Spectator: Lucy on the shoot lunch

Zam has just returned from a seminar on diversity in the media industry. One of the keynote speakers said that, in order to find a society in which there had been true equality bet-
ween men and women, one had to go back 3,500 years. Anybody who is remotely surprised by this has not been to a shooting lunch.

It’s the last bastion of a bygone age in which the women in the house-well, our house-run around-sometimes for the preceding couple of days-laying tables, cooking stew, making sure the correct drinks are available and wondering if there’s enough pudding. Numbers can range from 8 to 20 at the last moment.

The morning of the lunch is a marathon of clearing breakfast, chopping cabbage and wrestling with folding chairs that trap your fingers. Just when you remember that you’ve run out of tonic water, you receive the phonecall that alerts you to the fact that they’ve completed the last drive before lunch and are heading home. Punctuality, not necessarily a factor in our usual mealtimes, is paramount.

In they come, dumping wet coats and boots, cheeks glowing from the outside air. There’s a palpable sense of brotherhood, sometimes between men who have only just met. They need to warm and dry themselves by the Aga, which is exactly where you don’t want them to be. There’s a queue for the loo, then a rush to sit down while you serve the stew because the clock is ticking and it’s already all taken too long. Quickly clear the plates, dish out the pudding. Brownies, because they don’t need more cutlery. Cheese. Coffee. The kettle takes forever to boil for the second time.

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And just when you wonder if you might have a quick conversation with somebody, the cry goes up: ‘Guns, we’re off!’ The whole thing has taken three days to prepare and 55 minutes to consume. The washing-up takes the rest of the day.

I’d never given it much thought until last year, when, while laying the tables, our daughters asked: ‘Why do we do this? Why are we here and our brothers are out there? This is some weird, mad timewarp.’ In response, I suggested that they should have shooting lessons, which both declined. Zam gave me lessons as a present and I appreciated the gesture, but the truth was that nothing about firing a gun appealed and I quit after the first one. Our daughters aren’t interested.

Shoot or wash up? It’s not really the point. I fell back on the explanation that, although it seems mad and old-fashioned, that’s just the way it is. And anyway, I rather enjoy it. They looked unconvinced.

Last year, one of the guns brought and abandoned a non-shooting guest who was staying with him for the weekend. The utterly urban man read the paper in the sitting room while we laid the fire and brought in more logs. After an hour, he said he was going for a walk. He put on his overcoat and walked out of the front door. About 10 minutes later, he returned, saying ‘that was lovely’, and resumed his position by the fire. I did wonder whether his hosts would remember to take him home.

Occasionally, I go out after lunch and stand with the guns, but not often as I find it one of the dullest occupations on Earth. I enjoy overhearing the beaters, all of whom are scathing in their assessment of the shooting skills on show. Sometimes, there’s been such a lapse in communication that beaters and guns can’t find each other. Or, as happened one year, thanks to the blizzard that was forecast but never appeared, no beaters turned up and everbody went out to wander the hedge-rows instead of standing on pegs.

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Back at home, the fires need stoking and the dishwasher unloading again. Then, before you know it, there’s a sound at the door and there they all are again. The kettle goes back on because now they’re expecting tea. This year, we’ll have rolls and soup in an open-sided barn. I wonder if I’ll miss the lunch.