This is the chronicle of a death foretold. The foretelling began a year or so ago with a meeting between two friends: the head chef at the Corinthia hotel in Westminster, and the head gamekeeper at Petworth, the 17th-century stately home in Sussex in the southeast of England.
Together, they had an ingenious idea. Given that the two things the world likes best about Britain are London and Downton Abbey, what could be more of a hit than a luxury package that crammed both into 24 hours? Guests would start the day on fine linen in the shadow of Big Ben, and then be popped into a helicopter and transported to Petworth (which has the downside of not actually being Downton but the upside of being very near, and also where Henry VIII used to hunt). They’d pass the day swanking around pretending to be lords and ladies, before being whisked back for an evening in town.
Would I like to try it out? And which would I fancy as an aristocratic afternoon pursuit: deer stalking, game hunting or fly fishing? Deer stalking, I said lightly, without quite realising I had just committed myself to a pastime likely to end in the violent death of a large creature.
The Corinthia is a mighty slice of London Victoriana tucked into the wedge between Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall, built to house the Hotel Metropole and requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1936. Three years ago it reopened as a modern pleasure palace, with a reception containing the largest Baccarat light fitting in the world, and a floral display made up of a hundred tall glass vases with a single hydrangea bloom in each.
To the man behind the vast expanse of desk, I give my name. “Perfect!”, he replies. “Perfect!” echoes the personal butler as I hand over the grubby little bag containing a toothbrush, a dark green shirt and a muddy pair of gardening shoes. “Perfect!” says the woman in the hotel’s black marble spa that afternoon, when I say I want my broken fingernails painted. And “Perfect!” says the waiter in the Victorian splendour of the restaurant when I say I’d like asparagus and halibut. Indeed, the only thing not perfect about the exquisite meal that follows is that the place is – oddly – half-empty.
“Perfect” is also the word that forms in my head – along with “ludicrous” – when I retire to the Lady Hamilton suite, to which I have been billeted for the night. The installation of peonies, hydrangeas and eucalyptus in my private hall makes me a little sad – to be enjoyed by only me, and surely to be replaced the next day. I wander around counting rooms – nine in all, five of which are loos or washrooms of one sort or another – arranged over two floors joined by sweeping marble staircases. Upstairs, opening out of the ballroom-sized bedroom is a terrace with a hot tub, from which I gaze out at Lord Nelson, who stands on his column inscrutably watching the comings and goings in the hotel suite named after his lover.
The following morning, after tea brought by the butler and a long hunt for my reading glasses in the outsized suite, I meet the hotel manager, who is disconcertingly like Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He ushers me into a black Jaguar waiting outside, which takes us to Battersea heliport and from there straight into the sky over south London, looking uncharacteristically appealing in the morning sun.
After barely 15 minutes, we land in long grass in a field where a reception committee has gathered. Along with David Whitby, Petworth’s head gamekeeper, are tweed-clad gillies and a chauffeur who is there to save us the short walk to breakfast. I stare out of the window of the Range Rover at a slice of English pastoral perfection and feel oddly discombobulated. This must be helicopter lag: my body is here but my mind is still back in the giant bed with cotton sheets that felt like satin.
The day has been less leisurely for Garry Hollihead, “executive chef” at the Corinthia. Since 4am he has been slaving away preparing a succession of banquets for me to eat during the day, and driving them – and more fabulous floral displays – to a barn on the estate.
By the time we get there, a gastronomic idyll has been created with enough English cheese and ham, compotes, fruit salads, pastries and porridge to feed half of Sussex laid out on white damask under ancient oak beams. It is impossible to give my porridge and prunes the attention they deserve as the gamekeeper is standing in front of me pointing at a life-size cut-out of a deer and giving me a tutorial on death.
“This is the kill zone,” he is saying, pointing to the animal’s armpit, where its heart lives. It is essential to hit the animal there. If you shoot it in the jaw, it starves to death. If you shoot it in the back, you can’t eat the meat. But not to worry, he never lets anyone try to kill a deer unless he judges them suitable. Was I up for it? Yes, I said out loud; no, I said to myself.
“Good!” he beams, and assures me I’ll have secured a haunch of venison for my freezer by the end of the day.
For now, I am given clothes to look more the part – green Wellington boots and a tweed jacket in the Petworth check – and taken outside for some clay pigeon shooting. As a townie who has never touched a gun before, I am surprised to find that clay pigeons are neither clay nor pigeons – though less surprised to find that such shooting is not for me. The gun is heavy and the butt gives me a savage punch in the upper arm every time I fire at (and miss) the black saucers that keep whizzing out from behind a hedge.
I’m not altogether sorry when this stage of the day is over and we get into a Land Rover to tour the 13,000-acre estate. Whitby, who has looked after the game on it for 30 years, keeps up a rapt commentary. “That’s the perfect hedgerow for songbirds! Look, a greenfinch! A brown linnet!” We see birds, snakes and slow worms. It is like being on safari, only better as there is the added convenience of not having to go all the way to Africa.
In the deer park, where Capability Brown has arranged trees more naturally and beautifully than God could ever have managed, we are shown the spot by a lake where Corinthia guests (for an additional fee) can have a picnic, frolic around in horse-drawn carriages and, if they play their cards (and, one assumes, their wallets) right, can even hobnob with Lord and Lady Egremont themselves. We are assured that the current holder of the title is a first-rate fellow, traditional both in his desire to keep the estate unchanged and in his preference for being called “your lordship”.
But today we are led through Petworth House on our own. It is Thursday and the place is closed to the public, so we creep round the empty rooms in half-darkness, inspecting the masterpieces with a torch. One of these is a view of the deer park painted by Turner (a frequent visitor in the 1820s) that looks the dead spit of the modern version we’ve just seen. I fancy that the deer are, if anything, prettier on the canvas than in the flesh, and wonder what the painter would have felt about my killing one of their brothers on the estate.
‘She’s an assassin,’ one of the men says and I glow with pride. No one has ever said such a nice thing to me before
The question bothers me even more on the way back to the barn when we see a new baby deer lying in the grass, its legs spindly and lashes long.
Remind me, I say to Whitby, why it’s OK to kill these gorgeous creatures. “If you don’t feel some sadness, you shouldn’t be doing it.” he replies, adding that if you don’t keep the population down, they eat everything in the woods, so there are no insects and no birds. And if you eat venison, you can’t disapprove of dead deer. “It is a huge privilege to kill the food you eat,” he assures me.
At lunch, after champagne and a dainty starter of mackerel and oysters, Hollihead produces something that his friend Whitby has had the privilege of killing earlier. It is the tenderest venison steak, served with miniature vegetables and caper and raisin sauce – so good we eat it almost in silence.
Exquisite pudding, coffee and petits fours follow, and then it’s time for the moment of truth. In the woods a large rifle is waiting for me and I position myself, as instructed, lying down on the ground with leg bent, and peer, slightly dyspeptically, down the barrel of a gun at a target a long way off. Around me stand assorted gillies, the hotel manager and the FT’s photographer, all watching. This is going to be excruciating, I’m thinking.
“When you’re ready,” Whitby says.
I hold my breath, just as I’ve been told to. I don’t move my head. I squeeze the trigger. Bang! A delicious smell of cordite fills the air. Bang! Bang! We go and inspect the target. By some freak, the three shots are close to each other.
The next lesson is to shoot cut-out deer and foxes, which have been placed around the woods, from an assortment of angles – up towers, sitting, standing and crouching. To every wooden deer I manage, extraordinarily and inexplicably, to deliver a ballistic thwack in the kill zone, and to every fox one right in the centre of its body.
“She’s an assassin,” I overhear one of the men saying behind me and I glow with pride. No one has ever said such a nice thing to me before.
“How are you feeling?” Whitby asks. Weird, I reply.
In truth, I am having a kind of existential crisis, discovering that the person I thought I was (cack-handed, the last to be picked for sports teams, fearful, squeamish) wasn’t the full story.
Whitby tells me I’m now ready to shoot the real thing. Before the day is out, he promises, I’ll have that venison for my freezer.
But first, it is time for tea. Despite it being barely three hours since lunch, I’m ravenous, and devour dainty finger sandwiches – coronation chicken, smoked salmon and trout pâté – a mini Victoria sponge and a scone or two. After this feast, I wash my hands and see myself in the mirror. My face is unnaturally red; there is a glassy look in my eye.
In silence I follow Whitby, who is carrying the gun, through the enchanted woodland. There are wild orchids underfoot, and in the low sun the silver birch trees are luminous. My city socks are balled up under my feet inside the too-large Wellingtons. I need to pee. I’m sweating in the heavy tweed. And yet this is the most intense walk of my life. I hear the snapping of every twig and see the movement of every blade of grass.
After a lot of tramping, Whitby suddenly stops. Silently, he hands me the weapon. My hands are shaking so much that I look through the gun but can’t even find the fox that is right ahead of us. Too late: it bustles off.
By now the sun is low in the sky and Whitby says the deer will soon start coming out into the fields. The important thing is to get downwind of them so they can’t smell us coming. So we skirt around the edges, through field after field. And then, impossibly far away, low in the grass there is something tawny red.
On tiptoe, as if playing some thrilling adult version of grandmother’s footsteps, we advance, bent double commando-style. Through the gun’s telescopic sight, I see it. “Wait till it stands up,” Whitby whispers. My heart is beating in my throat. The grass moves as the deer gracefully gets to its feet. It is large, beautiful. All my anxiety about killing a living thing has gone. Instead, I feel only exhilaration, tinged with terror. I am going to shoot it.
I see the deer’s armpit magnified; the cross in the middle of it. But even though the gamekeeper is crouched in front of me and the weapon is resting on his shoulder, I still can’t keep the weapon still. I hold my breath. Now it is better and steadier but, just as I’m ready to squeeze the trigger, the deer, as if teasing this faffing novice, skips off into some trees nearby.
I am devastated. I’m furious with myself. I’m embarrassed before my patient, kind teacher. But more than all that, I’m profoundly relieved.
We return to the barn empty-handed, at dusk, everyone else packed up and ready to go home. There will be no haunch of venison for my freezer. At least, not yet.
“You must come back,” Whitby says as he bids me goodbye. “Here’s my card, call me. We must finish the story.”
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist
Lucy Kellaway was a guest of the Corinthia (corinthia.com) and Castle Air (castleair.co.uk). The stalking package costs from £8,400 per couple, including a two-night stay (travelling by car rather than helicopter, which takes around one hour 40 minutes each way, cuts the price to £4,200). Doubles at the Corinthia cost from £497 per night, the Lady Hamilton suite from £12,000