Ben Cartwright gets misty eyed, even if shooting lessons aren’t really too much like the days of skinned knees and blazers.
Do you remember your first day at school?
The coffee was rather good. Which was a surprise – because there was no coffee being served on my previous first day at school. Myself and three friends, Richard, Neil and Andy, had found ourselves in front of the headmaster on the first day of senior school.
Walking to school, we had come across damson trees laden with ripe fruit; they were too enticing not to pick. We began a war, from one side of the road to the other – until one large salvo obliterated the windscreen of a passing car.
Unbeknown to us, the driver had pulled into the school and remonstrated with the head. At the ensuing welcome assembly the head bellowed, “The four boys who were throwing berries are to report to my office immediately after assembly”.
Necks rotated in our general direction. Richard looked like he was about to blub. Neil’s face went crimson. Andy started shaking. I blamed Neil. Neil had always been rubbish at throwing.
But here I was sat in the rather swish surroundings of Honesberie Shooting School in the Warwickshire countryside. It’s on a farm that has possibly the prettiest herd of Limousin cattle you’re ever likely to see.
Honestly, they are so fit I’m surprised they don’t have their own Instagram account.
I felt a bit out of place in these strange new surroundings. I nursed my coffee, looking around the club house for something to take an interest in – oversized gin bottles – horsey sculptures – soggy labrador.
Following the taster session I’d enjoyed so much a few weeks before, I had signed up for a series of lessons. I was nervous and excited in equal measure. I’d phoned ahead a few days before to discuss the type of instructor I thought would suit me.
What I got was Julian. A no-nonsense, down-to-earth character who was as encouraging as he was non-PC. I wanted an instructor that wouldn’t sugar coat a bad shot and who could hammer home the basics. He didn’t disappoint. “More doing, less thinking, Mr. Ben” was to become a common refrain.
Out on the ground, it soon became apparent I was adopting a rifle shooting stance, aiming down the rib with one eye, and holding for far too long before firing. By the time I got around to pulling the trigger the clays had died of old age. Despite having left the army nearly 25 years ago, those weapon drills were still burnt into my subconscious. Now came the challenge of un-learning.
I was managing to hit about half of the clays, so I realised I was not going to be the next Faulds or Digweed any time soon. Julian surmised that my analytical nature, desk based job with hours spent looking at a screen were not helping the cause. Maybe my school-age self would have been less thoughtful and more intuitive; after all, as a boy I’d been a dead-shot with damsons.
One of the challenges of going to a shooting school is the ever-changing nature of their business. Unfortunately, this meant I couldn’t be assured of the same instructor each lesson. I realised that what I needed was continuity. Each instructor had his or her own style, nuances and method of teaching. While broadly similar, I needed to stick with one in order to progress.
By the second set of lessons I was fortunate, that more often than not, I had an instructor called Steve Cox. We quickly developed an easy rapport. He looked at the progress I’d made, then we discussed where I wanted to get to.
Much sucking of teeth ensued, some head scratching, then we settled on a game plan. – Steve would give me direction, I would listen, I would then fail to follow the instruction, then I’d listen again. On the second or third attempt the clay would break.
Some of you maybe scratching your head wondering about all those months of lessons? What can I say? I’m a slow learner. Later that year, to add some variety to targets I was shooting and the surroundings I was shooting them in, I started to have lessons at Hereford and Worcester Shooting Ground near Redditch.
The owners, Ian and Gareth Butler, in their charmingly understated way, have been titans of support and encouragement. Those lessons have now morphed into a coaching plan with Gareth, who often reminds me he’s been losing his hair at an alarming rate ever since.
Like school days, a routine soon started to shape itself that year. I got out every Saturday, always eager to learn more, to go a little further. Each week I got a bit more confident. At the end of the day, even if I messed up massively, there was never a chance of getting caned!.