbag) to inspect and have a solemnly celebratory sip of damson gin. The stag had a small ish but very prettily balanced 11 point head, only one missing tine (point) on the top left cup preventing him from being a royal. Like J’s, however, he was thin as a rake after weeks of rutting. (Red stags eat virtually nothing and barely sleep while the rut is on, they really do have one track minds).

There was no time to stand about however. We now had three stags to bring in, were some way from the Defender and it was four o’clock. R gralloched the beast with lightening efficiency and began to haul it down the hill while J and I set off to collect the Defender.

Getting the beasts back in can often be a bit of a drag (no pun intended) after the excitement of the stalk and the shot, especially if there is a long walk involved. The adrenaline had seeped away and legs that could have happily skipped lightly up another six Munroes in pursuit of a stag suddenly feel like lead when asked to trudge two miles to a Landrover.

I tried to keep myself up-beat with the prospect of my first crack at driving a Defender. That would a bit of fun I thought. Unfortunately, when I climbed into the cab I realised a terrible flaw in the plan: my feet would not reach the pedals. This particular Defender had several of its own peculiarities (as is only right and proper), including lack of a functioning handbrake and a seat that absolutely will not move forwards. I had to accept J’s chivalrous offer to drive; he is a foot taller than me after all.

It was also J’s first time behind this type of wheel, which gave us both a substantial shot of adrenaline. There were a few white knuckle moments as we unexpectedly poked the bonnet, or one front wheel or other over steep drops, and we did have the windscreen wipers going for most of the ride for no apparent reason, but by the time we reached the quad bike shed J was driving like an old hand.

R had placed the three beasts at various points along the track back to the lodge and all that remained was to squeeze them into the back and get them to the larder for a spot of beer and butchery.

There is no cosy gun room for post-stalking drams at the this estate so we tend to gravitate to the larder, where internal organs and entry and exit wounds are explored over a can or two of McEwans. I always find this part fascinating (mostly for the cervine biology but also because I can’t stomach McEwans in any other circumstances but gulp it down there). On this particular occasion it was even more interesting than usual: J had decided that, on the basis that he might not be lucky enough to shoot a royal again, he would have the whole head preserved and mounted. This meant that we got to see the beast skinned from just behind the foreleg.

This is a rare sight even in a stalker’s larder and it was a real privilege to watch R at work. Back in London I had taken Little Miss to see the “Animals inside out” exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which had demonstrates various internal layers of different animals, including red deer, but this was something else. Phenomenally educational for her and me and entirely natural – not so much as a whiff of formaldehyde – so much more meaningful and thought provoking than even the best of museum pieces.

Eventually the job was complete and I just had time to see where my shot had gone before rushing in for a shower and change before dinner: I had managed to shoot clean through the vessels at the top of the heart. I was very happy with that.

In fact, I was pretty over the moon about the whole day: three beasts, one a royal, a 190 yard heart shot, and an anatomy lesson to beat them all. I really must learn to be more realistic in my expectations in future…..

20121015-100757.jpg

20121015-100818.jpg

Great expectations – part 1

I’m sitting here with barely enough energy to keep my eyes open, let alone make the random taps on the screen required to blog. This is the result of an adrenaline and activity binge on the hill yesterday; a near perfect day’s stalking that more than lived up to the greatest of my expectations.

It’s not often that reality pulls its socks up and lives up to my expectations. I can’t really blame reality for this; my expectations are generally, at best, fantastically romantic “Boys’ Own” stuff, and, at worst, farcically tragic. Over the years, I have acknowledged and become quite comfortable with this and, these days, I never actually expect my expectations to be met. There is even a small voice in my head that tells me I should rename my “expectations” as “wildest dreams” and tries to woo me with predictions of events that might actually happen. But every now and then reality pulls its finger out and puts on a show that is every bit as good as the wildest of wild dreams.

Yesterday’s show was in three acts, with a glittering frosty prologue and a rip-roaring white knuckle ride of an epilogue.

I woke up uselessly early, feeling so much like a child on Christmas morning that I actually found myself checking my shooting stockings for satsumas and other Santa-brought delights. (Needless to say, there were none). It was my first day on the hill this year and my adrenaline levels had been rising steadily for the past 24 hours.

As the first soft slithers of morning light crept around the corners of the curtains I slunk quietly out of bed and pulled on woollen stockings, garters, breeks &c with almost bridal solemnity. Breakfast wouldn’t be ready for another hour so I picked up the binoculars and slipped out into the yard for a spy.

The glen is beautiful even at the worst if times but there is something truly spine-tingling about it at first light; the silence, the knowledge that others are still muffled in bed, and the thick frost glittering in the cold silver sunlight. The sky was cloudless and the only sounds were the gushing of the waterfall and the roaring of the stags. I picked out two in an area of woodland to the west and another on the skyline to the south. Then, realising that my hands had gone numb and that it was 8 o’clock, I scurried back inside for breakfast.

We were to be a party of three, me, Miss P and J. plus R, the stalker. The norm for the estate is one or two stags a day: it’s a smallish but steep sided place, not suited to an Argocat and only partially accessible by quadbike, so extraction generally involves dragging a beast a considerable way into quad territory, which generally doesn’t leave time for more than two a day. Other methods of extraction may well be more efficient, but this way is extremely picturesque, and I have to admit that the sight of a man in tweed hauling a fully grown stag home does make me go a tiny bit week at the knees….

The two shots for the day were to be taken by Miss P and J. I was ostensibly tagging along for the ride, and the stalker jokingly said that I could have a crack if we had time for a third. Before heading out we all lay down in the thick frost to have a few shots at the target and get comfortable with the estate rifle (a functional un-moderated Steyr 270).

If I hadn’t been wide-awake and wired already it would have been one hell of a wake-up call. It’d been a while since I’d fired a full-bore rifle without a moderator and I had neglected to dig out my ear plugs, on top of which I had forgotten the effect of the hills on the sound. It all made for a very big, very beautiful, but rather bone-shaking, boom. The target was around 90 yards away, on the basis that we would be trying to get between 100 and 150 yards of the beasts. Miss P put J and I in our place with a perfect bullseye to our pretty little groups, and then it was time to head out.

We bumped up the glen in the Defender and the stalker soon spied a big switchy beast, black with peat, whose removal from the hill would be welcomed by all. (A “switch” being a beast declining in condition, usually older, which has lost the points at the top of its antlers which would have formed forks, leaving spikes that make it dangerous to other, better stags). There were also several other lone stags and groups of hinds visible, and, ominously, almost no wind.

We slogged up, around and behind the nearest ridge, with more deer, but no more wind, appearing. There was still ice on the boggy puddles but we were now warm as toast. The stalker crawled with his telescope to the top of the next hummock and returned with the telescope still in its case. He reported in a whisper that there was a big stag standing just in the next corrie, very very close, close enough for the telescope to be unnecessary. It wasn’t the big black switch, but he would do.

The stalker and Miss P crawled to the lip of the overhang at the edge of the corrie with the rifle and waited for the stag, who was “arse-on” (which is the technical term I believe) to turn. He turned, and immediately sat down, and went to sleep. J and I got comfortable further up and started sunbathing. Twenty minutes later the stag got up, roared, and sat down to sleep again. Each time Miss P wriggled to get comfortable J and I held our breath in anticipation of the shot, but nothing happened for another twenty minutes: I saw Miss P’s right thumb move. “I think that was the safety!” I whispered excitedly to J, “How do you know?” He whispered back….BOOOOOOM went the rifle. Shortly afterward we were whistled down to congratulate Miss P and pay our respects to the stag. Miraculously he had been only 70 yards away.

It was just before one so after the beast had been gralloched and his insides had been outed, we sat down for lunch in the sun. We were making good progress and the day was full of promise: plenty of deer and plenty of corries and gullies offering cover. Once the hill had settled and the stag had been dragged to quad-able territory we set off up again. Unfortunately for Miss P, while the hill had been settling, her stomach had chosen to do the opposite, and she chose to head back to the lodge.

Not long after she had left us we were approaching the top of a ridge. The stalker motioned us to get back and be silent. He crept a few paces forwards then returned and, in a virtually noiseless whisper told us that he had caught sight of the cups of a set of antlers. I made myself comfortable while R loaded the rifle and led J out of sight.

I prepared for another 45 minutes of daydreaming and scenery appreciation when my peace was blown apart by a rifle shot, which echoed dramatically of three rock faces before dying away. This was quickly followed by a second, and then the stalker’s discrete whistle, summoning me from my hiding place.

I loped over the ridge and to J looking rather pleased standing over a Royal, who, until moments ago, been standing face on a mere forty yards away from him. R gralloched the beast in record time and hauled him down the hill.

It was now 2.30 and we had to stags down and ready to go. R asked if I would like to have a little look into the next corrie, just to see if there was anything there…..

To be continued…..

20121010-122604.jpg

20121010-110111.jpg

20121010-122730.jpg

20121010-122615.jpg

Clays and cake in Cambs

Little Miss Macnab is extremely happy: she was allowed to eat a whole “grown-up” ice-cream (known to the rest of us as a Cornetto) and has a beautiful pink rosette to add to her alarmingly large collection of pink things. Both were rewards for having behaved impeccably at this afternoon’s Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club and, even more of an achievement, for the duration of the stifling car journey home.

Little Miss, a feisty 3 year-old, has always enjoyed S&CBC days, albeit because Dr Macnab usually takes her out while I shoot and treats her to a magazine or a My Little Pony. Unfortunately for her, Dr Macnab was removed from proceedings half way through today’s session at Longacres, just outside Cambridge (not unfortunately for him: he was removed to go stalking on Jura for the week). So Little Miss had to muck in with the ladies.

With hindsight, it was probably one of the best ones to bring her to: Longacres is a relatively small and simple ground so the S&CBC had the run of the place. We were also a fairly small gathering, so not intimidating even to a 3 year-old.

The ladies all stepped manfully (or “womanfully” I suppose) up to the task of entertaining her while I took my shots, helping her make towers out of empty cartridge cases and teaching her how to break her first clays, by throwing them hard at the ground. She got quite a taste for it. Particular thanks to Hannah, Anita and Liz, who even attempted juggling in the name of entertainment.

In the meantime I got to grips with the shooting set-up. Now, I’m an Oxford girl at heart, so I expected the Cambridge way of doing things to grate a little, and my prejudice was borne out when I was presented with a Raptor semi-automatic 20 bore. Semi-automatic?! It was very strange, and too long, and didn’t have enough barrels, and didn’t break open in the middle, and the cartridges didn’t go in the right hole, and where was that hole anyway, and all the little levers and switches that I had just managed to get used to…..?!

It was the first time I’d shot with anything other than a Silver Pigeon and I found it surprisingly hard to get used to, especially when it came to where to put my hands: the action length felt all wrong and the grip and trigger hard to get comfortable with. As for loading the darn thing, I wouldn’t have known where to start, but thankfully Sam Grice, head honcho of Longacres, was on hand to act as a very effective loader and no-nonsense instructor.

We were to shoot five clays each at six different targets. By the second stand -a “crow” target, that I’d never seen before – I was beginning to get the measure of the gun and began to shoot better with it. By the end I had even managed to nail a couple of dreaded rabbits and was thrilled to shoot 5/5 on the final stand.

Throughout all this Little Miss had been wonderful, a credit to me if I do say so myself etc etc….. However, I should have known that she’d show me up at some point: I showed her the fabulous array of cakes and said she could have as many as she liked as a thank you for being so good, and, for the first time ever, she turned her nose up, even at the most chocolatey of cakes. She then refused all snacks other than an apple, which she sat and piously crunched her way through while the rest of us tucked into fabulous flapjacks, perfect pear and chocolate brownies, beautiful chocolate biscuit cake, lemon drizzle cakes, and gingerbread…..

And then, drumroll….it was time to announce the winners. To my surprise, I was joint high gun, which meant a shoot-off, for the first time in S&CBC history. It downed another shot of gingerbread for luck and re-donned my leather hat. Little Miss sat with the ladies, with instructions to shout “don’t lift your head, Mummy!” when it was my turn.

First to shoot was my fellow high-gun, Liz, the multi-talented master-juggler. Then, as I stepped up, I heard Little Miss’s dulcet tones shrieking “don’t lift your head”. Clearly I should take her everywhere as a cheerleader: I kept my head down and managed to shoot 8/8.

So, that is why Little Miss went home with a pink winner’s rosette, which she clutched throughout the sweltering two hour car journey back to London, after which she definitely deserved her ice-cream. I wish I could say that I also deserved mine, but, unlike my saintly, apple-eating daughter, I had already had 5 pieces of cake….

20120908-223808.jpg

20120908-223825.jpg

20120908-223839.jpg

In Training

I am now officially in training. For some serious shooting. Real, grown-up stuff. Shooting that matters. Shooting that is so serious it requires short, punchy non-sentences to hammer home just how important, serious and grown-up it is (apart from this sentence of course…).

The first bit of this serious stuff is (*takes a deep breath or two as the adrenaline starts to surge*) stalking in Perthshire next month. The second is my first game day, at Ripley Castle in November, organised by my shooting-fairy-godmother, Victoria Knowles-Lacks of http://ladies-shooting.com/ . Both require enormous amounts of “training”, physical and mental.

Preparations for Ripley kicked off last weekend at Barbury Shooting School with the Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club and a day of cakes and clays (see previous blog: Age before Beauty). The rust on my shooting after a summer off was noticeable, but nothing that a good bit of WD40 won’t shift (the little used bit of my brain that I use for uber-practical tasks like rust removal tells me that WD40 is the stuff for this job? If it’s not, please use your imagination and replace “WD40” with whatever I should have written). Some of the rust ought to scrub off tomorrow, with another S&CBC session planned, this time in Cambridge, plus a few further sessions, and any remaining traces will be scoured off at the Oxford Gun Company early in November at a special introduction to game day. The plan is to garnish all this with the guru John King‘s “Game Shooting from Scratch” book, and a few sessions lifting wine bottles or gym weights, whichever come to hand first…..

So far, so sensible and orthodox…..the stalking preparations aren’t looking quite as straightforward. To my great chagrin, I have no Highland terrain nearby: the closest things I have found so far, in terms of gradient at least, are underground staircases on the deep lines on the Tube, and Hampstead Heath. Strangely enough, I have so far chosen the Heath to practice my hill-walking skills. The weather has been glorious for the last week and it has been a pretty heavenly place to walk. I even spied some deer today on the Golders Green side of things. But they wouldn’t have counted as shootable in anybody’s book. I also saw a beautiful Lady Amherst’s pheasant, which wasn’t shootable either. So I marched on. Hopefully the weather won’t turn completely savage and I won’t be forced to    the Underground to complete my “training”….. Must also make a note to stockpile some whisky.

Age before beauty

I arrived back back in Blighty just in time for the first Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club of the Season. Excellent timing as I was rather out of practice: during six weeks of Highlands, Islands and Ireland the closest I came to shooting anything was hoovering spiders from the ceilings at our shack in Co Wexford (which, admittedly, is not very close at all). An S&CBC session seemed like the perfect way to get my eye back in and see if there was any strength at all left in my arms, safe in the knowledge that I would be able to drown whatever sorrows resulted in tea and cake. Oddly enough instead of a head full of shooting woes, I came away thinking both how old and young I was, and how lucky I was to be able to shoot in the company of some cracking women.

The shooting worries were there at the start though, especially as I now have a bona fide reason to get some practice under my belt (a belt made by the wonderful BVS Design, naturally): I am all booked in for my first game day at Ripley Castle in November, courtesy of the lovely Ladies Shooting. It’s a marvellous feeling to know that I might actually manage to shoot my own lunch at some point this year, and also a reminder to get my self in gear and minimise my missing. So I promised myself that I would embark on a rigorous Ripley regime, no excuses, lots of hardwork with a gun and in the gym, and, last but not least, browsing field coats at Out of the City.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a better place to begin this training regime. Barbury is not only an extremely friendly and comfortable place to shoot, it is also the stomping ground of the inimitable John King. Mr King has been shooting and teaching others to shoot for an eminently respectable number of years. He has the aura of a sage, a guru, a Jedi-master if you like, but without the silly voice and impractical robes that often accompany Hollywood portrayals of his kind. He also has a much better sense of humour than your average Gandalf or Yoda.

I was lucky enough to be assigned to John’s group of eight and we set off to see what we could do with a selection of guns and cartridges. Now, eight is a fairly large number to have in a group and means that there is a bit more standing around than is normally ideal on a shooting lesson. However, in this case the waiting was just as rewarding as the shooting: it offered to chance for a catch up and chat with other regulars, plus the opportunity to meet a whole range of new ladies.

In this case the range of lady guns was particularly interesting. First up was a lady with her own gun, and she was an excellent shot, making me feel pretty old to be starting out in this game, the fact that she was only 11 years-old was neither here nor there. It was the first time I’d seen someone of her age shoot and it was both impressive and reassuring to see how comfortable she was with her gun (a 28 bore), and how safe she was with it, much more so than one or two “grown-ups” I’ve seen. Her dad was a part-time gamekeeper and had been kind enough not only to drive her to Barbury, but also to sample the chocolate orange cake she had made, pretty selfless parenting if you ask me.

And then, a little further advanced on the road of life, there was a charming and very good fun lady who had “spent her girlhood in a grouse butt” but never really shot any (she had been playing with the dogs), and another equally good egg, whose husband had been shooting for donkeys’ years but who had only recently begun shooting herself. I have to confess that I was faintly surprised that two ladies who had been in such close contact with the shooting fraternity for much of their lives were not more frequent shots themselves, then it hit me that the “shooting fraternity” really is in many ways still just that – a fraternity – or at least has been until relatively recently.

Being from a totally non-shooting background (in my family, a shot was something you hit with a cricket bat, not fired with a gun), I had rather naively assumed that anyone who had grown up with shooting would be a shooter him or herself. I suppose to a certain extent it’s also generational: I am lucky enough to have been born and educated at a time when the prevailing attitude was that there was no reason a girl couldn’t do “boys'” things, and vice versa, not everyone had such good fortune. Suddenly I felt lucky to have got started at a relatively young age.

It had never occurred to me that shooting might not be suitable for me because it was a “male” sport. I did recoil (no pun intended) a little at the idea of shooting with a bunch of stereotypically swaggering stockbrokers and City solicitors, but that’s largely because I used to be a City solicitor, and am enjoying a break from swaggering, and not a feeling founded on gender grounds.

That’s not to say, however, that I didn’t jump at the idea of learning to shoot in an all female environment, like that of the S&CBC (and I’m also not denying that the cake was a big draw). While I don’t like the idea that females should be prevented or discouraged from engaging in certain activities because they are “male” (and vice versa), I don’t subscribe to the view that males and females are the same. Men and women are different: psychologically and biologically, and in a whole lot of other -ogical ways (oenologically etc).

Having been educated and worked in a variety of mixed, male and female dominated environments I now find that I actually enjoy, even relish, a bit of all-girl camaraderie, especially when it comes to learning something new. This surprised me to begin with as I had always thought of myself as preferring male company: following seven years in a girls’ school I rebelled against female company and could count my close female college friends one hand, come to think of it I could count and multiply them by two on one hand.

Dr Macnab is a great habitué of Clubs. Those of which he is a member only permit women as guests (which means that I am constitutionally prohibited from paying for my own drinks….). The only gripe I have about this is that I have yet to find an equivalent all female Club. The S&CBC is a step in the right direction though, not least because it has lead Little Miss Macnab (aged three) to ask “Mummy, why do only ladies go shooting?”.

And another reason I like shooting this way? I managed to nail 9 out of 10 of the clays on the final stand, something which would have been beyond my widest dreams six months ago when I first picked up a shotgun. And, of course, the cake was good.