SPORT AT WITTENHAM (continued )
A month later Mr. Harcourt was shooting his woods at Nuneham. There are more than four hundred acres of woods round this most beautiful park, all of them giving ideal English estate scenery. The oaks of the park are like those at Richmond, but there is not much fern except in the covers. Nuneham is the best natural pheasant preserve in the Thames Valley, except Wytham, Lord Abingdon's place, above Oxford. The woods lie roughly in a ring round the park, in which the pheasants sun themselves. Outside these woods are arable fields with quantities of feed, and all along the front lies the river, which the pheasants do not often cross. The most striking sport at Nuneham is the driving of the island by the lock cottage. Every one who has been at Oxford has rowed down to have tea under the lovely hanging woods by the old lock. Few see it later in the year when the island opposite is covered with masses of silver-white clematis and thousands of red berries of the wild rose and thorn. In the late autumn mornings, when the mists are floating among the tall trees on the hill and the sunbeams just striking down through the vapours as they top the wood from the east, it is one of the prettiest sights on the Thames. In November or early December, when the woods are shot, numbers of pheasants are always found on the island. It holds a pool, in which and on the river are usually a number of wild ducks. Shooting from the river itself is now forbidden, and these and the half-wild duck have multiplied. The beaters, in white smocks, all cross the old rustic bridge like a procession of white-robed monks, and drive this island, and wild ducks and pheasants come out high over the river, making for the top of the hill. The shooting is fast and difficult, and the scene as the guns fire from the stations all along the bank is most picturesque.
Shooting with a neighbour on some land adjoining Nuneham, my attention was drawn to the very elegant appearance of all the gates and rails adjacent to the road. As the ground was always beautifully farmed and in good order, the condition of the gates did not surprise me. There was, however, a story attached to their smartness. A seller of quack medicines had sent out advertisers with most objectionable little bills, which he had posted on every gate adjoining the roads. My entertainer, who was the occupier of the land, had brought an action against the medicine man for defacing his gates, which was only compromised by the delinquent undertaking to paint every gate. He demurred at first to painting the railings too, but in the end had to do this also.
The stalking-horse is still part of the sporting equipment of some old Thames-valley farmhouses, but not in this neighbourhood. Only one wet season fell to my lot, and then, though I often saw bodies of duck, I had no opportunity of getting near them. A neighbour anchored a punt under a hedge on the line which he believed the duck would take at dusk, and killed several. Hard frosts send large bodies of duck to the river; they come as soon as ever the large private lakes, like those at Blenheim, Wootton, and Eynsham are frozen, and lie in small flocks all along the river. Water-hens are so numerous on the river now, owing to their preservation by the Conservancy, that any small covers of osier near are full of them. They make extremely pretty old-fashioned shooting when beaten up by a spaniel from the sedge and osier cover. I once turned out a dozen water-hens, a brown owl, a woodcock, and a water-rail from one little withe patch. When shooting the wood we always had one or two water-hens in the bag, and sometimes a chance at a duck flying overhead from the river. Only once were there many woodcocks in the cover. There must have been at least five, and all were missed. At last, as we were finishing the beat, one of the guns, who was young and keen, went off after the last-missed cock along the river bank. As we were loading up the game at the wood gate we heard a single shot. Then he appeared in the ride with the cock. Both he and his excellent old spaniel received warm congratulations. For my own part I was never tired of by-days in the wood in my first season. The best sport was starting rabbits from under the rows of fresh-felled ash and hazel poles, which the woodman called drills. They are about five feet high and seven feet through. The rabbits get under them in numbers, and sit there all day. We had an old retriever who was an expert at finding them. The next process was for the gun to clamber on to the top and stand knee-deep on the springing faggots, while a woodman on each side poked the rabbit out with a pole. He might bolt any way, and was under the next drill in a trice, so the shooting was quick. I bagged twelve one afternoon in this cheerful manner. Another great ambition of our lives was to get the better of the hill partridges. There were plenty of them, but they always dived into the wood, and were lost for the day. Only once did we score off them. We drove about sixty from the hills into the wood. There they were seen running along the rides like guinea fowls, but by placing a gun at the corner of the wood, and beating towards him, we killed nine brace.