THE PERIOD FROM 1950 TO ABOUT1965
Chapter 19. The parting of the ways.
At the age of sixteen all my friends had now got jobs and had money to spend. Slowly the gang grew smaller as it had to compete with 'Hops' at the local dance hall and girlfriends.
A hard core of us stuck to our regular shooting but the glamour had waned. Gone were the images of cowboys or big game hunters with Bowie knives. A Harris Tweed jacket with a pocket full of cartridges was the order of the day. I bought a lovely old Greener double 12bore hammer gun which has served me well to this present day and will no doubt become a family heirloom and pass to one of my children and eventually to grandchildren for generations to come.
After school ended I went to Hornsey college of Art in London and my parents moved house to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. My contact with the gang had ended, a chapter in my life had ended.
I felt stranded! All around me was the verdant Hertfordshire countryside that would have seemed like paradise to the gang. But on my own it was uninviting, I became a solitary shooter now and it was back to the air rifle until I got to know the lay of the land. Through working in the paper shop I got to know a farmer who gave me a Saturday job doing general labouring. It was there I met a twenty year old farm hand called Roddy. He was married with a little baby and lived in a tied cottage on the farm. One of our duties was to feed the pigs with cornflakes! The farmer bought hundreds of packets of stale cereals from the Welgar foods factory to be used as animal feed. Those were the days when you could feed pigs on any scraps they would eat. Roddy and I would rip open the boxes and empty the cereals into troughs. Sometimes inside there would be a free gift, a racing car or a Walt Disney character, we had hundreds. Next we loaded a huge trailer with all the cardboard packets, took them with a tractor into the middle of a field and had a huge bonfire.
The farmer was a kind man, I think Roddy's cottage was the outcome of the farmer taking pity on him after he had got his girlfriend into trouble and had to get married with nowhere to live.
When the farmer found out that I had a passion for shooting he did what he could for me. Although he owned his own farm the hunting rights for the whole area belonged to the estate of Lord Rothschild. I was introduced to Mr Tom who was the game keeper for a few small farms. When I went to shake hands with him I was offered a hook! The old man had no hands! I obviously could not disguise my initial shock because as we talked and walked towards a wood he wanted to show me, he told me the story.
When he had been a young man he was in the employ of the present farmer's father. The farm was then a tenancy on the vast Rothschild estate. One morning early whilst out rabbit shooting, he had climbed over a fence resting both his wrists on the barrels of his 12bore. The hammers were still cocked and the gun went off blowing off one hand completely and all the fingers of the other. Kindness must have run in that farming family because even with both hands removed from the wrist, the man had been kept on for the rest of his working life. Such were country ways in the times before the welfare state.
It was with Mr Tom that I now spent hours at the weekends, ferreting for rabbits, trapping moles and my favouite shooting of all time, taking wood pigeons over decoys.
Out came my Greener 12bore. It was very short and heavy as it was a re-bored and proofed big game rifle, a paradox. It had no choke, just true cylinder barrels and threw a very wide pattern. This was ideal for decoyed pigeons as although they were fast, they were close and we regularly had bags of around seventy. Of course Mr Tom didn't shoot but he was a mine of knowledge on all aspects of shooting and field craft.
We would sit late into the twilight back at the farm feathering pigeons ready for the farmer's wife to take to market.
I roamed the land with instructions to shoot crows, magpies, jays, hawks and owls. I questioned Mr Tom about hawks and owls. He replied, "With talons like those you can't tell me they won't take my pheasant chicks!" I could never bring myself to shoot owls and never did. It was not long before a bill was passed in parliament outlawing the killing of protected wild birds and owls were on the list.
Amongst my other shooting jobs I was briefly employed to shoot starlings out of the trees in a cherry orchard. This was airgun work and I was paid a penny a starling! I was also given a similar airgun job at a sewage treatment farm shooting starlings and rats.
My story about the shooting side to my life is rapidly drawing to a close now although it never really can. Shooting, once in your blood remains and certainly has in my case. As for the gang, well they returned to my life sooner than I expected, but that's another chapter, in fact another story.
- Tony Sheppard