HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUNDOG
It took novelist and city girl Kate Fenton years
to embrace country life - then a four-legged friend introduced her
to the joys of grouse-beating
Just occasionally, I feel a pang of nostalgia
for my old urban life, for the time when my idea of traversing rough
country would be to take a short cut over Clapham Common en route
to the tube. The pangs are strongest at time such as now, when the
muddy puddle into which I've just stepped turns out to be a peat
bog. It's green, stinking, thick as trifle, and rather chilly around
With the putrid sludge at bra level, I imagine some television
archaeologist, in years to come, prodding the bleached bones in
'Fenton's Fen' and detecting the spinal slump of a desk worker;
the metatarsals warped by stiletto heels. What was a nice city girl
doing in a filthy hole in a remote corner of the North York moors,
he would ask.
Grouse-beating is the answer. And if you're thinking that this
is some journalistic stunt - novelist flits in, gets wet, then scuttles
back to Islington - think again. I may be the only one of this bluff,
gruff, tough-as-a-tractor brigade wearing mascara, but I'm the genuine
article. I was here last week and will be back next, and all for
£23 a day and free beer. As to why I've signed up for a job
that makes an SAS assault course look like a tea dance - well, that's
what all my metropolitan friends ask.
After all, while it's a good few years since I was transplanted
from my civilised job at the BBC in London to the wilds of Yorkshire,
until very recently I wouldn't have known a grouse from a canary.
Like ex-pats on the Costa-del-Chingford, swigging PG Tips in the
Spanish sunshine and watching Eastenders via satellite, you can
live a long time in a place without feeling the need to go native.
My participation in countryside matters was confined to reading
Willy Poole and listening to The Archers.
My conversion began with a book; I was so horribly stuck on the
plotline for my latest novel that the only remedy was a packet of
Benson and Hedges. Because of the presence of the domestic smoke
police, however, I had to sneak off to the woods before lighting
up. Just taking a stroll, I'd murmur. Which was fine, until my husband
started to fret.
Gratified as he was by this sudden passion for fresh air, he was
convinced that a lone female walker was a magnet for mad axemen
and drug-crazed rapists. So, just to keep him happy, I borrowed
a dog from a neighbour: a brown and white spaniel called Fizz.
We clocked up a fair few miles, Fizz and I; me puffing and pondering,
she investigating hedgerows with the thoroughness of a professional
gundog. I developed calf muscles, a cough and a guilt complex if
I skipped a single day: spaniels have famously reproachful eyes.
Even so, I assumed ours was a modern, no-strings relationship.
Then, she jumped over a cliff. When I flung myself on my belly
to peer over the edge, she was the size of a piebald moth, fluttering
on the heaving swell of the North Sea.
I'll pass over the anguish of the next two hours, but by the time
the heroic Whitby lifeboat bobbed out from the cliff with a tiny,
brown-and-white figure sitting up - oh glory, sitting up - in the
prow, the course of my life had changed.
No strings - was I mad? I adored this animal. A day without Fizz
was a day not worth living, and when the man who (technically) owned
my beloved invited me to join them pheasant shooting, I didn't hesitate.
Not even when he suggested I do a spot of picking up. Sandwich wrappers?
I cheerily enquired. Men? Oh, dead birds. Hmm...
Not that I had any problem with the ethics. I eat game and never
doubted that these fancy fowl have a vastly finer life than a supermarket
chicken. Even so, it was unnerving the first time Fizz burst out
of a thicket with something resembling a junior peacock in her jaws.
But when she trotted over and deposited the feathery corpse at my
feet, my heart nearly burst with pride. We were a team. One woman
and her (borrowed) dog.
I can't pretend it was an equal partnership. Fizz hurtled about
like a hairy guided missile. I watched, and passed around the hip
flask. In my Gap sweatshirt and Capri pants (the only gear I possessed
in regulation sludge green), I was, I suspect, almost an embarrassment
to Fizz and her owner. Very conservative, these shooting types.
Inspired by my fellow dog-handlers, I acquired a whistle. Fizz's
response was what I imagine Queen Victoria's might have been to
a whoopee cushion. Nevertheless, among congenial company, in woods
as crisp as a Christmas card, I rather took to this shooting lark.
A friend gave me some tweed breeches. No matter they'd have made
Victoria Beckham's bum look big, I was getting into the part.
By then, I had finished the novel that drove me to cigarettes -
which I dedicated to Fizz, of course - but writing is like the Forth
Bridge. No sooner have you typed 'The End' than it's straight back
to 'Once Upon a Time'. And it occurred to me that the shooting field
presents a promising cocktail for the writer of popular fiction:
locals, Londoners, loaded firearms.
But I'd also learned that there's shooting and shooting.
There are our convivial jaunts with a bunch of friends - and there's
the big boys' league; the serious business that keeps our noble
landowners nobly landed and half the rural economy afloat.
When the dented Ford Fiestas and mobile hencoops outside your village
pub are suddenly outnumbered by spanking new Range Rovers, when
the neighbourhood buzzes with sightings of rock stars, royalty and
Texan trillionaires, you know a proper shoot is in town. And the
grandest shooting of all is grouse shooting, which costs around
£1000 per man, per day.
So, with an embryonic plot for my next book, combining showbiz,
financial espionage and a spaniel, there was only one place to do
my research: on the moor.
My initial notion, I admit, was to inveigle a lift with a tame
tycoon in one of the leather-upholstered, all-terrain toff-transporters,
and pop a few questions while knocking back 20-year-old malt in
the butt. (Note for fellow-townies: butts are those dinky, stone
constructions I used to think were sheep shelters and/or Neolithic
burial mounds. Hides for shooters, actually.) My mistake was to
consult first with a drinking chum who was also a beater on Danby
Moor. (Beaters: front-line infantry in the army of shoot workers.
Not to be confused with loaders, drivers, flankers or pickers-up,
these flat-capped Colossi bestride the heath in their seven-league
wellies, flapping flags and hollering like football hooligans to
encourage the birds butt-wards).
I was a touch startled when my friend suggested I join the beating
line. Then, while I was still groping for a reply, he said: 'Fizz'd
Thus did my pooch and I find ourselves with 14 men, one very fit-looking
female and a squirming melee of dogs, jammed into a canvas-roofed,
wood-benched, box-on-wheels towed behind a tractor, driven by a
Schumacher-disciple known only as 'Loony Tunes' (with good reason).
Then we were tumbled out in the middle of vast, heather-purpled
nowhere - and off we all set.
Walking through heather is like marching across a 1000-acre bouncy
castle, pitted with potholes. But at least when you fall over, which
I did twice within 100 yards, it's a soft landing. Twenty minutes
later, with a face like a tomato, I was told to stop and wait for
the signal. That's when I realized I hadn't even started the job
We were being strung out into a giant horseshoe formation, ready
for the drive. Like Miss Muffet, I sat on a tuft of heather clutching
my dog and flag (fertilizer sack nailed to a knobbly staff). Eventually,
like beacons igniting across the landscape, one flag after another
went up, and we were away.
On a normal hike, you choose your route, skirting gulleys, swamps
and walls of scree. Not when beating, you don't. You stick grimly
in line, and when the jungle of shoulder-height reeds looms, you
bash right on through. Heaven forfend you fall behind because running
to catch up across this terrain is not an option. Fat chance of
watching your step, either, because you're watching your comrades,
your dog (bouncing ahead like an ecstatic antelope) and, oh yes,
the birds - who seem to catapult over your feeble flag, sniggering.
And grouse do snigger: yakka-yakka-yakka. Still, no time
to fret about other little hazards such as adders (rife hereabouts),
blood-sucking ticks (even rifer), or the outside chance of getting
shot as you finally close in on the butts. Hell, there have been
times at the end of a long drive when I would have thanked someone
for putting me out of my misery.
By lunchtime that first day, I had material for several novels.
The guns' picnic alone warranted a chapter. (Note: the trigger-pullers
are themselves known as 'guns'. Also referred to in the beaters'
wagon, with a shimmer of irony, as 'the quality'. But the class
divide doesn't fall clean between 'them' and 'us'. You'll hear the
odd accent among our ranks that is more cut-glass than some of those
in the butts. Let us not forget our own dear Queen serves as a picker-up.)
The guns' alfresco feast featured champagne, lobster, Chablis, oozing
sirloin, vintage claret and a cornucopia of salads, breads and tarts,
all rounded off with port and a Stilton so stinky that we could
practically smell it from our spot further up the hill. We workers,
meanwhile, sat in a tangle of crisp packets, Tupperware, dogs and
beer cans. But I wouldn't have swapped our picnic for theirs, because
nothing has ever tasted as fine as that can of Carling Black Label.
In fact, as I flopped back that first day, ham butty in hand, I
realised I was feeling terrific.
And it isn't just those endorphins that kick in after vigorous
exercise - although beating reaches muscles never dreamy of by aerobics
teachers. Nor is it that you're in cheery company, having the sort
of flat-out, noisy, filthy-to-the-eyebrows fun that most of us haven't
had since childhood. There's more to it than that.
Imagine a golden September afternoon. You're lined out, waiting
for the drive to begin. A tapestry of moorland rolls to misted infinity,
and there's just you and your dog, breathing the honey scent of
heather, watching hares leap and clouds tumble. Could anything be
It's been a shock for my husband, of course. He married a Joanna
Trollope wannabe, and finds himself with a prototype Clarissa Dickson
Wright. At least he doesn't have to worry about me smoking any more.
It's impossible to combine beating with cigarettes. The problem
is combining it with writing - particularly since Fizz moved in.
©Kate Fenton 2002