The grouse shooting season reveals Terry Holman as a man for all seasons, even in his ninth decade. Michael Hickling reports. Picture by Steve Riding.
Terry Holman works intently under the watchful gaze of an owl. Badgers, weasels, fox, geese, curlew and assorted fish also give him their close attention.
This former gamekeeper carves these wonderfully intricate figures out of horn and hardwoods and sets them on the tops of polished hazelwood shafts, forming a stick or a shepherds’ crook. The finished items stand to attention in a rack by the wall in his workshop.
One stick takes him about a week to produce. For now, however, Terry the stickman will put his carvings aside. With the shooting season under way, the outdoors will claim his full attention again.
A few steps up the hill from his cottage is a commodious shed divided into pens occupied by 12 bright-eyed springer spaniels. Until December 10, Terry will be out on the moor with the dogs most days as a ‘picker upper’, paid to employ the almost telepathic understanding he has with his dogs to carry out the task with minimum fuss.
Fuss is not something 81-year-old Terry appreciates, especially around working animals. We step into his large field guarded by mole traps to meet Rush, an energetic 16-week-old newcomer to the springer team, still learning the ropes.
On shoots, this breed is typically used for flushing out game, labradors for picking up the dead birds. Labradors have greater hardiness in the wet, but more than 70 years’ experience on the moors leads Terry to choose springers for the task because of their intelligence.
Rush is quick on the uptake. He sits and stays while Terry carries a dummy – an old piece of rolled-up carpet – 30 yards towards the far edge of the field then hurls it as far as he can into rough pasture. Reacting to a whistle and hand signals, the patient dog bursts into action and retrieves first time. Not a word is spoken. After ten minutes of this, Rush has done enough for this outsider to think he’s ready for work.
The dog is returned to the pens to rejoin the other alert and happy occupants.
There have been up to 17 in here. “We used to breed one litter a year and then wait to see which ones were showing signs of sense,” says Terry. They have a run out together three times a day and the edge of Dallowgill moor is only a quarter of a mile away.
Terry lives here with his younger second wife, Margaret, beside an unmade track in what used to be two stone cottages, now joined together. With hollyhocks at the gate it looks like rural bliss, snug, tranquil and pretty as a postcard. Much of it is Terry’s handiwork, including the stylish interior fittings. His philosophy is: “We don’t have something? So make it.”
He had spent much of the week before the day we met at the top of a ladder removing all the upstairs windows and replacing them. Not usually a task for octogenarians. There’s more evidence of self-sufficiency in the substantial hen house where the chickens lay dark brown speckled eggs. An extensive greenhouse (Terry-built again), is immaculately cultivated by Margaret. Later, as we chat, she comes in triumphantly to show the mole traps are working: a victim is attached.
Water for the cottage comes from a spring a few yards up the hill, just as it has done for the past 400 years or so. Terry does not wear a watch and says he’s never owned one, adding to the impression that this is a place where time stands still.
It’s an illusion of course because time moves on at an ever faster pace all around. The neighbouring dairy farms (once there were 14), are now down to two. The closest farmstead has a ‘for sale’ sign at the gate. On the narrow winding lanes hereabouts you encounter machines which look like moon landers, hurrying noisily towards a harvest field on gigantic balloon wheels.
Terry comes from two generations of gamekeepers. Grandfather and father worked on the royal estate at Sandringham, both later moving to Teesside for a better-paid type of employment. Grandad had married one of Queen Victoria’s seamstresses and they took with them to their new home near Middlesbrough a beautiful dining table which Queen Victoria presented to them on their wedding day, along with a handwritten letter. In their later years, the couple decided the table had become too big for their needs, sent it to a saleroom and were pleased to get £15 for it.
Terry remembers from those childhood days his father going out shooting rooks. He’d sell six rooks tied with string to customers for food and bring home six for the pot. In more recent times Terry tried the dish gain.
“Just one taste took me right back to those early years. Whatever you put in with the rook breasts the result is the same. The taste is like wet sweaty dogs – horrible.”
Terry arrived here in North Yorkshire in 1943 after his mother had been widowed in the war. She had found a housekeeping position on the estate where a tiny cottage, rent seven and six a week, came with the job. The boy quickly discovered the moors were his natural habitat. Apprenticed to a joiner, he spent all his free time roaming the great outdoors.
He made himself so useful locally that on his demob from the RAF after National Service, a gamekeeper’s job was ready and waiting for him on the estate. Terry recalls the elation he felt at starting in his new post. “I came out the first morning and said to myself, ‘I’ve cracked it – I’ve just stepped out of the house and I’m on the job!’”.
He reflects on changed attitudes and conditions in the gamekeeping world since the mid-1950s. “A landowner would invite his friends over to shoot and later they would invite him back to their estate. Now it’s more commercialised.
“Your status was barely that of a dog when I started. I was on £5 a week, plus 40p extra for keeping dogs and the vets’ bills. No perks. Once we got a record brace of 664 in a day. But my tips for that whole season amounted to £3.50. Now gamekeepers get £400 a week and all found. Some even have paid holidays and are paid bonuses.”
Years later, the tied estate cottage was put on the market for £3,500. It’s a historic building – the oldest part is pre-1600 and it was the last in the district to remain thatched with heather. Terry had no means of buying it on his wages.
“They gave us a year’s grace and I did all the dirty jobs no-one else would do, every night, every weekend. It was a slog. But we got there.”
During his time in the RAF, certain difficulties in his young life were brought into focus. He was an armourer, filling the empty aircraft ammunition magazines. Seven different types of .303 machine gun bullet had to be loaded in a specific sequence. “It was simple, but I couldn’t follow it,” says Terry. “It made you feel a right idiot.”
It was the same on the parade ground. “The drill sergeant shouted out what to do but I couldn’t do it.” Tests subsequently revealed that he was dyslexic and also had difficulty with number recognition.
That did not stop him, further down the career line, teaching himself plumbing and electrics and setting himself up in the building trade. The evidence of his abilities can be seen all around.
The stick making passion was also inherited. “My father could make anything out of anything.” Through the door of the workshop across the track from the cottage you enter the dusty gloom of how things used to be. It’s a definition of rural old-fashioned make-do-and mend, a scene of battered workbenches, buffers, vices, drills, an old hand printing press, a cast iron pot-bellied stove.
Specialist, self-invented hand tools and power tools with attachments retrieved from car boot sales, sit around in no apparent order. Once Terry sets to work however, it’s clear everything is in exactly the right place. The printing press has been adapted for straightening hazel sticks. The hazel has to be seasoned first for two years, otherwise the sap causes the surface to peel.
A hefty quarter-inch-thick steel forma is hauled out from a corner for inspection. An old kitchen pressure cooker has been given new and is used to heat and re-heat horn. This material is tough and springy and pieces tend to smash through the window under pressure if not held firmly in place.
The quality of rams’ horn is not what it was. “Too ‘bucket fed’ these days,” says Terry. “Ideally you want them off old sheep – scruffy ones that have scrubbed around a bit.” The best horn, which must be dried for two years, comes from Scottish blackface rams. He also uses buffalo horn obtained from a dealer in Scotland.
The finishing and polishing of the horn is a time-consuming process, involving jewellers’ rouge (a mild abrasive), three grades of wire wool, stropping with emery tape and Kanuba wax.
Pinhead-sized pieces are typically fashioned and polished to make the eyes of the carved creatures. That alone can take hours. Terry explained this process to one visitor who scoffed that it all seemed a lot of bother for such a little thing: he had a friend who made sticks just like this and all did for an eye was knock in a tack. “I thanked him,” says Terry, “and added, ‘I am really grateful for that information. I’d never have thought of that for myself’.”
The wood he usually carves is seasoned elm, burr elm, walnut, lime (apparently the old carvers’ favourite) and occasionally ash. Oak is no good.
These are not ornamental, or art objects that he makes. They are intended to give good service – the tips are made from the belting off coal mine conveyors. He tried various materials and found this was the one which never wore out.
But he admits, “You wouldn’t use them to catch sheep with when they cost £150. I can’t charge less for the work that goes into them.” He will make the stick rack too if needed.
His reputation is spread by word of mouth and he takes out his rack of sticks when the shooting season starts.
They are highly prized and several are said to have found their way into royal households, including Prince William’s.
Did he want to have a contact number added at the bottom of this article, so potential customers could get in touch? “No, everyone knows me round here. If anyone else is keen enough, they will find you.”
Not a man who likes fuss in anything really.