Tradition matters a good deal to the British. A country that has known no invasion, revolution, or extreme social upheaval for more than 350 years tends to be on friendly terms with its past. So for visitors who come to enjoy such venerable field-sport pastimes as shooting, fishing, or riding, much of the pleasure will derive from doing things in the time-honored way, whether it's crawling through Scottish heather accompanied by a "ghillie" in his "estate tweeds" (a three-piece woolen suit complete with double-brimmed deerstalker hat) or shooting pheasant as part of a house party on a country estate, in a manner that the Victorians would have recognized immediately.
Although recriminations continue about how last year's disastrous foot-and-mouth outbreak was handled, the disease itself has, mercifully, been eradicated. Despite the damage done to British farming and tourism, sheep are once more grazing the Welsh and Cumbrian hills; the nation's footpath network is fully open; and in the patchwork of woods and fells and meadows that make up the distinctive landscape of the English countryside, all restrictions have long since been lifted. In Scotland, where only the southern Lowlands were affected, foot-and-mouth is little more than a vague and distant memory.
The Perfect Country-House Shoot
Perhaps the quintessentially British field sport is "driven" bird shooting, chiefly for pheasant, partridge, or red grouse. This involves a line of (usually eight) guns waiting patiently for their quarry to be flushed out by a team of 20 to 30 beaters. Being so labor-intensive, it's the country-house sport par excellence, with no equivalent in the United States. (In Britain, the American style of bird hunting is referred to as "rough shooting," or "walking up.") One of the most skillful and exciting versions of driven shooting can be experienced in the deep wooded valleys of the Welsh Marches (on the border between Wales and England), where the steep terrain allows so-called high pheasant to be presented to the guns at the extreme range (around 180 feet) of the traditional English 12-bore side-by-side Purdey shotgun. British sporting agencies have literally hundreds of country estates on their books, with guests being accommodated in local hotels or in the estate house itself, where the standard of food and creature comforts is generally equivalent to that of a top-flight country-house hotel. Pheasant shooting is widespread in Britain, but the other area favored by connoisseurs is Exmoor, in Devon, where again steep valleys (here known as "combes") mean that fast, high-flying birds offer an exhilarating test of skill. Pheasant season runs from October 1 to February 1, but the cream of the sport is in autumn.
A completely different type of driven shooting is provided by red grouse, a hardy semi-Arctic bird that lives in the heather of high moorland. Commonly associated with the Scottish Highlands, the most prolific grouse moors are actually those in England's North Yorkshire, although the ones in the Lammermuir Hills on the Scottish side of the border are also excellent. Unlike pheasant or partridge, grouse cannot be raised in captivity, as the chicks require a complex insect diet. All grouse are therefore wild grouse, which means that the quality of the shooting is extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and disease. This also tends to make it expensive. Grouse is regarded by many in Britain as the ultimate shooting challenge. When flushed by the beaters, grouse fly at a height of only three or four feet, directly toward the guns concealed in "butts," or trenches sunk into the heather. With a tailwind they may well be travelling at 60 or 70 mph. Officially the season runs from August 12 to December 10, but in reality it's all but finished by October 15.
In addition to world-class bird shooting, Britain offers excellent deer hunting. In places such as England's New Forest, just two hours' drive from London, it's possible to encounter as many as five different species during a single day. The principal woodland deer of the British Isles is the roe, which is at its most prolific in Aberdeenshire, in eastern Scotland. Roe deer are not particularly large animals, and they are hunted at a distance of around 75 to 100 yards using a light .243-caliber rifle.
The classic form of British deer shooting, however, is "stalking," high on the steep and exposed slopes of the western Scottish Highlands. The sport here is for red deer, a sizeable creature, with stags weighing in excess of 400 pounds. Accompanied by a ghillie, the hunter stalks the deer stealthily in the open, a physically demanding process in difficult and dramatic terrain. The hunt may involve anywhere from 15 minutes to ten hours of crawling through rough and tussocky heather, pausing occasionally to check on one's progress with a spotting scope. Typically, the stag selected by the ghillie will be shot with a .270- or .308-caliber rifle at a distance of 200 to 250 yards. The peak of the season is September and October.
THE BEST OF THE BEST Perhaps the most highly regarded of Britain's shooting agencies is Roxton Bailey Robinson Worldwide (44-148-868-9723; www.roxtons.com), which provides a comprehensive range of sporting activities throughout the country. To arrange small private shoots for pheasant, notably on Exmoor, and driven grouse in North Yorkshire, contact Strutt & Parker (44-20-7318-5188; www.struttandparker.co.uk) and speak in person to Peter Baxendale. The leading agency for Scottish sporting estates and castles is CKD Finlayson Hughes (44-146-322-4343; www.ckdfh.co.uk).
Fishing for Atlantic salmon in the Scottish Highlands has always possessed a special mystique. Nowadays, however, the experience is governed as much by the splendor of the scenery, the pleasure of staying on a traditional sporting estate, and the excellence of the local whisky as it is by the quantity of fish. Scottish salmon rivers have been disastrously affected by net fishing, disease, fish farming, and excessive seal populations, with the result that the big spring-run salmon have virtually disappeared, while even the numbers of smaller summer fish (six to 12 pounds) have been greatly reduced. The best fishing these days tends to be in July and August on smaller rivers such as the Helmsdale and Thurso, rather than in March and April on the Dee, the Tay, and the Tweed, as had traditionally been the case. If you are looking to catch large numbers of Atlantic salmon, then head to New Brunswick, to Iceland, or to the Kola Peninsula in Russia. But if your primary interest is to spend a week or more in the magical atmosphere of the Highlands, then Tulchan Lodge offers prime fly-fishing beats on the Spey River, which flows through a 25,000-acre private estate. The lodge itself is a splendid Edwardian mansion that was built in 1906 and provides sumptuous accommodations to a maximum of 24 guests. There is a resident chef, butler, and complete household staff (44-180-751-0200; www.tulchan.com).
Fly-fishing for trout was an invention of Victorian England, and even though the fish in New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina (to say nothing of the United States) may now be both bigger (on average) and more numerous, there is still a fantastic pleasure to be derived from fishing in the cradle of the sport: the chalkstreams of southern England. Chalkstreams rise from underground reservoirs trapped between limestone and impermeable clay and are the European equivalent to American spring creeks. The water is alkaline and extremely clear, offering perfect conditions for aquatic life and world-class dry-fly fishing. The best experiences are found on the upper reaches of streams such as the Test, Wylie, and the Nadder, where they flow through private estates; the best months of the year are May, June, and September. The only trout indigenous to the British Isles is the brown trout, and these average a pound and a half (two pounds on the middle and upper Test), with plenty of four- and five-pound fish to reward the skillful and persevering angler.
THE BEST OF THE BEST Sporting agencies offer access to the best waters, and ideally you'll want to engage the services of a private guide. Roxton Bailey Robinson Worldwide (44-148-868-9723; www.roxtons.com) enjoys excellent relationships with most of the local landowners, and their chief private guide, John Russell, was for many years the managing director of Orvis in the U.K. Chalkstream fishing can also be arranged by the U.S. company Frontiers (London office: 44-20-7493-0798; www.frontierstrvl.com).
How to Sail the Coast
Thanks to the strong winds and powerful currents, sailing around the British Isles is definitely not for the inexperienced or the fainthearted. The principal sailing ground that offers a degree of shelter is The Solent, an expanse of relatively calm sea between the mainland of southern England and the Isle of Wight. Every year, in the second week of August, 1,000 or more yachts compete here in Cowes Week, one of the world's largest and most prestigious regattas (www.cowesweek.co.uk). Immediately following Cowes is the four-day, 600-mile Fastnet Race, from The Solent out to the isolated Fastnet Rock off the south coast of Ireland, then back to Plymouth harbor. Some sailors claim the Fastnet is the most tactically challenging race in the world.
THE BEST OF THE BEST Noonmark Yachting (44-148-958-9273; www.noonmarkyachting.co.uk) charters two Class One racing yachts, a Swan 56 and a Swan 57, which are available to compete at Cowes and in the Fastnet. These state-of-the-art boats (which can sleep up to eight people) have a basic crew of three and a race complement of 16. Noonmark Yachting also features a comprehensive range of other sailing yachts, and it specializes in crewed charters down to Devon and Cornwall (five days), as well as across to St. Malo in Brittany and to the Channel Islands, off the northwest coast of France (seven days). Further information about sailing around the British Isles is available from the Royal Ocean Racing Club (44-20-7493-2248; www.rorc.org).
A Walk in the Wild
Britain is blessed with a well-maintained network of hiking trails and long-distance footpaths. These may be through wilderness areas such as Snowdonia, in the north of Wales or, alternatively, amid the bucolic countryside of the English Cotswolds. Some of the finest hiking country is to be found in the English Lake District, not merely because of the beauty of the landscape but also for its associations with English romanticism, in particular with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Turner, and Ruskin. In the Lakes it's also possible to walk in wild country during the day and return to an exceptionally comfortable hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the evening.
THE BEST OF THE BEST Nicola Godfrey-Evans and her husband, Richard Hyde, specialize in personally escorted walking tours with tailor-made itineraries. Their company, Tours of Discovery (44-176-836-2200; www.toursofdiscovery.co.uk), focuses primarily on the Lake District, but they also regularly guide their clients, 85 percent of whom are American, in Snowdonia, the Welsh Brecon Beacons, the Yorkshire Dales, the Cotswolds, and along the Southwest Coastal Path in Cornwall.
Riding to Hounds
The British have an enduring love affair with horses, and events such as the Epsom Derby, which was first run in 1780, are still crucial to the country's social calendar. (Run in early June on Epsom Downs, a straight mile-and-a-half grass course, the Derby is a race for three-year-old colts, with prize money exceeding $1,500,000.) Similarly, the Badminton Horse Trials, an international three-day competition that is staged in early May on the grounds of the Duke of Beaufort's stately home, attracts a huge national following.
On the other hand, foxhunting, that most English of equestrian sports, is currently the object of a vigorous campaign, both inside and outside Parliament, to ban it in the name of animal welfare. Nonetheless, three times a week, from September to March, the oldest (1698) and most famous of English foxhunts, The Quorn, still sets off into the rolling Leicestershire countryside, a scene virtually indistinguishable from an 18th-century hunting print. There are generally around 100 riders, many of them clad in the traditional scarlet jackets, and whether or not one agrees with Oscar Wilde's famous assessment ("The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable"), it remains a sight of considerable aesthetic beauty. Foreign visitors are entirely welcome to ride with The Quorn (www.quornhunt.co.uk), and they may rent horses from Lyndsey Matthews' Springfield Stables (44-157-275-5572).
THE BEST OF THE BEST For those inclined toward pastimes that are less controversial and less potentially perilous, a number of Britain's leading country hotels have installed equestrian centers. At Lucknam Park (44-122-574-2777; www.lucknampark.co.uk), an 18th-century mansion in the Wiltshire countryside just east of Bath, guests can take riding lessons in an indoor arena, learn dressage or show-jumping, and ride a cross-country course that was designed by the Willis brothers, who were acclaimed for their work on the course for the Sydney Olympics. Alternatively, one can quietly explore the surrounding Cotswold villages on horseback.
Mastering the Art of Falconry
Falconry is an integral part of European medieval history—Richard the Lion-Hearted is said to have taken dozens of hawks with him to the Crusades—and in Britain it has long been associated with royalty and aristocracy, ever since its introduction ca. 860. Since 1992 however, anyone wishing to learn the sport has been able to do so at The British School of Falconry (44-176-469-4347), attached to The Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. The school was co-founded by Emma Ford, who, when not teaching or caring for its 24 resident raptors (including 20 Harris hawks and a solitary golden eagle), relaxes by flying her peregrines at red grouse in the surrounding hills. Today, The British School of Falconry is probably the leading institution of its kind anywhere in the world. Visitors sign up for a series of 45-minute lessons, and each session can be followed by two and a half hours' hunting with Harris hawks in pursuit of pheasant, duck, and rabbit, surrounded by the majestic scenery of the Highlands.
THE BEST OF THE BEST In southern England, both one- and five-day falconry courses are available at The National Birds of Prey Centre. Owned by Jemima Parry-Jones, a renowned authority on raptors, the center contains upwards of 300 birds belonging to more than 80 separate species, and it offers daily demonstration flights of eagles, falcons, hawks, buzzards, and owls (44-870-990-1992; www.nbpc.co.uk).
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