The Ghosts are still very happy!

On arrival at the Sydenham Estate, near Okehampton on the fringes of Dartmoor, the air was quite electric with anticipation for three reasons.  Firstly, the South Western Golden Retriever Club had been greatly honoured by the invitation of Mr Graeme and Dr Hilary Hart to hold their 14th Novice Field Trial on this spectacular shoot with what proved to be a fully deserved reputation.  Secondly, Mr Michael Courtier and his guns, the Dog Squad, had purchased the shooting day specifically for the trial and they too have an excellent reputation.  Most of the working gundog world are totally indebted to them for their generosity in supporting Field Trials.  Finally, an early season partridge novice trial is fraught with the dangers that Field Trial Secretaries' and handlers' nightmares are made of but this trial had attracted a record entry for the Club.

When John Darling wrote of the 'glory restored' (Shooting Times, March 25-31 1993) to this magnificent shooting estate, he made much of the work lying ahead for the planned transformation and of the foresight of Graeme and Hilary Hart.  As the day progressed it was clear the trust the Harts had put in Robert Alexander (Alex) to carry out the work as gamekeeper and then Estate Manager had been fully repaid.  Standing in line at the first drive with Alex he quietly explained how, last year, they had successfully created and shot these new partridge drives, but as the remnants of the cool morning dew twinkled in the bright sunlight which had just burned off the heavy overnight fog it was difficult to imagine that this natural 'shooting bowl' with its steep slopes and wooded stream-filled valleys had not always been shot over.

A singleton partridge broke from the sun on our left, was accurately despatched and landed at the edge of the wood just behind the line and so the drive progressed.  However, at its conclusion, initial disappointment at the number of birds shown was easily explained.  Whilst the entire trial had been cautioned into silence when moving into line by Brian Curd's (Field Trial Secretary) preliminary instructions, the cacophony of game bird alarm calls told us that the birds had not ventured far from the warmth of the woods.  With two dogs lost through failing to pick and about five or so brace in the bag we moved on, subdued, to the second drive, aptly named 'Bridleway' as Alex explained simply "...because it is next to the bridleway".

The guns had hardly taken their pegs before the first partridge rocketed over No.6 gun, Jenny Samsun, who with equal speed brought the bird down in a fashion which would have impressed her ex-fellow coaches from the West Wycombe Shooting School.  It was Jenny's birthday treat to be shooting with the 'Dog Squad' and it was everyone's treat to watch the splendid sporting scene which then unfolded.  Fifteen-plus brace of high lightning fast partridge had been brought down in a spectacular display of shotgun skill before Alex whispered that the drive proper hadn't even started!  Thereafter a steady stream of challenging birds entertained the guns who were as lavish as Alex was with their praise of his team of 10 beaters and 10 flagmen guided by Underkeeper Jeffrey Bolt.  Throughout the day the beaters worked almost silently in a well-rehearsed drill which, considering the age of the youngest beater, was quite a joy to see.

The Judges, led by Graham West as senior judge, Esio Venturi and Robin Watson, then moved the trial swiftly forward with plenty of birds and a good variety of terrain to test the dogs.  Some good work was witnessed with a stylish retrieve by Danny Burgess' pacey bitch Catcombe Chenouk but it was clear some of the other dogs were not as fit as the judges would have liked and the rising temperature was starting to take its toll.  Eight dogs were then taken forward to round three and the third drive, which Pat Kelly advised was called 'Router'.

Pat Kelly, who also trials her dogs, leads the remarkable picking-up team of five and proudly extolled their virtues.  "Steve Ashby trials flatcoats very successfully; he won the Flatcoat Society Open Trial last year.  Gill Gayhan, a dentist, has trialled goldens.  David Kent, he's a gunmaker and works and trials cockers.  We were a bit worried about him last season because he had a quadruple heart bypass so we were all lurking behind trees to make sure he was still alive at the next drive!  Harry Jackman works a golden bitch and Peter Morgan works and trials labs.  I occasionally have help from Tim Shipp, Graham West and Sally Jenkins, all very experienced handlers, as we like to pick-up properly and we don't like dogs haring around the guns."

'Router' was similar to the two earlier drives with a game cover of maize tightly drilled on the crest of the bowl with the guns positioned below but this time standing in a young plantation and very tight under the game cover.  Eddie Priscott, at a very hot peg 5, said "the banks are just superb to see partridges from, I'll bet they will just scream off the top of these."  A large flush of jumpy partridge exploded from outside the game cover just as the beaters were moving into postion but as the drive started the usual good steady stream of birds flowed.

The third round was really begining to sort the dogs.  Annie Wales' dog Standerwick Stephen and Judy Hendry's bitch Deadcraft Faith were consolidating on good earlier work.  Toni Sanders' bitch Lonelinar Delisa had a convincing eye-wipe to start her fourth round.  Nearly 2 o'clock and standing in the then blistering early afternoon sun, Brian Curd announced the guns were breaking for lunch and thereafter six dogs would go forward to the fourth drive.

Again we were in a natural deep part wooded bowl which stood high overlooking Dartmoor with wonderful views to Brentor in the late afternoon sun.  Alex moved away very quickly, grinning with eyes twinkling brightly, to prevent any possible explanation as to why the fourth drive was called 'Todgers Copse'!  All six dogs were in line with the judges in close order, listening to the gurgling stream that issued from the duck pond and awaiting that first drumbeat of fleeing wings.  The partridge came thinly through lots of high flying pheasant but a small bonus flight of mallard produced enough game to conclude the trial.  The easier birds came quickly to hand but the placings were to be decided by the retrieves deep into cover which proved the undoing of others.

The winner was clear for all to see when Annie Wales' dog Standerwick Stephen stuck tightly to the designated area and as third dog down picked the apparently 'dead' bird which leapt into the air but was convincingly brought to a delighted handler.  Judy Hendry and Deadcraft Faith's steady consistent work was rewarded with second place and final honours, third place, went to Toni Sanders' Lonelinar Delisa.  Standerwick Stephen was also Guns' Choice.

With the trial successfully concluded, the guns were pleased to be offered a short duck drive which brought the final game bag to fifty and a half brace of partridge and six mallard.  Michael Courtier summed up at the end of a very memorable day: "This day at Sydenham was absolutely excellent.  The hosts here have thoroughly looked after us, the birds were presented beautifully and happily we were able to connect with them.  All in all, it has been a super day."

Sydenham HouseSydenham HouseEven John Darling's 'resident Sydenham ghosts' expressed their pleasure, for just as Brian Curd started to say "It has been an absolutely fantastic day on a brilliant ground....." they chimed in with a six bell salute from the clock tower, to everyone's amusement!

The Guns were Michael Courtier, Paul Cohen, Mike Hedges, Mike Howlet, Richard Messenger, Andrew Morten, Eddie Priscott and Jenny Samsun.

Bruce Ross-Smith


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