From field to river: Herts country pursuits
PUBLISHED: 12:14 12 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:14 12 September 2014
As summer mellows into autumn, what better time to get into the great outdoors and discover the rich array of country pursuits Hertfordshire offers? By Doretta Sarris Hogan
Our county landscape is full of diversity – dense ancient woodlands nestle alongside open arable farmland; expansive country estates stretch across hills and vales, while many fields and forests are punctuated with public tracks, bridle paths, rivers and lakes. It’s no surprise, then, to find a rich tradition of country pursuits on our doorstep, as popular today as ever. Whether you fancy a horseback hack through the woods or trying your hand at clay pigeon shooting, there’s something out there for everyone.
‘You find nature is different when you’re on a horse,’ says Joanne Ruff-Peace of Courtlands Riding Stables. ‘You can walk, but nature knows you’re human; you can go on a bike, but nature’s completely aware that it’s a machine; but go on a horse and nature sees the horse first, and so it’s a totally different experience.’
By this measure there can be no better way to explore the Hertfordshire countryside than on horseback, and it is without doubt one of our most popular country pursuits. ‘It really is accessible to everyone,’ stresses Joanne who, along with her sister Jacky, has been at the helm of the Stevenage-based riding school for 37 years. ‘You don’t have to live in a big house, you don’t have to drive a flash car – we invite everybody to come along to our stables to have a go.’
With a huge number of riding stables to choose from, it might be hard for the uninitiated to know where to turn. Firstly, look for a riding stable that has a licence from the local authority and then choose one that is approved by the Pony Club, the British Horse Society or the Association of British Riding Schools.
Joanne is proud of the friendly, open-door policy at Courtlands, and is keen to encourage newcomers as well as experienced riders. There are 15 ponies, 12 horses (not to mention four adorable donkeys, though not for riding!) and all equipment can be borrowed. But can anyone do it? ‘It’s 50 per cent balance and 50 per cent confidence,’ explains Joanne. ‘Like anything, some people have a natural ability, but there’s no reason not to be able to ride, if you listen to instructions. It’s such a great activity. It’s sociable, there’s an element of fitness and our clients range from age three upwards. Some have been with us for 16 years or more. A few weeks ago, one of our ladies, Anne, did her first jump since she was a young girl. It was on her 70th birthday! She couldn’t be happier, and we were so proud.’
Another local traditional country pursuit, though one which has been forced to change with the times, is the hunt. Of course, the hunting of foxes was banned 10 years ago, but the practice continues in the form of trail hunting.
‘When the law changed, we decided to keep the whole structure alive, and now follow a trail of fox urine, which has been laid well in advance from a quad bike,’ explains Diana Pyper, who has been Master of the Puckeridge Hunt (one of just three Hertfordshire packs listed with the Masters of Foxhounds Association) since 1987; the mastership has been in her family continuously for more than 100 seasons. ‘We meet up at a pub, village green or private house where our host usually provides light refreshments. We then follow a different route each time, and the idea is that the trail mimics the sort of route that a fox might take, which makes it more interesting and less predictable.’
The pack meets twice a week – on a good day, that’s 40 foxhounds with about 70 people (not all of them on horseback) – and covers country 19 miles north to south and 22 miles east to west across Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Diana says she doesn’t think the sport’s popularity has been affected by the rule-change. ‘We have a lot of people who run with us, and many come in cars, especially people of pensionable age,’ she says. ‘They meet up with friends, bring a picnic – for them it’s a big day out. Everybody can come, but you have to remember if you are on horseback it’s dangerous if you’re not a competent rider.’
The Puckeridge Hunt has made further strides to change the sport’s image. ‘People still think that we actually kill foxes, and that everyone involved in hunting is an upper-class toff,’ Diana says. ‘We found that wearing the traditional red coats was like a red rag to a bull. So we don’t wear those any more and that has made a lot of difference. We have a complete cross-section of people in the hunt. It is a sport for all walks of life and very inclusive.’
HOOKED ON FISHING.
Fishing is one of the most popular recreational activities in the UK, and there are plenty of opportunities for messing about on the river (or lake, for that matter) in Hertfordshire. ‘We have a wealth of fishing in this county. Whether it’s day fishing on a river or with an angling club on a lake, there’s fishing available for everybody, everywhere,’ enthuses Richard Vigus, who has been fishery manager and an instructor at Rib Valley Lakes in Ware since 1995. Most common in this area is coarse fishing, which involves catching – and returning to the water – native species such as roach, rudd, perch and carp in rivers or commercial still waters.
‘It is actually illegal to kill the fish when you’re coarse fishing,’ Richard explains. ‘Some of the big specimen carp that are stocked can be real monsters, weighing up to 35lb, and they are worth hundreds of pounds. With game fishing on specialist lakes, you’re allowed to kill a certain amount of rainbow trout for eating.’
If you fancy trying your hand, you will need to buy your own equipment, but tackle is inexpensive for the beginner, costing around £15 for a child. Then you must have a rod licence (a day licence costs £3.50 and there are weekly or annual options), available online or from tackle shops and the Post Office.
‘There are lots of angling clubs in Hertfordshire, but you don’t need to join one to go fishing,’ says Richard. ‘You can get a day ticket at lakes such as ours and fish for as little as £7 for a junior. But it’s not just about the fishing – it’s a lovely spot, very peaceful, with restaurants where you can take the whole family. You can even get married there!’
If you decide to try your hand at a spot of clay pigeon shooting (where targets are ejected in singles or doubles from a ‘trap’), you might rub shoulders with a glamorous TV presenter or Olympic champion. Today presenter Melanie Sykes is a regular face at Nuthampstead Shooting Ground in Royston, as is Peter Wilson, who won a gold medal in double-trap shooting for Team GB at the Olympics 2012. ‘Anyone can have a go,’ insists Martin Barker, who runs the site with his wife and son. ‘It’s a very sociable activity. You can come down, shoot 50 or 100 clays on a Sunday morning, then go down to the pub for lunch. A lot of people get into shooting because their families have traditionally done it, but more and more have tried it as a corporate team-building exercise and got into it that way.’
The ground was founded in 1987, and today Martin and his team offer everything from lessons for the complete novice to training for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
‘If you come along as a beginner, we provide all the equipment and at no point are you left alone with a gun,’ explains Martin, who currently has his hands full coaching the next generation of shooting stars for the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics. ‘We will soon have you hitting targets, and the more you hit, the more you’ll enjoy it.
‘People get hooked quite easily, but you must have the strength of mind to focus Once you’ve learnt to shoot all the targets, the difference between winning and losing is in your head.’
The more traditional shoot – for game – is still popular, with plenty of opportunities available in the area if you have a good level of shooting experience. Country estates such as Luton Hoo, Woodhall and Gorhambury are currently at their busiest, as the season kicked off on ‘the Glorious 12th’ (of August) with grouse shooting, then continues with partridge and pheasant through the coming months.
Despite the ups and downs of the economic climate, interest in the activity remains strong, says Matt Newell, head keeper at the Hexton Shoot on the Hexton estate near Hitchin. ‘We’ve had a lot of interest and inquiries. We are in the fortunate position of offering a high-quality shoot which doesn’t incur the cost of overnight stays and heavy travel costs as I have experienced in more isolated shoots.’
At Redcoats Farmhouse Hotel and Restaurant in Redcoats Green, near Stevenage, private shooting parties are taken to shoot on neighbouring land.
Afterwards, the party can retire to the restaurant, where grouse, partridge and pheasant shot here is prepared by the head chef.
HERTS COUNTRY SPORT CLUBS TO TRY.
Courtlands Riding Stables, Old Chantry Lane, Todds Green, Stevenage (01438 355121) ‘Open house’ every Saturday and Sunday morning, offering advice on lessons/rides; plus rally days, trekking and trip to Olympia Horse Show. Also riding for the disabled.
BHS-approved Park and Ride days out for riders with their own horses: first Sunday of month, Braughing; second Sunday, Wheathampstead; third Sunday, Lilley. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 01992 555235 to book in advance.
The Puckeridge Hunt, puckeridgehunt.co.uk Newcomers welcome; meet the pack at the Herts and Essex Country Fair, Brent Pelham on Sunday August 31.
Contessa Riding Centre, Ware, contessa-riding.co.uk Situated in 50 acres this riding and training centre specialises in dressage.
Hallingbury Hall Equestrian Centre, Bishop’s Stortford, hallingburyhall.com Offers lessons for children and adults and beginner to experienced rider with training for dressage, show jumping and cross country. Also offers training for British Horse Society exams and national vocational qualifications.
Nuthampstead Shooting Ground, nuthampsteadshootingground.co.uk Clay pigeon shooting for individuals or groups.
Brocket Hall, 01707 368700. Offers many country pursuits including clay pigeon shooting, plus rifle shooting and archery.
Hexton Shoot, hextonshoot.co.uk. Primarily pheasant and partridge shooting, with lunch at Hexton Manor; also offers simulated game shooting experience days.
Woodhall Estate, Watton-at-Stone woodhallestate.co.uk Organises pheasant, duck and deer stalking days.
Cromer Hyde Farm Shoot, Lemsford. gunsonpegs.com Family-run shoot catering for a range of partridge only or mixed bird days across farm and woodland.
Brook Park Shoot, Cuffley brookfarmcuffley.co.uk Run over 1,500 acres of undulating countryside and woods, offering
partridge and mixed bird days including partridges, pheasants, ducks and guinea fowl. Clay shooting in spring and summer. Lee valley Shooting Association lvsa.org.uk Clay pigeon shooting suitable for men and women of all ages and levels.
The Big Shoot, Hertford thebigshoot.co.uk Welomes all ages and skill levels and gives CPSA certified tuition.
Family Fishing Fun Day, Apsley Locks, 07854239725. Saturday September 6 offers taster sessions and activities for all the family.
Rib Valley Fishing Lakes, Westmill Farm, Ware, 01920 462200. Fly and coarse fishing opportunities for all levels throughout the year.
Gaywoods Fishery, Kings Langley, 07778 030939. Four-and-a-half-acre manmade lake stocked with a variety of fish including carp, roach and rudd.
Abbots Lake, Standstead Abbots, 01932 583630 Hertfordshire. One of the big fish waters in the Lea Valley offering angling for big carp as well as specimen tench and bream.
Willow lakes, St Albans, willowslakes.com Part of a 180 acre estate, Willows Lakes are made up of three mature gravel pits which are 22, 12 and four acres. Anglers can also stalk fish on a section of the River Colne.
Watford Piscators, watfordpiscators.co.uk One of the oldest established (1885) coarse fishing clubs in the UK, ‘run by fishermen for fishermen’.
Welwyn Garden City Angling Club wgc-angling-club.co.uk
formed in 1946, it has nearly 500 members and offers a varied range of venues, rivers and lakes.