Chris Batha revisits this stunning Hall.
The unsurpassed shooting of Bettws Hall
My first experience shooting at Bettws Hall came about because in 1997 Hong Kong was returned to the control of Mainland China. At the time I was living in London and working with Ken Duglan at Broomhill’s Shooting Grounds, north of London. My job was shooting instructor, gunfitter and, with Ken, organizer of driven-game shooting during the season.
One of our clients, an expatriate recently returned to the UK from Hong Kong, was a keen shot and often came to the grounds for lessons. During the time we spent together, the subject came up of driven-game-shooting opportunities for him and his fellow ex-pats. One of his friends had heard good things about a shoot on the Welsh borders with spectacular topography and beautiful scenery. This was the first I had heard of Bettws Hall.
Considering that I was born and grew up in Wales just 34 miles from Bettws Hall, it is surprising that I had not been aware of this sporting jewel earlier. Perhaps my five-year stint in the Navy had had some impact on my local knowledge.
From my first visit, in 1998, until today, owners Gwyn and Ann Evans; their children, Amy and Will; and each of their longtime employees never have failed to produce the kind of experience that is standard for Bettws Hall’s unsurpassed shooting.
Originally, Gwyn Evans made his livelihood farming and raising cattle, sheep and poultry, but he always had a strong interest in country shooting sports. In 1988 he made the decision to add raising gamebirds and driven shooting to his portfolio. The saying that from acorns mighty oaks grow is appropriate in this case. From basic beginnings, Evans now has 45 gamekeepers and 150 full-time staff running one of the largest sporting operations in five counties from his base in Mid-Wales.
Left: Many of Bettws Hall’s shoots are known for producing sky-scraping birds in spectacular scenery; Right: Bettws Hall’s guests come from England, Europe and around the world to enjoy not only fabulous shooting, but also warm hospitality.
To do all this requires a business acumen and “get it done” attitude that the entire Evans family has in abundance. The Evanses thrive on hard work and yet somehow make it look easy. They always have a smile when they meet and welcome guests to Bettws Hall. And now clients come from England, Europe, North America and even farther afield.
Bettws Hall has its own extensive hatchery, supplying pheasants and partridge to many other shooting estates. The summer months are busy, as well, letting the lodge for special events and booking for the shooting season. The hatchery plays a large role in the off-season activities, supplying 8,000 eggs a week and rearing more than 1.7 million poults a year.
The family and staff work continuously but, as with the proverbial swan, all appears serene while the hard paddling goes on beneath the surface.
WELCOME TO BETTWS HALL
On my first visit to Bettws Hall, the accommodations consisted of a converted barn attached to Gwyn’s farmhouse, but even then the attention to detail was flawless. Now there are three lodges at Bettws Hall. The original farmhouse has been converted into The Beeches, a lodge for a team of eight Guns along with an additional barn conversion, the Gun & Sporting Room and an office. Another lodge, The Willows, has been added next door with rooms for a full team of eight Guns and an exercise room complete with a sauna and hot tub. The en-suite accommodations feature a private bar, dining room and superb wine cellar. The third lodge, Bettws Hall House, is in what was the original family home, and its boutique-style rooms are ideal for single Guns or smaller groups.
All three lodges are close to various shoots, some of which are within walking distance. Though only a 30-minute drive from the three main lodges, teams of Guns that are shooting for one or two days often opt to stay in the lodges that are on the shooting estates, like Plas Dinam, or the Brigands Inn.
On arrival at the lodge, guests receive a warm welcome and are shown to their bedrooms to relax and shower before joining Gwyn and Ann to meet and greet over a glass or two of their favorite “finest” in the sitting room. A delicious dinner is followed by toasts to a successful shoot the following day.
There is also an on-site, secure cellar that has been converted into a spacious and comfortable gunroom complete with a knowledgeable manager who takes care of the shotguns from the time guests arrive—delivering them each morning prior to the shoot and collecting and cleaning them at the end of each day.
THE DAY’S SHOOT
In the morning, after a bracing breakfast, pegs, or shooting positions, are drawn, and the Guns are loaded into Range Rovers and taken to the first drive—unless the drive is within walking distance of the lodge. Rides typically are from 15 to 30 minutes.
While the accommodations and bonhomie of the staff and family are welcome and appreciated, Guns are really there for the shooting. To briefly explain, there are no such things as high pheasants. Pheasants would rather run than fly, but when they do fly, it is more of a sprinting flight followed by a glide. The Victorians did not shoot for the table; they shot for sport and demanded high, fast-flying birds. This could be achieved only by utilizing terrain of undulating hills and steep valleys—which Bettws Hall has in spades.
The eight Guns are placed along the valley floor in a line marked with pegs to designate their shooting positions, roughly 20 yards apart. The birds are then “driven” by the beaters over the waiting Guns. Beaters, so-called because they beat the cover and crops using long sticks, are a mix of people who are passionate wingshooters or dog handlers or farm and estate employees.
Deployed in a line at the start of the cover, the beaters begin a slow walk through the fields or woods, often clapping their hands or rattling stones in cans. To ensure that the birds do not break out the sides of the drive, flankers are placed on the sides and keep in line with the beaters.
The birds are pushed in front of the beaters, and when they reach the edge of the crops, they launch into the air. The birds immediately see a well-situated cropfield across the valley, so they set their wings and glide toward the potential sanctuary.
The line of Guns, standing on their pegs with their loaders, their pair of guns and a substantial supply of cartridges, attempt to knock down these “archangels”—birds passing 40 to 60 yards above them. Shooting pheasants at such heights requires impressive shooting skills as well as shotguns, chokes and cartridges capable of taking tall birds. There is great pride in being known as a “straight shot” and being acknowledged as such by fellow Guns and the host.
The host may be a genial character, but he is constantly working. While the Guns are eating lunch, he will be discussing with the gamekeeper things like bag to that point and the expected weather—especially wind and rain, both of which can have an impact on how birds behave and fly. He then will make decisions on how to present the afternoon drives and how to position the Guns to maximize the most sporting bird presentations.
AFTER THE SHOOT
When the village post office closed, Gwyn Evans carried out a wonderful conversion, transforming it into the Bull & Heifer pub. This is where, after returning to the lodge and cleaning up, many of the Guns like to meet with the beaters and “pickers-up” (dog handlers) to share a libation and tell tall tales of taller birds.
Then the Guns and their spouses gather for cocktails before dinner in their lodge. It is a tradition at Bettws Hall that each evening one of the Guns or spouses chooses the seating arrangement, so everyone gets to dine with different guests each evening. These traditions and niceties are important parts of the experiences that have been enjoyed for decades.
THE SHOOTING ESTATES
Never ones to rest on their laurels, Gwyn and Ann Evans have built on the Bettws Hall blueprint by adding renowned sporting estates that need no introduction to high-bird aficionados. Each of the shoots at Bettws Hall is unique, offering its own sporting challenges, but any would be acknowledged among the best shoots in the British Isles. Bettws Hall can be reached by car (3½ hours from London), train (4½ hours from London’s Paddington Station to Bettws Cedewain, Wales) or helicopter—there is a helicopter pad at the main lodge.
Starting in 1988 with Bettws Hall and nearby shoots, Gwyn gradually secured the shooting on several renowned local estates: Kempton in 1997, the Brigands Estate in 2002, Vaynor Park in 2006, Maesmawr Hall in 2007 and Plas Dinam in 2016.
Bettws Hall—This handsome estate in Bettws Cedewain, Wales, is the original setting for what has become one of the most renowned driven-shooting enterprises in the UK. It is a wonderful location, providing such memorable high-pheasant drives as “The Middle” and “The Vicarage.” And those drives are so close to the lodges that Guns literally can walk to the first drive after breakfast and enjoy “elevenses” in the Shepherd’s Hut or the Gun Room.
Kempton—Just over the border from Wales, in Shropshire, England, Kempton is a typical English driven-game-shooting estate. If you were going to film an Edwardian driven-game shoot, this would be the location—simply beautiful topography that can lull even the best shots into complacency. However, it is the spectacular topography that allows positioning of a line of Guns that presents the most spectacular views and testing shooting—a combination that draws back teams again and again.
Kempton is the home of the Dumbell family and offers traditional presentations of pheasants and partridge—all really tall birds. This is a challenging shoot with some special drives. My personal favorite, The Oaks, presents high pheasants flying from dense cover crops over the Guns in steep valleys.
Brigands—Located in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales, Brigands has spectacularly high birds. Mention Brigands to any high-bird aficionado, and he or she will wax lyrical with praise. What makes this one of the most sought-after tests of high-bird shooting is the fact that it lies in the deep valleys of the Cambrian Mountains, at the foot of Snowdonia National Park. It is a large estate of some 12,000 acres, and the topography ensures that Guns will experience what can only be described as one of the high bars of stratospheric pheasant shooting.
The infamous 720 followed by Humble Pie and Gwillems are three drives that can humble the best shots. Those able to pluck archangels from the heavens on these drives remember it for life. The newcomer to the portfolio, Tommy’s drive, has secured Brigands’ reputation of being able to hold its own with the best Guns.
Vaynor Park—One of the most traditional Welsh estates, Vaynor Park, in Berriew, Powys, is the home of the Corbett-Winders family. If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked if the house is for sale, I could have retired long ago.
This is a beautiful park estate, and the shooting, like that on all of Bettws Hall’s offerings, presents like a film set, with some particularly good terrain yielding high driven pheasants and partridge in thrilling numbers. Lunch in the old gatehouse is icing on the cake after a morning of exceptional shooting.
Maesmawr Hall—This classic 19th Century estate in Guilsfield, Powys, is the home of the Trant family. Both pheasants and partridge are presented in volume and height, making this one of the more popular shoots close to the lodge. On offer is a good selection of traditional woodland drives and tall birds, with several drives positioning the Guns in steep, wooded valleys.
Lunch in the period coach house is a treat, and the diverse shooting that the property presents is the cream on your scone at high tea.
Plas Dinam—This exceptional estate in Llandinam, Powys, boasts a magnificent country manor house overlooking some of the property’s 4,000 acres. The exceptional and diverse collection of drives is set in stunning landscape and can be compared to Tommy’s at Brigands and Hanging Wood at Vaynor Park. Those who like the challenge of high, fast partridge should plan to shoot the drive known as Spitfire.
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A WELCOME
I cannot adequately describe the impact the Evans family has had on Maesmawr, Bettws Hall, the surrounding area and even farther afield. Not only have the Evanses developed the various shoots, but they also have helped restore many village shops and businesses. Since my first experience shooting at Bettws Hall, the Evans family has set the standard to which others in the industry have aspired.
I have been lucky to return time and again with teams of Guns from both the UK and US. For so many, it has become an annual pilgrimage. I would guess that the largest percentage of the Evanses’ bookings result from repeat business and recommendations. This is the hallmark of a well-run operation and owners—and staff—who have the enthusiasm and passion to maintain it.
After more than 30 years, Bettws Hall is still going strong, relying on practical experience as well as creative risk-taking and a commitment to excellence. Even as the operation continues to expand in the UK and with international shoots, guests are reminded that it remains a family business. Every client who spends time at Bettws Hall is greeted by Gwyn, Ann, Amy or Will Evans and their exceptional team—all of whom welcome guests back like old friends and family.
For more information on shooting with Bettws Hall, visit bettwshall.com.