It is always nice to see when one of our guns or rifles returns back to the factory after many years of service in some distant place. They often come back bruised and battered with many a great story to tell.
The rifle illustrated here is not particularly old by our 200 year standard, having been completed in 1990 for a Swedish businessman who’s passion was moose hunting. His calibre of choice was the trusted .30-06, a calibre of great versatility and with the heavier 200 grain loadings a capable calibre for Europe’s heavier game.
An interesting part of this story is that the rifle was acquired by a client of ours who we recently built a .505 Gibbs bolt action rifle for. This rifle came up for sale in his native Sweden and being a Westley Richards fan he jumped at the opportunity to own it and pair it up with the .505 Gibbs. Quite a combination!
This particular rifle was engraved with a Norse theme in mind and amongst other things depicts in raised gold the former clients favourite quarry. These more unusual and very personal engravings are always nice to look at once again, even though no-one can quite remember the story behind them.
The rifle was returned to us for a gentle refurbishment of the wood, a good service and a test for accuracy with modern ammunition. We have left where possible all the original finish on the metalwork as the client (quite sensibly) wanted to maintain as much originality as possible, as much out of respect for the former owner, as for his own benefit. The wood will certainly age back nicely over time, developing its own unique patina with the odd scar to remind the client of a day (hopefully successful!) in the field.
The rifle will shortly be returning to Sweden where without question it will have the opportunity to hunt moose later in the year, a sport we are told is not for the lover of sunshine and warmth!!!!!!!
Norse theme engraving throughout the rifle.
Original wear showing on the metalwork.
Westley Richards patent combination foresight with flip over protector.
An interesting find this last week was this ‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ of 1914, detailing Red Stag trophies from the 1913 season. The reason we say interesting is that a close link existed between Westley Richards and the famed taxidermist Peter Spicer of Leamington Spa, which until now we have never seen published in anything other than Westley Richards ‘Centenary’ catalogue of 1912.
Peter Spicer was born in 1839 and died in 1935, aged 96. He was one of the pre-eminent taxidermists of the day and was renowned for the quality of his cased birds, fish and Red Stag mounts. His studio operated primarily from Leamington Spa with an offices based in Inverness, Scotland, that handled many of the trophies hunted in the north.
Peter Spicer 1839-1935
The opening page of ‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ giving the two retail address’s used by Westley Richards at the time.
Individually ‘tipped in’ photos of some of the better stags shot during the 1913 season.
‘Spicer’s Stalking Records’ is a very nice publication that detailed many of the great deer forests, along with the best trophy Red Stags shot on those estates. Many of the better stags have tipped in images along with a short story about the trophy. The would unquestionably have been fierce competition amongst estates to produce the best trophies!
Westley Richards clearly had strong links with Peter Spicer and although no records exist today of how this relationship came about, it is probably safe to assume that it was of mutual benefit between the two great companies. If clients shot game with Westley Richards guns and rifles then clearly they needed a good taxidermist to prepare the varying trophies. It is worth remembering that Westley Richards also offered fishing rods, reels and accessories at the time and so all forms of taxidermy were a requirement for the sporting elite of the day.
Interestingly, Spicer’s Inverness office offered for sale Westley Richards guns and rifles, clearly acting as an agent in the north for the company, something we were until now unaware of.
The First World War would soon consume everyones attention and it would be somewhat sobering if time permitted, to see how many of the names listed in this 1914 Stalking Records actually survived the war.
An advert for Westley Richards Deer Stalking rifles.
You may have found us a bit quieter than usual of late. Well, that is because we have been hard at work on an exciting new project. After considerable time and effort, we at Westley Richards are proud to announce the launch of our brand new website.
Featuring the finest imagery and design, and industry-leading technology, it showcases the world of Westley Richards like never before. Designed and developed especially for those with a passion for fine guns, hunting, bespoke leather goods and the very best shooting clothing and products, the new site is a reflection of what we do here at Westley Richards in our relentless pursuit of perfection. We hope you enjoy it and we look forward to welcoming you all into our world.
It was back in June 2014 on the Explora that we were singing the merits of fine vintage bags and how they influence the leather goods we develop here in our leather shop. Our latest reproduction of a vintage bag is a classic game bag which previously featured in our 1912 catalogue.
By examining the details on the vintage bag, our leather department has been able to recreate a new version of the bag with the same look, feel and function. Faithful to the original bag, the materials used are our house waxed cotton, our classic brass fittings; and hand-woven hemp netting from the fishing town of Bridport in Dorset.
A classic and versatile bag, which would be at home on a variety of different hunts. May many a pheasant, grouse, quail or bottle of whiskey grace its pocket. This is now available to purchase on our website here.
Here in the UK the season for hunting Roe Bucks opens tomorrow, April 1st. This diminutive little deer is revered throughout Europe and the stalking and taking of a mature 6 point trophy is considered by many one of the finest hunts you can partake in.
As a tribute to the Roe deer we were commissioned a few years ago to build this beautifully scaled hand detachable lock double rifle in 9.3 x 62 calibre. Weighing a mere 6lb 14ozs the rifle is fitted with Westley Richards patent single selective trigger, a slim semi beavertail forend and open sights regulated at 100 yards for relatively close range hunting.
In this calibre the rifle is primarily intended for the great Spanish ‘Monterias’ where you might also encounter big Red Stags, Fallow Bucks and huge Wild Boar. Nevertheless, it makes a super compact and quick handling woodland rifle and would certainly be great fun to use during the Roe Buck rut in late July/early August when the deer can be called to within yards of the hunter!
It was a fine winter day, in the duck season. I had my pickup loaded with all things for an afternoon hunt. My Labrador, Miss Feather (Miss Duckhill Sheba’s Bournebrook Feathershower) had already occupied her place in the passenger’s seat for several hours as she always did on these days. I had worked through the never-easy task of selecting the gun and this one was well beyond ordinary. It was a Scott Premier 10 bore, with Damascus barrels. It was all done up in ducks as they often were, but this one was decorated with several odd and unusual species of sea ducks. I was almost out the door for the 1 ½ hour drive when I received word that Simon had gone to the other side.
My first reaction was not to go hunting, but then realized that was a very foolish notion, one that would disappoint him deeply. Instead, the day and the GUN would be a tribute. The Scott was befitting almost any occasion, but today it had to be a Westley and not just any Westley, but the finest one I knew. One only has to witness the title of these pages to know Simon valued Exploras and I value them as well. In fact I see them as the most complete and sophisticated firearms ever made. The gun today would be “The Queen of Birmingham” a Deluxe Explora and the most wonderful Explora and Westley I have ever met.
It came to me in a rather unusual way; out of an auction. I saw the gun, held it and crushing-love at first sight would be an understatement. It was glorious and essentially new… and I knew I could not afford it. A mutual friend liked the gun equally, but he had something I did not, an invincible purse. He told me simply to bid and buy the gun. If in the end I could afford the hammer price I could have it, if not I was to continue and buy it for him. I wrote a number, my very last number, down before the bidding began. The hammer fell on that number.
With it I began to perfect Explora ammunition, ammunition that would be ballistically identical to that which the great Leslie B Taylor had created. I used a ballistic technique similar to the originals to get 735 grains (1 ¾ ounces) to go 1250 fps at normal shot gun pressure. Then I developed bullets that would fly like the L.T. Capped originals. In the end I had a cartridge driving bullets that would fly exactly to those glorious sights, each and every one of them, all the way to 300 yards; and be deadly when they arrived.
The Queen performed wonderfully as a shot gun; taking valley quail, rare mountain quail, and ducks with perfection. Its crowning moment came late one autumn afternoon in the Sheep Creek Valley. The great yellow 6 x 6 bull elk walked out of the thick young timber into a room-sized open meadow and stood broad side. I was sitting with The Queen on my knees and made my best estimate of 250 yards and turned up that leaf. I looked at those massive shoulders over the sights, sights that were strangely rock solid and crystal clear. My son was beside me and I whispered, “250 yards????”… “Yes, very close”, was his reply. I pressed the front trigger. The big bullet arced across the valley and landed with a mighty “wok” as the bull lurch into the black timber. We listened, for there was nothing to see and suddenly there was a huge fir-rending crash in the timber, followed seconds later by another when the big bull slid out into a little clearing. The bullet struck the top of the front sight with laser precision, dead center and completely through both of his shoulders. She is a very, very special Westley.
I thought back on these things as we watched the sky over the pretty little pond. It was a still cold, a day without ducks. And then he came, the loan magnificent mallard drake with the most brilliant orange feet I have ever seen. He circled twice and levelled across the far side of the decoys; at 40 yards… almost too far for an Explora barrel. The same right barrel spoke and he folded; the only duck we saw that day. Feather broke ice to retrieve him. To me there was a perfection about it all.
It may seem odd that I waited so long to write this, but it took me time to heal and find the courage to fully address the loss of this wonderful man. While he was a bastion of the trade and a truly passionate gun person I think I miss that dry humour and wit most of all. Some time ago I addressed my Selvyt Pad and Tin for preserving the Westley Detachable locks in these pages. When he received this he feigned being stricken and stunned. He thought he had the only tin and I had poached in this sacred space. But then in virtually his last notes to me, he won the day as always, “Well only real Westley men have a tin”!
He does not know this yet, but a Hundred Pounder is making those tracks he is following.
Here at Westley Richards there’s really only one or two topics of conversation that consumes the lunch breaks or after hours chat between work mates and it’s not who is playing football at the weekend or what you’re buying your girlfriend for Christmas, it’s hunting! Where we want to go next, what’s left on the bucket list, what rifle you would take and what trophy is most desired. While having this familiar yarn several months back the discussion of driven Wild Boar shooting came up and featured highly on several of the guy’s ‘must do’ hunts. Fortunately for us, Romain Lepinois, one of our stockers here is French and kindly offered to organise three driven days for myself, Jason Morris, Sam Banner and Stuart Richards in his home region of Bourbonne Les Bannes, which is roughly 3 hours drive east of Paris.
Safety briefing before the afternoon stalk.
As we were all completely new to shooting things on the run with a rifle and having had no previous experience of Wild Boar, the first day was spent stalking the hunting area on foot to get an idea of what game there was in the area as well as identifying what we were allowed to shoot. They have a strict policy on what size boar could be taken. Only females up to a size of 50kg could be shot, to conserve the larger, prime breeding females. Although large males were fair game too, our identification skills were not good enough to be able to determine the sex of the pig as it passed you at 30mph on a woodland ride no wider than a pickup truck, so we decided to stick to shooting the smaller ones.
The hunting area was a fenced 250 acre block of mixed broadleaves, commercial spruce trees with some clearfell areas and tall grasses, with several strategically placed high seats to shoot from. We saw a good deal of pigs in the afternoon and had a few small ‘practice’ drives. A couple of the lads got some shots off but the pigs were too good for them on this occasion. The evening was feast of wild boar meats, locally produced cheeses and superb wines. The excitement was high for tomorrow and our first proper driven day.
The guns heading to their pegs.
A cold but dry day greeted us and after a hearty breakfast we drew pegs and headed out for the first drive. Around 20 people were shooting and about 6 or so beaters with dogs, split into two teams, planned to keep the game moving through the drives. Having drawn peg one I was a little anxious I wouldn’t see much as peg one, in pheasant shooting terms, tends to be the worst out of the bunch. This turned out not to be the case and fortunately for me right at the start of the drive one of the beater’s dogs marked some boar around 50 yards from my peg. A beater ran over to me, shouted something in French which I could only guess was ‘get ready’ and they flushed a group of 20 boar, 15 of which headed down the wood towards the other guns and 5 came out past me onto the clearfell. Too far away at first but not wanting to be out in the open, the boar turned and headed back towards the cover of the wood. As they headed closer to my position, I measured them up through the scope and managed to take a nice 40kg male with my 6.5×55. Two of the beaters joined me to make sure the boar was retrieved and I was duly blooded and congratulated. A fantastic experience I shall never forget. The excitement of the drive continued with a volley of shots further down the wood, hoping it was my colleagues also joining in the action. There were plenty of game around with some larger females crossing the clearfell and the odd Roe deer and occasional fox passing by too quick to get a shot off. Just as I thought the drive had nearly ended, I decided to take a seat on a tree stump, no more than 5 minutes had passed when out of the corner of my eye I spotted another 40kg pig was headed straight for me, again trying to head back into the wood, on rising to my feet and aiming the rifle it took off at a rate of knots and I luckily managed to catch it up and shoot it before it made the thick cover.
Congratulated by the beaters on taking my first wild boar.
Sadly my comrades had not had quite such good fortune, only Romain had shot one, although they had seen plenty of game, a suitable shot did not present itself. Such is hunting.Stuart Richards keeping watch from his high seat.
After another fantastic feed we set out again and Romain and I decided to join the beating to line to see the action from the other end. After a few frantic hours following the dogs and flushing boar to the waiting guns, the day came to a close, not before Romain and I shared a nice, larger male boar. We met up for the final count and to exchange stories. Luckily Stuart had been successful and managed to bag himself a brace of boar from a large wooden highseat using his over & under double rifle also in 6.5×55. Total was 11 Wild Boar and a Roe deer.
The final bag on the first day.
The next two days hunting were done in much larger blocks of unfenced mature broadleaf woodland, extending to several thousand acres, about an hour from where we hunted on the first day. Hopes were high after an amazing first day. Red deer and Sika were both present in the area and should a large stag present itself we had permission to shoot it, adding a new level of trepidation. Around 30 people in total each day joined the hunt which was made of up of French, English, Belgium and Portuguese nationalities.
The view over a clearfell from a high seat.
Although we didn’t see a huge amount of game passing our stands, by the noise of the dogs and sounds coming from the woods there certainly was a good number of boar in the drives, but like any game we hunt, they are totally unpredictable and knew all too well how to evade the hunters. Although the Westley team didn’t shoot any boar in the larger hunting areas, a few of the local French hunters managed to take a few nice pigs and we shot a few equally challenging Roe Deer. The whole experience of the hunt and hospitality shown to us by our hosts and fellow hunters was superb and it was very special to be able to share their hunting heritage.
The excitement and anticipation of each drive is something none of us had experienced before and we’re certainly hooked on driven rifle shooting, something which is pretty much absent from the UK. The lunch break chats are still full of our boar hunting tales but will soon turn to planning the next adventure.
Westley Richards gunmakers Jason Morris, Sam Banner and Stuart Richards.
The .300 Winchester Magnum, first introduced in 1963 is certainly proving to be a continued favourite in the rifle world and here we have two recently completed at the Westley Richards factory.
The first is a true left handed rifle built on a double square bridge Mauser ’98 left hand action. The client in this case was very specific about a heavier than normal barrel contour with a recessed muzzle crown as he wants to eke every last bit of accuracy out of the 25″ barrel. The second is on a right handed double square bridge Mauser ’98 action and has our traditional barrel profile with our patent combination foresight and quarter rib. Both have quick detachable scope mounts that integrate very nicely with the square bridges.
One of the nicest things about these rifle and one that we always discuss with a client, is how high grade wood can really make all the difference on a bolt action rifle, particularly if the engraving is being kept to a minimum. Both rifles have stunning exhibition pieces of Turkish Walnut that the finishers here in the factory have spent hours hand oiling to the very highest gloss finish. We think it speaks for itself.
Both rifles have our elegant ‘name and border’ engraving, with little touches on the recoil bar, pins, sights and square bridges, all executed to the highest standard. This is a point often missed by other makers who see such engraving as a cheap option. We use our very best engravers to execute this work and it is always worth the extra time and expense.
May the new owners enjoy many years of use and hopefully perform as well as the rifles do!
If a notch were carved into the pellet gun’s stock for every dove, rat or plum-raiding mousebird it had shot, there wouldn’t be any wood left. To say it is a working gun would be an understatement.
The old BSA has been in the family for as long as anyone can remember, but neither my mother nor my uncles could recall exactly when it was acquired. They told me that as kids, it was as much a tool as a source of recreation to them when they lived on a farm in Natal. There was no need to lock firearms away back then, so it stood at the ready in one corner of the kitchen. Apparently, this turned out to be handy when the cat dropped a mouse under the kitchen table while my grandmother was preparing dinner one evening. Still extremely alive the rodent made a dash in her direction. With an ear-piercing shriek that sent the cat diving for cover, she wielded a broom with abandon and succeeded in upsetting the stew pot, but failed to stop the mouse scuttling under the hem of her dress and up between her petticoats to wriggle against her thigh. By then the rest of the family had rushed to the scene and were splitting their sides laughing, but they had to assist when my grandmother fainted. After my mother winkled the mouse out, Pat got it with an instinctively aimed pellet as it was speedily exiting the kitchen door. He said it was probably his finest shot ever.
Apart from plinking at cans, despatching pests and stocking the larder, the gun was also used to shoot my uncle Bob when he was about 8 years old. Exactly how this happened is shrouded in some mystery, but a friend of Bob’s was visiting and my mother had just returned from school with a cake she had baked in home economics class. Just then Bob ran in white-faced, to say he had been shot. His friend had disappeared never to be seen again and with Bob sitting on the handlebars wanting to know if he was going to die, my mother tore off on a bicycle to fetch her father. Bob was taken to hospital where the doctor took an hour to dig the pellet out of his chest and he carried a large scar for the rest of his life. During the drama Denise, Pat and Allen scoffed every last crumb of the cake, which cheesed Bob off no end. To my grandparent’s credit they did not ban the use of the gun because of the accident, recognising that it was a human, not the gun that made the mistake. If anything, it made everyone more safety conscious.
Pellet guns invariably experience intervals of inaction when their owners grow up and graduate to rifles and shotguns. Although the BSA was lent to family friends occasionally, it eventually lay dormant for the long periods between our family holidays, when I would covetously carry it around and be allowed to use it for a few short days on the farm. It was hard to leave it behind when we had to go back to the highveld. I was told I was too young to have it then, but one day it might be mine.
My mother and Pat must have had some discussion about the right time to let me own an air rifle and had settled on ‘after I had turned ten’, but the exact time was not specified. I had however, overheard a telephone conversation and I knew Pat planned to stop over en route to Northern Rhodesia a few months after my 10th birthday. Nothing had been said about the gun but maybe, just maybe, he would bring it along and the uncertainty and anticipation was almost unbearable. At night I kept having dreams where a distant treat kept appearing and then melting away as I reached out for it. During the day I minded my manners, washed behind my ears and ate all my peas.
My uncle Pat arrived very late one night after I had fallen asleep, despite valiant efforts to keep awake. He was known for a long morning lie-in and his ability to consume oceans of tea before rising, so I had to be restrained from bursting into his room the next morning. Eventually the door opened and I hurtled in only just remembering to say hello politely before asking if he had brought his rifle with him. A slightly cruel smirk appeared on Pat’s face and he scratched his head saying that he was in such a rush he had left it behind. My face fell and all joy had gone from the day. “I did bring you some trout flies and a book” he said. My thanks were hollow and insincere and the weight of disappointment made my shoulders sag as my voice rose tremulously demanding to know how he could forget the pellet gun. “Oh”, he replied. “I thought you meant my .22rifle. I think I might have remembered to pack the pellet gun”. He pulled out a soft canvas bag and suddenly it was in my hands; lightly oiled, gleaming and smelling of ‘adventure’.
Despite having used the gun under supervision before, I again had to endure a long lecture. Bob’s accident was recounted and dire predictions were made about my fate should I ever shoot anyone. Discovering that my mother had a very creative imagination when it came to punishment focussed my attention and most of what they said sank in. Next, a list of allowed quarry was recited. It included Indian mynas, mousebirds, fiscal shrikes (because they terrorised the weavers nesting in the garden), rats and mice. Outside town, doves were fair game and finally I was told that in the case of birds, ‘If you shoot it, you eat it’. So began a new era for that veteran old gun.
I wish I knew how many shots of ‘various calibres’ I fired through that barrel. I was alternately John Wayne or a Red Indian Chief or a famous war hero or explorer depending on what movie we had seen at the drive-in and in my imagination, the BSA was alternately a Winchester, a shotgun, a double rifle and sometimes even a machinegun. Cans and various other targets were set up and engaged in the back yard and none of the neighbours ever complained. I must also admit that many birds met their fate and I’m not totally proud of all of them, but nearly every one was eaten. I earned a rare hiding after crippling a thrush, which was not ‘on the list’ after my father noticed it hopping around the lawn on one leg. My backside recovered and so did the thrush because it was still around the next year.
The day my friend next door was given a ‘Gecado’ air rifle, the safaris really began and we cycled to the nearest open spaces to hunt doves or field mice and collect bird eggs. The hunt that remains clearest was sparked when my father remarked that in a book he’d read, an early explorer had recorded a herd of over fifty elephant crossing ‘Linksfield Ridge’. This was long before gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand and before the ridge got named and although its rocky spine is now covered in suburban sprawl, it was still pretty unspoilt when we were young. Most importantly though, we knew guineafowl still ran wild on its slopes.
It was a dawn start, because we planned to detour via some dams on the ‘Jukskei River’ to visit an old hamerkop’s nest before making for ‘Gillooleys Farm’ where we would leave our bicycles. The Egyptian geese had decided not to use the nest that winter so we hunted striped field mice on the dam walls for a while and brewed some tea over a fire that smoked pungently from the ‘khakibos’ kindling we used. Youthfully confident in our shooting skills, we had taken tea, two apples, matches, pocket knives and salt. This was adventure in its purest form. We could get where we needed to be on our bikes and we weren’t expected home till late. By 9.30am, we had ‘tethered’ our trusty steeds in some long thatch grass at Gillooleys. We carefully selected only perfectly formed pellets, keeping a few in our mouths and the rest wrapped in a handkerchief. I checked my rifle because prior to being soldered back on, the catch that locked the cocking lever against the barrel would sometimes slide out of its recessed groove. You could still shoot by clasping the lever tightly against the barrel while sighting, but then you could not ensure that the other small lever to open and close the loading aperture was pressed tight shut with your left thumb. We needed no distractions when hunting where elephant had walked.
Guineafowl are cunning and with pellet guns, we knew we would have to get really close. It was noon by the time we located a small flock and commenced our ambush. They always trotted off uphill if slightly disturbed, so we retreated out of sight and took a wide, circular route to position ourselves higher and far above them. After peeping over some boulders to spot the flock below us, the leopard crawling started. Actually, the slope made it easier and it was more of a slow, slither that took us over dry grass and around rocks towards the prize. After what seemed like hours, a soft ‘chink’ kick-started my pulse. Parting the grass, I saw what looked like the biggest guineafowl in the world ten meters in front of us and I could see the light in its eye. My friend nodded and aiming carefully, I squeezed the trigger. The gun went ‘thwap!’ and there was a corresponding sound from the guineafowl, then I clearly remember seeing the pellet bounce back off it’s wing before it flew off cackling with the rest of the flock. It was much later and with growling stomachs that we managed to shoot a ‘little brown job’. It was so small we ate it bones and all before cycling home.
That was all a long time ago and the BSA has of course, got older too. One day a friend gave me the contact details of a person he said keeps the historical records for the ‘BSA’ company. I wrote giving the details of my air rifle, asking if he could supply any information on the old girl. A few weeks later, I was delighted to find a hand-written reply in the postbox:- “Your old air rifle is a BSA standard No1 model, light pattern, made between 1919 and 1939 in various forms. Your particular rifle No5541 was despatched from the BSA factory on 19th February 1920. Yours sincerely, John Knibbs**”.
Last night I gave the old veteran a gentle rub with a lightly oiled rag and put it back in the safe, always ready for new adventures.
** John Knibbs is the official historian for BSA Guns (UK) Ltd and has published a book entitled ‘The Golden Century’ about BSA rifles.
This story is dedicated to my uncles Pat, Allen & Bob, my aunt Denise & my father Jock, but especially to the memory of my mother, Penny who ensured that little boys had fun while growing up.
The time had come for another long awaited holiday at my Mother’s Cousin’s farm, near to Uncle Pat’s town and I was going to be able to run loose for a while again.
Not that I was exactly constrained at home but even when we went off fishing, my mother wouldn’t allow us to cook and eat the carp we caught in the golf course dams, despite our pleas. These dams were fed by the ‘Jukskei’ river and although it looked deceptively beautiful when pooled and fringed by weaver-nest festooned willow trees, the metal ‘catch grill’ through which it entered the golf course told another story. Here the plastic bags, empty cans, occasional dead dog and other detritus from the city piled up and that wasn’t even counting the unseen and unknown spills from the industrial area further upstream.
I suppose it was also not a good idea having us kids running around with pellet guns upsetting the neighborhood, in a suburban setting. So even though we enjoyed our catapults, lovingly made with forks cut from the neighbor’s ‘Pride of India’ tree, it didn’t quite have the same tang of adventure that striding through the veld with your trusty pellet gun has.
From my then narrow perspective, life on the farm was uncomplicated and exciting and I was fortunate that the adults who populated my world at that time, allowed me to turn this illusion into reality.
The farm has been in the same family for three generations and consequently, has that comfortably mature look. The old house sits on a very gentle rise looking east, down the dirt access road that stretches straight away for nearly a kilometer, before curving down to the unseen tar road. On either side of the dirt road, lie some mielie fields, which in turn lie below the old fruit orchards and some rickety farm buildings. You have to go over a few cattle grids to get to the house and these were designed with elephant in mind, because they very nearly stopped my Dad’s Chev as well.
The old farmhouse sits in the middle of a large garden surrounded and screened on three sides, by a variety of densely growing mature trees. The number of birds attracted to the garden is astounding; just about everyone’s favourites, were the Lesser Striped Swallows that nested under the eaves each year. Mine though, were the small Laughing Doves that thronged the surrounding trees and filled every morning and afternoon with their slightly mournful cooing. The sound of their call today, is still enough to bring on a bout of nostalgia.
People built solid homes in those days, but they were not always particularly pretty or even well designed and as a result, some of the high ceilinged rooms were hardly ever used, being very cold in winter. Consequently, one part of the sunny ‘stoep’ or veranda had been bricked off, a fireplace installed, filled with overstuffed furniture and books and called, ‘The Snuggery’. This is where adults, dogs, cats and children congregated on winter evenings and where knitting, reading, dreaming and snoozing got done.
Behind the house, the rest of the farm stretched up to a far ridge of low hills on one side and up to the tip of a higher point on the other. You could see a very long way from this point and sometimes, it even snowed up there in winter. Since it was primarily a cattle farm, the only cultivated fields were the mielie lands and these were surrounded by natural grassland, cut through with thorn-tree lined dongas. Small farm dams, stocked with bass by Uncle Pat, were dotted around as sources of water for the cattle. There was even an atmosphere of history lingering around, because if you looked long and hard enough, you could still find old cartridge cases from some long forgotten skirmish during the Boer war and the one boundary was a stone wall built way before posts and wire were available.
We arrived late on a Saturday afternoon, after what seemed an interminable drive – there appears to be a limit to the adult sense of humor when a boy enquires for the hundredth and fifty-second time, ‘are we nearly there yet?’, so it was with relief on all sides that we poured ourselves out of the Chev and stretched our legs.
Some adults have the gift of talking to children in such a way, that the child feels important, so when Nora smiled and told me how happy she was to see me, I started melting. When she admired my pellet gun and told me she was really glad that I had brought it along because she just couldn’t get anyone to supply some doves for a pie she had been thinking of making, she had me deep in her pocket. It was with a sense of purpose and responsibility that I set off early the next morning.
Cattle were moaning in a far paddock, a black cuckoo was giving its characteristic, drawn-out ‘mid-mar…sloooop’ call way off in the bluegums and my pocketful of lead pellets felt reassuringly heavy as they made my khaki shorts sag to one side. I was after Red-eyed Turtle Doves, which although being rather wary and not nearly as plentiful as the Cape Turtle Doves that also lived there, they are plump and designed to fill a pie – I was to learn the virtue of perseverance that day.
The hunt started by scouting the old orchards and then through and around the mielie lands. There were certainly enough doves about, but despite careful stalking, they were on the lookout and I watched in frustration as they craned their necks in my direction before taking off with a clattering of wings just as I got within range. Uncle Pat’s trusty BSA had seen a lot of action and the spring was so weakened, that if you shot straight up into the air the pellets’ flight path was easily visible to the naked eye against the light background. This meant that any successful shots further than twenty meters out, were verging on being miraculous and I had only managed to work one miracle before lunch. Now a pie needs more than a single bird, but Nora told me not to be discouraged as she was sure I’d get enough in due course but that she’d ‘put a roast in the oven just in case’. Her cheerful faith in my ability to feed the ravenous hordes, had me really determined and excusing myself from the lunch table quickly.
The day had grown hot and the sweat tickled down my back as I headed off behind the house to explore the thorn-clad dongas, where succulent aloes grow in the open patches and the water runs fast and muddy after heavy rain. That day though, the ground was dusty and the air had become still. Grasshoppers flew up with a ‘click-click’ and a ‘whirrrrr’, to land ahead of me, only to repeat the process as I got closer again. As a couple of hawks soared lazily high above me, the only other sounds were a low, scolding chattering from a sunbird and the scuttling of a lizard as I went by.
Eventually, by way of another minor miracle, a second careless dove fell to my shot, snagging high in the branches of a thorn bush. Fifteen minutes and many scratches and youthful curses later, I emerged from the embrace of the thorns to consider my options; at the rate things were going, certain starvation stared us in the face.
Sitting on an anthill gloomily contemplating this state of affairs, I absently watched two Red-eyes circling and then dropping to ground towards the old implement shed far away in the distance, to the side of an old orchard. I took a bit more notice when another dipped in two minutes later and really sat up when they were followed in by three more. The old BSA again felt light and the scratches forgotten, as I hurried with renewed energy to take the most direct route to the shed.
A prospector finding a fat nugget, probably gets close to the feelings I felt, as my eyes slowly inched over the top of the grass separating me and the area in front of the creaky old building. There must have been at least forty-five dove-pie ingredients pecking over the heap of bare maize cobs strewn over the ground. After a long aim to calm my pounding heart, the closest bird slumped at the shot and the rest took off in mild puzzlement to a nearby tree, only to reappear in dribs and drabs soon after. A quick reload and I was another bird richer.
Not being able to see me, they never became alarmed enough to get going permanently. Instead, the interval between the ‘thwap’ of the pellet gun and their return just took a bit longer as time went on. I stopped at twelve doves, reckoning that a grand total of fourteen had dented the population enough for then, while at the same time ensuring that hunger would not be a factor for that day at least.
The guineafowl were calling each other and it was starting to get cold fast, as I slowly made my way up to a warm kitchen and some adults, who for some reason looked surprised at the pile of birds tipped onto the kitchen table. After dinner, I plucked doves till my fingers ached, and then staggered off to bed and one of those toasty, feather eiderdowns that they don’t seem to make anymore.
The following evening after a long day fishing in the farm dams, I returned to the farmhouse to some tantalising smells and later, a large, oven-blackened dish covered with brown, crisp, flaky pastry emerged from the kitchen. Inside, fourteen plump doves simmered in dark gravy, together with kidneys, potatoes, onions and some other magic ingredients. When this fragrant mixture was served over rice, accompanied by large hunks of fresh bread smothered in salty farm-made butter, silence descended on the table till the last lip-smacking morsels were gone – the left-over lamb roast was put back in the refrigerator untouched.
Thinking back, that pie was so good it has made me scour my memory for the recipe and it goes like this:
Firstly take one small, keen boy. Send him to a farm where plump doves live and…….