The Holland and Holland shooting ground at Ruislip is about a hundred acres in size. It was bought in 1930 when it was originally three farms. The woods around it have interesting historical names, Mad Bess Wood, the demented wife of a local gamekeeper used to haunt it at night looking for poachers. Scarlet Springs, so named because the stream and springs ran red with blood after a battle between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Copse Wood opposite the main entrance was the scene of a plane crash on the fourth of July, 1948 in which thirty-nine souls perished, the worst mid-air crash in British aviation history. Over the years, several of our Staff have reported feeling “odd” or ethereal presences. I have to say I have not been one of them.
Last December when the snow was on the ground, some of our clients had real problems getting in, so having a quiet hour about three o’clock, I took a gun from the rack and went for a wander in search of a pigeon or two. It was grey and overcast with a chill breeze from the north east, even the snow, reflecting what light there was could not dispel the gloom as dusk started to gather. The sort of cold that creeps unwanted into your bones after a while, no matter how well wrapped up you are.
My route took me along the southern hedge boundary towards Highbones Wood. From this elevated position I could look down over the shooting ground to my north. I was thinking of nothing in particular and mooching along not paying when a pigeon clattered out of the hedge, no doubt unhappy at being forced from its position, warm in the Ivy of a small Oak. I threw the gun up at it and missed, before it swooped out of sight over and behind the hedge. I picked up my empty and reloaded. Stupid, not paying attention.
I had just picked it up when a soft lilting voice at my elbow said “Ees a good fat rabbit”.
It had started to snow again, quite heavily in the wind, large wet flakes and visibility was well down. Carrying on around the boundary hedge on the west side towards Scarlet Springs, there were tracks of Muntjac and Badger in the snow and some indistinct scuffed ones that could have been anything. A rabbit bolted from a clump of brambles following my kick and I rolled it over. I had just picked it up when a soft lilting voice at my elbow said “Ees a good fat rabbit”. I turned and saw a youngish chap in drab, very worn clothes, a bit odd somehow, slightly indistinct in the driving snow, I had to squint to see against the wind and cold.
There should be no one other than staff and clients on the ground as there are no public rights of way across it, occasionally we get a lost walker but this chap didn’t fit that bill. He seemed a bit of a bumpkin, if I’m honest, but no harm in him. “I’ve never seen a gun like that” he said, can I have a look?” I unloaded the Holland ‘Royal’ and held it out to him, but he made no move to take it, just moved around bobbing his head disconnectedly to get a better look, or so I thought. “Ows it load then?” he asked. I showed him the cartridges and the opening mechanism and how to load it, he just asked “Well, where’s the ‘ammers then?” He seemed genuinely surprised when I said there were none.
It was getting colder and the snow heavier now, but he didn’t bother to fasten up the neck of his coat, just seemed impervious to it. I started walking through Six Acre and up towards Raveners Spring wood, I had to pass the end to get back to the Lodge. Even if it didn’t bother him, I was certainly feeling the cold. I asked him as we walked together where he came from and he said his father lived in a cottage in Ruislip. He was a likable lad, younger than I had first thought and seemed knowledgeable about the woods and what was in them in the area, though he knew nothing of Muntjac, said he had not heard of them before. He said his name was John but people called him Jackey. As I drew nearer the lodge he fell a little behind and became indistinct in the falling snow. The last thing he said to me as he disappeared was “That Lamb done for me”.
Stepping onto the patio in front of the Lodge doors overlooking the grounds and the high tower, one of our groundsmen was there clearing snow. “You talking to yourself?” he asked. “No I was talking to John here” I said. He thought I was barking, there was no one there anymore. I walked back a few yards, there was only one set of footprints. Mine.
We were talking about this in the Instructors room next day and someone said why not Google the history of the area. That’s when I found the story of the murder of John Brill in 1837 in Young Wood, next to Mad Bess wood. A fifteen-year-old lad whose father lived in a cottage in Ruislip, he had given evidence in the trial of three poachers a little while before. One Charles Lamb stood trial for the murder but was acquitted. The “Lamb done for me”? His neck was broken.