If there are two words in the English language designed to make any right-thinking man recoil in horror and run for the nearest deep-buttoned leather arm chair, then it is the doom-laden phrase, ‘activity holiday’. Visions of men with mirrored wraparound shades and massive thighs cramming themselves into tiny, little, stupid sailing dinghies, compete with the living horror of any sort of group activity that involves heavy sweating, other than having a sauna or enjoying a beer in a very hot country.
‘Country sports’, on the other hand, conjures up an entirely different set of images because it’s all about the après sport: getting cold and wet and a bit out of breath seems worthwhile if it’s conducted in scenery that would take God’s breath away and is book-ended with a full Scottish breakfast at one end and a large glass of malt by a roaring fire at the other. Now, that, my friends, is what sport should be: fun, productive (that is, you might actually bring something home you can eat) and involving plenty of boys’ toys (guns, Land Rovers, eagles, that kind of stuff).
Talking of which, who would ever have thought that falconry could be fun? After all, surely it’s little more than making of yourself a living perch, and hoping the enormous budgie on your arm doesn’t go for your face – but, oh how wrong it’s possible to be. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s cover the basics…
Gleneagles was founded in 1924 as a Highland retreat for the English and Scottish ruling classes. Frequently visited by royalty and at one time as much a part of the social Season as Cowes week, the hotel is now owned by the international drinks brand Diageo, and the whole place was refurbed in the 1980s to bring it back to its original art-deco splendour.
The scene of 2005’s (in)famous G8 Summit when the hippies and swampies camped out around its illustrious gates in a doomed attempt to get their voices heard by the world’s leaders as they hovered over the hippies’ unwashed, dreadlocked heads in gas-guzzling helicopters, the hotel is now popular with businesses wishing to decamp to discreet surroundings for conferences. Or corporate brain-stormers, with golfers anxious to stretch their skills on its three award-winning links (the King’s Course, Queen’s Course and PGA Centenary Course – as well as a nine-hole course called the Wee Course). Or, as in our case, with couples or families keen to breathe air as clear as crystal or try their hands at Highland sports and reward themselves afterwards with Scotland’s finest seasonal produce.
Our third-floor suite was probably the most practical I have seen in any hotel in the world. An interlocking chain of three rooms, separated by long corridors, it would be ideal for parents who wish to put a living room between themselves and the kids, or business leaders who need their PA to be shouting distance away, or for oligarchs or politicians who travel with close personal protection teams. For me, it was ideal as it meant Lord and Lady Deeson could have seprate bathrooms (oh thank you God, at last), separate dressing rooms, individual Nespresso machines, and even separate beds – though luckily the latter did not prove necessary – although the second bar did come in handy).
"Who would have thought falconry could be fun? After all, it’s little more than making of yourself a living perch, hoping the enormous budgie on your arm doesn’t go for your face – but how wrong it’s possible to be."
First up on the country sports stakes was clay pigeon shooting for the Lord and horse-and-carriage driving for the Lady. An accomplished rider, Lady Deeson decided to try her hand at something new and declared this sport beloved of the Duke of Edinburgh to be “quite easy”. Meanwhile I lorded it round what used to be racing driver Jackie Stewart’s shooting school – now the Gleneagles Shooting School. Despite a disappointing 38 out of 70, the level of tuition was first-class. Sadly they can’t do much about you being blind and rubbish. Next, I had a quick bash at archery while Lady Deeson continued to torture some poor horse. Archery, I have to report, is a sport probably best left to children and people in wheelchairs.
That night we ate in the Strathearn where the bounty of Scotland’s heaths and lochs was teased into mouth-watering dishes. Breakfast the next morning was in the same place, the hotel’s most formal restaurant resembling the ballroom in The Shining. Suitably fortified with kippers we were more than ready for a crammed day of off-road driving, gun dog training and falconry. The latter was a revelation – definitely the activity I had been least looking forward to, it turned out to be about the most fun you can have with a bird while standing up. Off-road driving through frozen streams and up impossible gradients in a Land Rover Defender made Lady Deeson scream, which is always a bonus, and gun dog training was an hour spent in the company of the best-trained dogs it has ever been my privilege to meet. All domestic pets will seem like delinquents in comparison.
Few things give a sense of achievement as much as guiding a falcon to your arm from a distant branch, whacking a 4x4 up a hill you would struggle to climb in sturdy boots and seeing a dog retrieve a hidden decoy as it responds to your hand movements – and all in the course of one crisply freezing winter’s day under skies the colour of lapis lazuli.
Dinner on the last night was in the less formal Deseo, where a Mediterranean take on the local produce had langoustines leaping from plate to palate and oysters hurling themselves to a digestive demise.
All that was left was one of the world’s great drives back through amazing scenery to make the flight home. I almost wished I’d had time to try some golf…
The Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire; 01764 662 231; www.gleneagles.com
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