Almost every weekend during the English hunting season, Blenheim Palace (above), the largest private dwelling in England, provides a spectacular backdrop for the world's most aristocratic pheasant shoot. The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Blenheim's master and mistress, are among England's most enthusiastic guns; and during the fall they play host to groups of guests like those shown here, pursuing pheasants amid the miles of green pastures and quiet woodlands that make up the palace grounds.
The Palace itself, with its magnificent colonnades and ornate carvings, was given by Queen Anne to the first Duke of Marlborough at the beginning of the 18th century after his victory in the historic battle of Blenheim. It took 1,000 laborers 17 years to complete the palace, with the ceiling of its great hall soaring 67 feet above the level of the floor and its massive facade stretching nearly 400 feet from end to end. In the 250 years since, there has been little change in the magnificence of Blenheim. Sir Winston Churchill, who was born there, calls it "one of the precious links which join us to our famous past." There is still an 18th century elegance about the palace rooms; and the 2,700 acres around the Great House still abound with a variety of game, including snipe, woodcock and pheasant.
Shooting in the Blenheim manner is an elaborate affair. On a typical morning a small procession of Land Rovers heads out from the palace loaded with titled sportsmen. Once in the field, a platoon of loaders and gamekeepers readies the guests for the shoot. When the guests have been positioned at the various shooting stands, the drive begins. Then across fields and through thickets, an army of beaters moves toward the party, putting up literally hundreds of birds within range of the waiting guns. If the drive is made in the park of the palace, the guns return to the palace for lunch. But if they shoot on outlying farms they stay out all afternoon and a hot lunch is taken out in heated containers to be served by the butler and footman. By teatime, a successful shoot may have produced as many as 700 palace-reared birds, which will be sorted afterwards from Blenheim's cavernous freezer to be given away as holiday gifts or sold to the local markets.
Historic Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, looms behind party of aristocratic hunters gathered for an early-morning pheasant shoot. Pictured from left are Mr. Willy Freund, Lady Rosemary Muir, Mr. Robin Muir, Blenheim's master, the Duke of Marlborough, Mr. Ronald Waley, the Earl of Cadogan, the Duchess of Marlborough and Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Pilkington.
Long shot is snapped off by the Earl of Cadogan as he raises his shotgun and fires both barrels at flight of distant birds flushed from both sides of shooting stand in Coombe Bottom.
Fast swing of gun puts Duchess of Marlborough on target as daughter Lady Rosemary Muir (center), Mrs. Freund and Land Agent W. L. Murdock watch for pheasants to fall to ground.
Watchful Lord Carnarvon, collar turned up against chill weal her, waits on grass for next flight of birds as loader stands by.
Jaunty Duchess, pleased over her successful morning shoot, shoulders gun and starts for the next stand followed by loader.
Day's bag of more than 700 pheasants is loaded onto wagon under the supervision of Duchess (above center) and Robin Muir as guests wait for Land Rovers to take them back to the palace.
Day's end finds tired pheasant hunters gathered for afternoon tea beneath the glittering chandelier in the palace's Green Drawing Room. Marlborough ancestors decorate the surrounding walls.