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To kingdom come

The UK's country estates offer more than manicured gardens and afternoon tea. Lara Brunt seeks out two not-so-idle pleasures

 

Call it the Downton Abbey effect. Britain's glorious country estates have never been more popular. Indeed, visitor numbers at Highclere Castle, the beautiful Berkshire estate that doubles for Downton, have rocketed from 300 to 1,300 people a day since the period drama first hit television screens.

Despite their grand mansions and lavish grounds, many country piles are still very much working estates, providing much-needed employment for rural communities. Ancestral homes don't come cheap, though. Today's enterprising aristos have worked hard to diversify, with tourism sitting side by side with farming and field sports.

Beyond the house tour and tearoom, many estates offer luxury leisure activities that provide a glimpse of the history and traditions of the British upper classes. And it is history that brings me to Goodwood Estate, in West Sussex.

Privately owned by the Duke of Richmond, the 12,000-acre estate is one of England's largest lowland organic farms, supplying produce to many of London's top restaurants. At the heart of the estate lies Goodwood House, an elegant 17th-century mansion surrounded by fields of grazing sheep.

During the second world war, an aerodrome was built here. Known as RAF Westhampnett, it served as a prominent Battle of Britain air base, from which young pilots took to the skies in Hurricanes and Spitfires.

"They had to learn to fly so quickly and at such an incredibly young age - what they achieved was fundamental to the war effort and enormously courageous," says Lord March, the current duke's son.

Those with a head for heights can emulate those young men in a 1943 Harvard IIB, a two-seater advanced training plane.

Any notions of a leisurely flight are quickly dispelled during the pre-flight briefing, as pilot Paddy Bolton explains the aerobatic manoeuvres he will be performing.

"One of the problems with aerobatics is G-force," Bolton explains. "When we pull the aircraft up into a manoeuvre like a loop, for example, we are pulling more than one G and blood is forced towards our feet and away from the brain."

While modern fighter pilots wear special suits to counteract G-force, the lo-tech way is to squeeze your stomach muscles to reduce blood flow to your feet. To avoid losing your lunch, Bolton also recommends looking at the wing tip while the plane twists and turns.

Suitably nervous, I pull on khaki over-alls and climb into the snug cockpit. With a fuel-filled belch, the propeller roars to life and Bolton slides the hatch closed.

We lurch along the grass runway, before rising gracefully into the crisp autumn air. England's fabled green and pleasant land stretches out below as we head towards the coast.

The flight is as smooth as the clear waters of Chichester Harbour, gently lapping the sailing boats anchored below.

Then the real fun begins. Bolton deftly guides the plane into a tight barrel roll. I clench hard, as the G-force pushes me deep into my seat, and fixate on the wing tip while the world flashes by in a kaleidoscopic whirl of blue, grey and green.

Then it's leisurely loops and thrilling half-Cubans - in which the plane rolls in the opposite direction midway through a loop - before Bolton combines all his stunts to give us a giant aerial roller-coaster ride.

 

AT THE OPPOSITE END of the isle, tradition, and less exciting transport, brings me to the east coast of Scotland.

Popularised as a sporting playground by Queen Victoria in the 19th century, Scotland's sprawling estates have become synonymous with hunting and fishing. The shooting season kicks off each year on August 12, known as the "Glorious Twelfth", when tweed-clad gamekeepers and "guns" - as the sportsmen and women are called - head up onto the picturesque heather-clad moors in search of grouse.

A day's shooting sees local men employed as beaters to flush the birds over a line of up to 10 guns standing in sunken stone butts. Gun dogs proudly fetch the fallen prey.

Come evening, the spoils will be washed down with whisky or sold to game dealers to supply butchers and restaurants.

Unlike pheasants and partridges, grouse breed in the wild, so numbers cannot be controlled. They also fly fast and low, so are considered the cream of the sport.

"With the tailwind, they quite easily fly up to 80 miles an hour [130km/h] and then they twitch, which makes it difficult," says Danny Lawson, head gamekeeper at Glenogil Estate, a 20,000-acre grouse estate in the Angus Glens. "Pheasants and partridges are more predictable as they come [over the guns] in a straight line."

It is pheasants they are aiming at the following day, at nearby Strathmore Estate. The 14,000-acre estate includes 600-year-old Glamis Castle, the ancestral seat of the earls of Strathmore and childhood home of the late Queen Mother.

The day begins early, with a hearty breakfast in the castle's 16th-century kitchens, which have thick stone walls and a roaring log fire. As he often does, Lord Strathmore pops in to say hello.

The group of seven guns, 10 local beaters, two gamekeepers and a pack of excitable spaniels and Labradors climb into a fleet of Land Rovers.

At the first of five drives, the guns take up positions beside pegs in a small valley. They wait patiently, watching the empty sky, while the beaters go to work on the other side of the hill. The gamekeepers direct the beaters by radio; the pressure is on for them to deliver.

Suddenly, a flock of birds flies overhead. The crack of gunfire echoes round the valley and birds somersault from the sky. The dogs spring into action as the guns reload.

Nearly 300 shots are fired by the time the horn sounds to signal the end of the drive. The beaters appear over the brow, as the guns retreat for a warming dram.

 

The cost: the Warbird flight experience at Goodwood Estate costs from £325 (HK$3,850; www.goodwood.co.uk; Grouse shooting at Glenogil Estate costs from £15,000, game shooting at Strathmore Estate from £2,500 www.sportinglets.co.uk).

 

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