My friend, Rita, invited me to join her for a sporting weekend in the English countryside to hunt pheasant and it was easily one of the top five travel experiences of my life. The weekend was held at Euston Hall, a beautiful country house in Suffolk County and home to Duke Harry and Duchess Olivia, who are the nicest, down-to-earth couple and fabulous hosts. (Harry loves Americana and lived in Nashville for several years while he worked for the Rolling Stones and they host a rhythm and blues festival on the estate each summer called Red Rooster.)
I can’t decide which aspect of the weekend I loved more: staying at Euston Hall (Harry and Olivia just finished renovating the house and was the perfect blend of elegance and rock and roll), or learning to hunt.
The days were full and each morning we’d eat a hearty English breakfast in the large kitchen before heading out for a game drive. I was so thankful for Dubarry, who advised and outfitted me with the perfect apparel for the weekend, from weatherproof jackets and vests, to their signature Galway Boots ready for a day of walking through damp fields. The estate’s land is primarily used for farming (the crops help support running the house) and each drive was set up along and between fields of produce, which made for beautiful and varied terrain. I was new to the sport and thankfully had a loader by my side the whole time giving me tips on form, strategy, and safety. Each guest was given a number at the beginning of the day which corresponded with their starting peg, and we rotated by one on each drive. Rather than stalking birds through the fields, each person stood by their peg and waited for the birds to fly from their hiding places. Locals carrying white grain sacks like flags (known as “beaters” because they beat the bushes) would make their way from the far side of the field towards us, scaring the birds from their hiding places as they went. I didn’t have prior experience, but was able to get eight birds over the course of two days, sending the hunting dogs running to retrieve them.
Throughout the day we’d take little breaks to gather for lunch, play with the dogs, or enjoy sloe gin out of steel cups, chatting with other guests and learning about life in Suffolk from our loaders. By day’s end our party would return to the house exhausted but happy with just enough time to shower and change for dinner. Duke Harry would put on a record as we sipped cocktails prepared by Damian, the head butler, from his darling bar tucked under the staircase. (He makes the perfect old fashioned!) The table was beautifully set each night and we never saw the same china pattern twice. Those who lasted past midnight had a chance to hear Harry perform some of his favorite songs and learn about Olivia’s childhood home in the Cotswolds.
If you’ve been to England you likely know that the countryside is overrun with pheasant, and hunting is necessary for population control and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. The birds from our drives are sold to the local butcher, and the proceeds help fund the running of the estate. The entire weekend made me much more thoughtful about where my food comes from and the quality of life that an animal enjoys before landing on a plate. I now buy wild fish over farmed, and look at the animal welfare ratings on the meat we buy from Whole Foods in an effort to make more informed decisions about what we’re consuming. In an ideal world, we’d be able to buy all of our food from local farms and butchers like the ones around Euston Hall.