I went for a run recently with a friend who took me to a common-like area on the edge of Dartmoor I had not been to before. We parked up and, not having brought a map, decided to just head off in a random direction for a few kilometres and then make our way back. The area was classic Dartmoor to begin with, scrubby land with grass that had been bitten back to the bone by grazing, tracks through gorse, bracken, ferns, and the occasional clump of hawthorn. There were lots of ponies too, who seem to like this spot, a good place to get a juicy apple or sugar cube or dropped bits of rubbish off a Plymothian on a quick and easy nature jaunt, as this is one of the first bits of obvious “Dartmoor” you get to when you drive out north from Plymouth on the Tavistock Road.
We ran for a few hundred metres, then came to an intriguing gatehouse with grand walls and white cast iron fencing. A sign in bold red all-caps lettering read: Permissive foot and cycle path, open between 1st February to 30th September, closed between 1st October to 31st January. The date being mid-September we went through the gate and crossed the cattle grid, feeling like we’d missed something but not entirely sure what. We ran on through a beautiful area of more managed estate land with wooded areas, fields, piles of timber and amazing views across farmland to the glimmering sun reflected on the Tamar River’s wider expanse down towards the bridge – a flicker of bright silver light piercing the green brown landscape. It was a beautiful place, and great for a run; we didn’t see anyone else on the path. It eventually linked with Common Lane, which we took back to the common-like land that was more recognisably Dartmoor again where we’d parked.
I was intrigued enough when I got home to look up the area on the OS map and found that the permissive path we ran on was part of the Maristow Estate, and that this estate stretched probably from Maristow House down by the water far to the west, and all the way across to Shaugh Prior in the east. It’s at least 6,000 acres, and with some quick research I learned that it is owned by the Baron of Roborough, and that the seat is now at Bickham House, just over from Common Lane. The incumbent is the 4th Baron, Massey John Henry Lopes, and it sounds like he may have married into a connection with Camilla Parker Bowles. I have no interest in the intrigues of the aristocracy, but I am pretty interested in the question of why a small number of people should get to own swathes of land and block it off to the rest of society just because they were born into it. The permissive path is all very well, but it isn’t open all the time, and there are large signs at regular intervals also in red lettering that somehow give the impression that to deviate would be a mistake. I guessed this had something to do with shooting, and resolved to return at the weekend to explore further.
If you take the permissive path further on past Common Lane it runs down a hill, with some fine vistas across to Cornwall, then it falls steeply down into a valley. There you can take a road to the right that would lead to Milton Combe, but there is also a footpath marked on the OS map which leads off the road towards Bickham house, which I wanted to explore with C. But before we got there I couldn’t help but notice the number of pheasants all over the place. Hundreds of them, flapping around, jumping and squawking if you surprised them, then drifting off in their weird way to another part of the field. At the bottom of the hill under cover of the woods we came across these fences in clearly marked areas, full of blue plastic pheasant feeders, and systems that provide water. We’re talking proper large scale pheasant rearing here, serious sporting preparation. On the other side of the road were more of these high fences with chicken wire (pheasant wire?) implying an area of intensive game-bird farming, though by this time of the year the gates were all open. I guess the season had already started and the shooters needed the birds to be out and about.
I don’t know about the approach to animal welfare on this particular estate, but I read later in a book by Nick Hayes called The Book of Trespass, that in the UK basic welfare regulations do not apply to birds reared for “use in competitions, shows, cultural or sporting events or activities.” I guess the thinking is that these creatures exist only so that they can be shot later, so what’s the point in caring about them now? I don’t agree with this point of view, and I’m not sure why a rule that applies for chickens would not apply to pheasants. The pheasants here are obviously enjoying being free range now, but I didn’t enjoy thinking about how long they had been cooped up in those dark cages, and how many birds they had been living with per square metre, before they got to go outside.
We headed off the road onto the public footpath, hoping to swing back via the track to Common Lane to make a round route of it. Only when we got to the first gatepost did we see a sign that read “Cul de sac route at end of public highway, please return by the same route. Devon CC.” Odd, we thought, but OK, fair enough. If you look very carefully, the OS map shows the green dotted line of the footpath quietly switching to a grey dotted boundary line (not accessible) in a wood (also marked green on the map). It can’t run for more than 100 metres before connecting to a white marked road that was open and would have brought us back to the start of the circle. But why would a footpath lead up there and then not connect to anything?
The track is littered with lines of grain all the way up, and the sides of the path are strewn with discarded paraphernalia of estate management, intensive bird rearing and empty shot cartridges. The atmosphere is creepy. The pheasants are always around, waddling just out of immediate vision, sneaking off, trying to keep unnoticed. An eerie silence dominates. There is evidence of organisation, of much human activity, but no people. It’s the kind of silence that raises the hackles. As it continues, the public footpath is not particularly well maintained. It’s not well used either. After all, why would you go up there? I walked up to a point where it became evident that it was about to become a path I shouldn’t be on anymore. A largish tree trunk lay across the path, insistently placed, and I decided to turn back. I hadn’t heard any shots that day but didn’t want to risk getting caught in a crossfire. There was nothing that interesting to see: no view, no landmark. It left me only with questions: Why does the path lead to nowhere? Who decided this is a public footpath? What complaints or discussions might have led to the Council putting a cul de sac sign up? Why could we not just walk on past the end of the “public” path and follow the “private” path at that specific point? What ancient rights did the Baron’s family hold over this land that he could lay claim to it? Why is the land full of pheasants so handfuls of rich people can play a sport that involves shooting them? And why is this space all around me for pheasant-shooters, when it could be open for all to walk through?
The estate operates so quietly. There is minimal signage, just grey Maristow Estate signs, with no clear branding. It has no website, no social media presence. There’s barely any info online as far as I can tell, apart from a page on a website called Cowans Sporting, “country pursuits hosting”, promising a “quality driven high Pheasant and Partridge shoot located just outside Plymouth”. The main page of the Cowans Sporting website also gets to the heart of the matter when trying to describe more clearly what their selling point is. “We specialise in providing a discreet and private service to our International, Corporate and Private clientele.” This is exactly what I’ve been trying to get to on this. The weird thing is that this whole enterprise is so discreet. It never announces itself. The estate only seems to appear in the news in a secondary way. For example, in a Devon Live article on the plans for a cycle path on the Tavistock road up to Yelverton, Maristow Estate is mentioned as the landowner. It also appears in news stories like this one in the Mirror covering a live auction brochure of a February 2018 Tory party black-tie fundraiser, in which apparently attendees could bid for the “opportunity to take a one day 500 bird pheasant and partridge shoot for eight guns and partners at the renowned Maristow and Bickleigh estate”.* It also pops up online in connection with a planning permission story in 2014 around the destruction of a historic mill on the River Walkham.
But despite these press appearances, the Estate doesn’t appear to do proactive communications. There are no signs of any traditional marketing either, unlike some other independent estates or houses and gardens in the area who are trying to attract visits from the general public. It seems to operate off the radar. If you look up Maristow Estate on Companies House, you don’t get anything, nor Cowans Sporting for that matter. Maristow Farms LTD is listed as a dormant company, so it is unlikely to be this, as we can assume they have had at least one booking in 2018/19 or 19/20 season thanks to the Tory party auction brochure. But the income must be registered somewhere. The Maristow Estate is quiet, oddly quiet, like the eerie silence of the dead-end footpath that we tried to walk up on that walk. My impression is that it doesn’t want us to even know or remember it is there really, because, and this really is just a guess, it knows that if we all knew it was there, what went on, and if we were reminded of the basis upon which it all is legitimised, then we might have something to complain about. I feel like in trying to find out more I have come to the end of the dead-end footpath. The brambles are growing across the way, pheasants are padding all around, empty gun cartridges are dotted on the floor. What can I do but shrug and turn back to the road?
* More interesting really is that the brochure entry stated that the 18/19 season had extremely limited availability, and implies it would be better to book in 19/20. In other words, the Estate is well booked up during the season, even for important Tory party donors. I.e. This is a very popular sport. It’s big money as well. £48 + VAT per bird for 8 guns, with daily bag volumes from a minimum of 250 birds up to 400 plus. Add a night on the Estate pre-shoot with four course dinner and drinks, plus breakfast, for £2,080 (I think that is for 16 people, 8 guns). Let’s say you have a medium day and hit 300 birds, that’s £57.6 x 300 = £17,280. Then add £2080 and it’s a total of £19,360. Can that be right? Anyway, the Tory auction prize was sponsored by Andrew and Zoë Law, major Tory party donors of hedge-fund wealth, and second on the bill only to dinner at home with Michael Gove and Sarah Vine. More on the donors here.