The first time I was invited shooting, I was offered oral sex and cocaine by my fellow gun’s wife in her guest room. As I was 18, this sent me into the kind of fluster that only a boarding-schooled Englishman can manage, and having politely declined, I shuffled, shell-shocked, to the snooker room, where everyone else was gathered, including the husband. This, alas, was my introduction to what Prince Andrew referred to in his car-crash BBC interview as just another “straightforward shooting weekend.”
Credit where credit is due. In the U.K., shooting has retained its reputation of obedient Labradors, soggy tweed, and attendees with names out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. It is true that, during the day, the sport is taken very seriously by every Fotheringay-Phipps who is invited, anchoring their large four-by-fours outside whichever stately pile happens to be hosting. This is largely because anything occurring off the field is shrouded in a code of silence. Unless, as with this dispatch, the promise of anonymity is offered, and the floodgates open.
On the field, there is the dress code, the propriety, the traditions, and the ceremony. But come evening, the how-d’you-dos are put to one side and stalking and shooting of a different kind commences. As one countess explains to me, “Basically, everyone is unbelievably horny because they have been shooting birds all day. There’s something primeval about it.”
Guns, Looking for Birds
The season opens on what is known as the Glorious Twelfth—August 12—where red grouse (regarded as the poshest quarry) can be shot. Then, from September 1, it is partridge; and from October 1, pheasant. The season wraps up on February 1 with most people hoping to have gotten in between 5 and 10 days during that time.
There are generally two types of shoot. The first is the private type, where estate owners invite friends to enjoy the weekend gratis. The second is the commercial one, where the trigger-happy wealthy can call and book a day or two and the host charges them upward of $40,000 a weekend.
Both come with their own dangers, since corridor creeping is an after-hours activity that plays as much a part in the proceedings as tomato soup at elevenses (where a friend once spiked the soup with Viagra to usher things along).
Let’s begin with Norfolk—partridge land—which is known to be patrolled by a Lothario whose significant appendage has earned him the nickname “the Norfolk Chopper.” As a friend says, “It has made more than the odd guest appearance on a shooting weekend, believe me.”
The first time I was invited shooting, I was offered oral sex and cocaine by my fellow gun’s wife in her guest room.
Another house in Norfolk, known for the fancy-dress themes at dinner, seems to be a magnet for salacious conduct. According to the current owner: “On more than one occasion, my father came downstairs early and found one of our female friends facedown on the carpet with her bottom in the air. And knowing that my mother disapproved of this kind of behavior, he used to wake them and send them up to their beds. He’d then gather up the glasses and try and re-unite the stray underwear with the owners.”
The house hasn’t escaped the Norfolk Chopper’s advances. As my friend says, “He tried to institute a threesome with a chum of his but was given short shrift.”
Ah, the Traditions of the Landed Gentry
Incongruous nudity seems to always play a part in these weekends. A friend who is married to a princess and therefore gets far too many invitations says that, at one estate, “come midnight, they fire clay pigeons at the house. The first person to break a window has to run naked round [the perimeter of] the house with a burning loo roll hanging out of his or her ass. Drives his wife mental.”
Who the host of the shoot is also determines what, if any, team activities go on. Richard Caring, who owns Annabel’s, in London, supposedly blasts “The Ride of the Valkyries” across the pond for the duck drive, while all the shooters are served oysters and everything is lit up with disco lights.
Norfolk—partridge land—is known to be patrolled by a Lothario whose significant appendage has earned him the nickname “the Norfolk Chopper.”
The my-house-my-rules approach is certainly not uncommon, with one duke known for using his castle’s secret corridors and bookcases to gain access to guests’ bedrooms. Other stories of boorish behavior include Prince Andrew, Britain’s highest-ranking roué, who supposedly arrived at breakfast at one shoot and took umbrage at the lack of standing up on the part of the other guests, so said, “Right, let’s try that again,” which brings to mind the maxim “Those who mind don’t matter. Those who matter don’t mind.”
And where sex is not involved, booze and drugs often will be. Our man in Yorkshire says, “The de rigueur drug of the London elite seems to be edibles. One friend came up from London, and his wife brought a bar of chocolate with her. I came down the next morning, and people were wandering around the house like zombies.”
Then there are the commercial shoots, which can be even more raucous because people are paying through the teeth in order not to be decorous or docile. Or, as a friend in Yorkshire says, “the corporate side of pheasant shooting as a whole is just a booze-fueled bonanza. The Russians and the Italians are the worst. They don’t even really want to go shooting. I have heard many stories from friends of mine where the whole estate will be lined up at nine o’clock and these guys haven’t even come down in the morning. Meanwhile in the house there has been some Victorian brothel going on.”
As the shooting season begins, fair warning: should an invitation be sent your way, it’s a cardinal sin not to reply immediately, and it’s a faux pas to wear brand-new gear or not tip the gamekeeper (who has a system of pockets so he knows who tips what). Finally, if you’re expecting the weekend to be something out of Julian Fellowes’s greatest hits, well, I am afraid it’s just not that straightforward.
Tom Chamberlin is the London-based editor in chief of The Rake