When I was hedge laying last weekend and the Coopers joined me for lunch up at Beech Wyn, they reminded me of a story that had been prompted by their meeting that morning with an old gamekeeper called Catweazle down at the village hall.
As we sat by the fire eating our bread, eggs and bacon, I started to tell the Coopers of a story that angered Catweazle as much today as it did all those years ago.
It was at the village Christmas bazaar in the early seventies, and in those days one of the prized offerings was a twenty five pound turkey, all plucked, dressed and ready for the oven, and with this turkey came a competition on how it was to be won. This was usually done by means of guessing the weight, who could lift the most weight or some general knowledge quiz. This particular year however, Catweazle who was, I must say, the most formidable gamekeeper I have ever known. There was nothing that he couldn’t shoot, there was nothing that he couldn’t catch and there was nothing that he didn’t know about the countryside, but all that being said, he was still one of the most dull, most arrogant, evil minded, bad tempered person that I have ever come across. That was in those days. According to the Coopers, he has since mellowed.
Catweazle was on the committee of the bazaar and he thought it rather apt to have a days’ shooting and whoever came back with the most edible game won the turkey. There wasn’t that many takers, largely due to the fact that not many people liked shooting, not even enough to win the twenty five pound turkey. The afternoon of the bazaar, various gamekeepers, farm labourers and have-a-go pot shooters lined up to put their signature in the ‘I’ll have a go book’. As I watched, I thought that I would love a go at that and joined the queue. As I got further down the line and people had noticed that I was in it that was when the real jeering and mickey taking started. “You’ve not even got a gun,” were the shouts. “You’re too young for shooting,” then a hand on my shoulder was pulling me out of the line away from the signing in book. It was Catweazle and he was yelling about, “Come away, come away boy, being so stupid, you are too young for a shotgun, you’ve no license.”
“Who mentioned shotgun?” I questioned. “I’ve got an air rifle.”
“Yes, and don’t I know it,” replied Catweazle gritting his teeth. We had had many a pheasant off of Catweazle’s patch over a period of time. “No, you can’t do it, it’s for shotguns.”
“There’s no mention of shotguns on the posters.” I stated back at him pointing at the poster on the wall. “And this competition is open for all, not just the chosen few who have shotguns.” Just then, amongst all the commotion, the wife of the landowner approached us. Catweazle immediately let go of me and doffed his cap.
“I’m sorry about this Ma’am.”
“That’s quite alright,” was her reply. “I’ve heard the gist of this while I was sat by the fire with my cream tea and the lad here is right, let him have a go. What chance does he stand against all you grown men, I admire his spirit. And a week today, Saturday, 23rd of December, I will check you all out at 8am and check you all back in at 4pm and the one with the most edible game will be presented with the twenty five pound turkey.”
“Thank you Ma’am, I will see you at 8am on Saturday the 23rd and by the way, what part of the estate is the shooting to be held”
“You must pick your peg position from the bucket that will determine where you will be shooting.” Catweazle then produced a bucket and started to walk around the participants inviting them to have a lucky dip. Eventually it came around to me. My hand was soon inside the bucket, routing around until I found the perfect one. I pulled out the peg with the number 8 daubed on it.
“Where am I on the estate with this peg?” I asked holding it aloft. I was soon shouted down by Catweazle and a couple more keepers “Wait until everyone has picked their pegs you impatient little runt.” Her Ladyship then produced a sheet of paper with the corresponding estate positions to the numbers that had been drawn from the bucket. She began calling out the numbers and then mine came out.
“Number 8, The Big Grizzly,”
“Not too bad a spot,” I thought.
The Big Grizzly was a farm towards the Northern part of the estate. Woodland and pasture. It was important that I knew where it was to be held as I also knew that an airgun against shotguns is a very tall order indeed. Catweazle and a couple of other gamekeepers came over to me. “You haven’t got a chance, birds fly very high up at The Big Grizzly.” I ignored their banter and was only too pleased to be involved in the Turkey Competition.
As the bazaar drew to a close my mother, brothers, sister and I left to go home and from the village hall to our house the word idiot was mentioned by them fifty or sixty times. “No one makes a fool of themselves like you Allan, wait ‘till we tell dad.” Mum was surprisingly quiet. I think she honestly thought that I had a good chance of winning that turkey. That night’s teatime around the table with a cottage loaf and a lump of cheese, my father and brothers laughed and jibed. “I know you’re not the brightest light on the tree Allan but take it from me, an airgun against a shotgun is the biggest mismatch as you trying to throw me over the front wall.” But as they were laughing and jibing my mind was already in overdrive on how I could wipe the smile off Catweazle’s face. And by the time the bread and cheese supper was over, I had worked it out as to how I was going to achieve this.
“Don’t worry your heads about a turkey this Christmas mum and dad, because this year mum, you will be cooking that twenty five pound turkey.”
“And pigs will be flying by Boxing Day,” replied dad.
Friday night, 22nd December duly came and there hadn’t been much talk about turkeys all that week. The school bus dropped us off in the village at 4pm, I ran on ahead of my brothers and sister to our house, inside the door and straight upstairs, I changed into my rough clothes, I got my trusted BSA Mercury .22 air rifle from under my bed and I was soon down in the kitchen cutting some bread and a lump of cheese. “Don’t go eating that, it will be supper time soon, what do you think you are doing?”
“I’m going out tonight pheasanting and I will be late back.” Mum never liked me pheasanting neither much did dad. But my father was very much of the mind that the Landowners owned the land but the wildlife upon it belonged to no man. The owner of nature was a much higher authority. A view probably as wrong today as it was then. We loved the pheasant dinners but poaching was a serious business. As I have said before, we rented a house from the estate and in those days, poaching, if you were unlucky enough to get caught, your whole family could be turned out of the house so the risks were tangible.
My plan was simply to go out that Friday evening and try and bag a few pheasants and rabbits and walk up and drop them off at The Big Grizzly where then on the following day, to all pretence and purposes it would be as if they had been shot on the 23rd. Five forty five it was pitch dark. I was out of the house and down the track and soon across the fields. My peg number being The Big Grizzly meant that it was two and a half miles there and back. It was to be a very long night. The weather wasn’t particularly good, but it was bright with a three quarter moon which meant that the lighter the night, the more the pheasants were on their guard. Soon I was underneath a Hawthorne tree, three pheasants silhouetted against the night time sky. The BSA Mercury was in my hands already pointing at the highest bird for that was the clearest shot. A zip from the air rifle and he came tumbling down inside the Hawthorne tree. The other two pheasants immediately flew off. This started a chain reaction of pheasants cutting off throughout the countryside. The pheasant had got entangled half way down the tree. I looked for a stick and the pheasant was soon freed and fell to the ground. I put him inside my hessian sack but the noise from the cutting off pheasants was concerning. A fox getting too close to a pheasant would make them cut off on a light night but so would a poacher. Soon I was walking down the hedgerows heading for much thicker woodland all the time in the direction of The Big Grizzly. This was a poor night for poaching. The hedgerows were going to bear no more fruit as every pheasant I approached flew off into the moonlit night. Just then I heard a vixen letting off her blood curdling scream. “Must follow the foxes,” I thought. Soon I was in the thick woodland with my one measly pheasant in my sack. I briskly walked on through the woodland scrunching on the leaves that lay underfoot which every animal within a quarter of mile could possibly hear. I was focussed, concentrating on following the fox. She was still in front of me in the distance. After about fifteen minutes I saw the first snare. “The Keepers had been busy,” I thought. The first rabbit had had his head half chewed off. “She isn’t hungry then,” I mused, as this is an old fox’s trick of putting the rabbit out of its misery. “Damn, I can’t take that one.” But where there was one snare, there was very often a dozen. I was now on the top boundary of the woodland. All that I had to do now was walk down the edge of the wood and field and I should be able to gather my harvest. Another snare placed in a rabbit run, head chewed, “Damn,” As I leant down to the rabbit the blood around the neck of the rabbit was still moist although the rabbit had been dead for a few hours. The fox was just making sure that they were dead. She wasn’t too far ahead of me. What I did then was very risky, as for my plan to have any chance of working, she had to be stopped from mutilating these rabbits. I had to have rabbits. I picked up a large stick and started to wack the top strand of barbed wire as hard as I could, and started to shout. I kept it up for three or four minutes. Pheasants and pigeons were flying out all over the place. I put down my stick and hurried along the top of the woodland. Another snare, this time it was a complete rabbit. That had the fox, she was gone leaving the catch of the snares to me. Soon another snare and soon another rabbit, then another, then another, then another. My hessian bag was now starting to feel pleasantly weighty. One pheasant and seventeen rabbits. Eventually I arrived at The Big Grizzly. I hid them amongst a thick hedge. Now it was time to return home to bed. The excitement of the following day ringing around my mind.
The morning of the 23rd I was up early. I had a quick breakfast then fetched down my airgun with pellets. I made myself a couple of sandwiches and a flask. My mum and dad wished me well and I was soon walking across the fields to The Court. I arrived at The Court, I wasn’t the first or the last. We were then all greeted by her Ladyship who wished us a good days’ sport and said those immortal words, “May the best man win.” The Land Rovers were ready to despatch us to our various shooting points. All very exciting to a fourteen year old. Seven thirty we set off. All in all there were twenty two competitors. I was dropped off at The Big Grizzly at seven forty five. I waited until eight am and then I immediately made a b line to where I had dropped my hessian sack full of rabbits and my one pheasant from the night before. The day was bright, clear and frosty with a breeze that was quite cutting if you allowed it to be, but while you kept moving it was a lovely day but a poor day for shooting. Your scent could be picked up from miles away, very little chance of creeping up on anything and with my bag already quite substantial, almost full, I was not too concerned. I got the rabbits out of the sack and hung them up by their back legs and ruffled up the fur around their necks to leave no trace of the snare wire and to keep them as good looking as possible for four pm that afternoon. Then I put an air rifle pellet into each rabbit. I could hear the gun shots in the distance throughout the day but I couldn’t help but think they couldn’t be having much joy in these type of conditions. Three forty five duly came round and I was picked up by one of the Land Rovers. “Good heavens, you’ve had a good day.”
“A great day,” I replied. I asked the four people in the Land Rover what sort of day had they had, but their silence and miserable outlook told me that they had had a disappointing time.
Back at The Court the other four Land Rovers had already returned and the competitors were listening to her Ladyship who was addressing them from the stone steps in front of her imposing home. Each man had his game laid out in front of him. I only had eyes for Catweazle’s game. I could see quite a number. In fact, all down the line there was a tad more game than I had envisaged. I joined the end of the queue and started to unpack my sack. I laid the rabbits and my pheasant out in front just like the others. Her Ladyship walked down the line with Catweazle. Catweazle’s heap was the opposite end of mine. Seven pheasants, five pigeons, three rabbits and one hare, that in anybody’s reckoning was a fantastic day’s shooting. Down the line they came. Catweazle had excelled himself. He was full of confidence. You could see in his smug face that he felt sure that his bag was the largest and as they got to me his bag was still the leading count. When he saw the game in front of me his face went immediately stony straight. He had counted my bag quicker than any calculator, “Seventeen rabbits and one pheasant,” he muttered.
“Well I never, you have done well,” congratulated her Ladyship with a beaming smile. She then presented me with my precious prize. Catweazle then dispersed his men and was then asked by her Ladyship to take me home. The ride home, Catweazle, myself and the turkey was one of the most awkward short journeys I had ever endured. Even thinking of it today makes me cringe. His passing comment to me as I stepped out of the Land Rover was. “I don’t know how you did it, seventeen rabbits and a pheasant with an air gun on a day like this, I just don’t believe it you cheating little git.” My comment back to Catweazle was, “Christmas turkeys make us move in mysterious ways. Have a great Christmas Catweazle.”
A free range turkey always reminds me of Christmas in the most magical way.