Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Portmahomack

Chapter 7:  Edward Prince of Wales, as he was at the time, was reportedly introduced to golf in 1859 by his governor, General Robert Bruce, a member of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) since 1834. Inspired by an exhibition match at Musselburgh, in 1861 his military association with the Grenadier Guards would take him to Curragh, Ireland, where the recently opened golf course was immediately adjacent to the camp. It is not documented if the future king found time for golf during his ten-week visit, but his extramural activities became infamous. A sexual novice, his fellow guards arranged an introduction to Nellie Clifden, a local ‘actress’ and possibly a Wren of the Curragh* who knew her way round the camp in the dark. The resulting affair soon became public knowledge as the guards’ tongues wagged and Nellie became known as the ‘Princess of Wales’. The scandal enraged his parents—Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert—and steps were immediately taken to end the liaison. Prince Albert would die a few months later, a demise that Victoria blamed entirely on the anguish caused by Edward’s indiscretions—“I never can or shall look at him (Edward) without a shudder.”** The older generation should never interfere with youthful passion; the ghosts of forbidden fruit can haunt an entire life. If anything is to be learned from this story, it is this: when tempted by sins of the flesh, play more golf.

* Wrens of the Curragh were an outcast community of nineteenth-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives on the plains of Kildare. The name comes from the shelters they lived in, hollowed out ‘nests’ in the ground which they covered with layers of furze. Their number included unmarried mothers, free-thinkers, alcoholics, prostitutes, vagrants, ex-convicts and harvest workers. All of them women who had, in one way or another, put themselves beyond the pale of respectable society. ‘Songbirds on society’s margins’, The Irish Times, 13 October 2001
** Victoria, as quoted in Jane Ridley’s Bertie: A Life of Edward VII.

Two Tribes – Tales of Warkworth – Part Two

This post ‘reprinted’ from Richard Pennell’s excellent Substack site – Stymied

I knew Robin Down was some kindred spirit from our first interactions; always looking beneath the surface of this game, and pulling up gems for the rest of us to ponder. So it was a delight to share his company for a few precious hours, and a further delight to read his gorgeous prose and hear it leap off the page in his voice.

What follows is therefore the first guest post on Stymied; an idea I’d been toying with, and now, halfway through his wonderful “Golf in the Wild”, it feels an honour to share his own reflection on a shared morning of golf at its best. We hope you enjoy it!

Richard Pennell, of Stymied fame.

Warkworth in a Winter Light

I have walked away from accidents on four wheels that would have been fatal on two. On this point alone, I will concede, my mother was right. I never received teenage advice, just maternal edicts – you are not having a motorcycle. Truth be told, my mind was elsewhere, focussed entirely on the equally fatal world of 1960s and 1970s Grand Prix racing. It was much later in life that her commandment was finally ignored, at an age when she was gone, and the teenage concept of immortality had been replaced by a strong sense of self-preservation.

Riding a motorcycle demands absolute concentration. It needs a light touch, co-ordination, mechanical sympathy, and spatial awareness. Riding through bends relies on acute distance estimation – enter one properly, it holds you in its arms (John Berger). On warm tarmac, at any speed, the heart sings.

If you believe the stereotypes, they are two tribes who never meet – those clad in greasy leathers and those in pressed check pants. Except, many motorcyclists wear textiles and, dare I admit, I have been known to play golf in jeans. I have my feet planted in both camps and the two endeavours are not as dissimilar as you might imagine. They require different skill sets but the mental approach is the same – staying in the moment, extended periods of deep concentration. Let your mind drift with club or bars in hand and, you will be visiting the rough. They both make you better drivers.

It was one of those misleading days in February when a bright light on the North Sea intimated too soon, the prospect of spring. From the high ground of the clubhouse at Warkworth, there is an uplifting panorama in an early morning light: high dunes, Alnmouth to the north, Amble to the south and, floating on a shining sea, Coquet Island, and its lighthouse. It makes the heart sing.

I am here to meet Richard Pennell, the man behind the excellent Stymied, a golfer’s blog – musings on a mysterious game. Both golfers, both compulsive writers, there is immediate common ground. The rambling, dangling conversation is reflected in the quality of the golf. Breaking all the rules about staying in the moment, our discussions run wild and free. It is a different sort of golf on this day where the company takes precedence over any thought of a good score – ugly distractions such as handicaps are not even mentioned. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable round. The winter rules at Warkworth demand that balls landing on the fairway must be lifted and placed in the semi-rough to protect the course – for much of the round this has little impact for either of us.

Warkworth is played on three levels – the first, from the highest tee, takes aim at one of the two lowest greens. It is a glorious drive south into a bright winter sun. The ball disappears in flight, but the landing stage is generous and wide. A shanked pitch is the consequence of distraction and a too long winter break. The second plays north behind the high dunes to an obscured green – it is as good an opening to a golf course as any in Northumberland. In summer, the third is a dogleg right, climbing to the middle level, but in winter it plays straight and shorter before climbing to the fourth tee and the high plateau where the rest of the course is laid out. By the fourth tee, we are on full song – the joys of golf in wild places, the compulsion to write, travel and the passing of time. No subject is out of bounds.

I try not to think about it, I try not to let the old man in, but I am envious of Richard’s young years and his early introduction to the game – “my parents had somehow thought of a golf lesson as a short-term option for this energetic child”. By contrast, “I came to the sport late in life and like many of my contemporaries regret the years lost to other less rewarding pursuits; getting married (twice), having children (three) and consuming alcohol (too much)”.

It is another area of common ground between the diverse tribes. Motorcycle and golf manufacturers and the various administrations fret constantly about attracting a younger audience, but here’s the secret – none of us is getting any younger, today’s family man with too many commitments and too little time is tomorrow’s pensioner. In short, give the old guys and gals a break, try occasionally to nurture the converted. Not only does it make financial sense, but it is good for this aging demographic – anything that gets you out of the house, gets you talking, walking, riding – and thinking enhances physical and mental well-being. Anything to reduce our dependence on over-stretched health services must be good – to repeat that well-worn adage – you don’t stop riding because you get old, you get old because you stop riding.

On the golf course, you can keep playing for as long as you can keep moving, and even then, there are a variety of devices to ease the joints – the progression goes something like: carry bag, trolley, electric trolley, golf buggy, palanquin. The decision to hang up the helmet is a little more serious and complex.

I have always had a desire for speed. Even the early years on a pushbike were about how fast, not where or how far. Throughout fifty plus years of car ownership, the same principle has applied. In the right sort of four-wheel vehicle, you directly connect with it—you become part of the machine—but this in no way compares with life on a motorcycle. John Berger continued riding into his nineties:… except for the protective gear you’re wearing, there’s nothing between you and the rest of the world. The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are travelling. Your contact with the outside world is more intimate. On four wheels you can become part of the machine. On two wheels you are the machine.

By some margin, my favourite motorcycle books are written by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, author of The Perfect Vehicle and The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. Melissa puts in words the unique sensations of being on two wheels and why, for the initiated, it is so important, so addictive. There is a quote that once heard, never quite goes away – I’m not going to be riding into my seventies, probably some people do, but perhaps they shouldn’t. And, yet, I am, with no thought of giving up – the stable of bikes is getting bigger, not smaller, the desire for long distance riding ever stronger. In an attempt to combine both passions, this summer I will ride to the Lofoten Islands to play golf under a midnight sun. The ferries and hotels are booked, I am going, but I am acutely aware this will be another season gone.

Melissa shares this anxiety … those ever-shorter leases on fine weather that blaze by and melt into cold. And it hits you: You will not get to go everywhere on a motorcycle that you want to. Motorcycling causes dreaming. Like a virus causes the flu. It makes you imagine far reaches, and long to get to them. Nor will I get to play golf in all the wild places of my imagination. As Melissa so succinctly puts it, we are riding towards the end and we both ache for another lifetime. In an exchange of emails, she reflected further: “It occurred to me how time slightly alters even a continuously pursued endeavour; in other words, motorcycling offers new significance on top of its old pleasures depending how old you are. This is just one of the reasons I have become fond of saying ‘Motorcycles are magic.’”

So many miles, so many golf courses, so little time.

Holes four through nine are played out across the top level where interest is added by a deep ravine which must be crossed at holes five and seven. There is the threat of deep rough on the seaward side of the outbound holes but aside from the ravine, the inward stretch is straightforward, but no worse for that. The greens are perfect and true and this in early February.

Richard makes for good company; educated, interested and interesting. I was recently asked who would make up my perfect four-ball – I chose Alice Cooper, Barack Obama and Bob Dylan, not for their golfing prowess but for the prospect of their conversation. Not for them, lives half lived. By contrast, a professional raised with the dedication necessary to succeed in the modern world of sport, is likely to have a limited world view – one such pro golfer proudly proclaims to have never read a book.

As we approach the 18th, Richard notices my bag tags. Alongside my home club, Allendale, there is Traigh, on the Road to The Isles and, Durness, as far northwest as you can go in mainland Britain and still play golf. They feature in Golf in the Wild and both clubs have been supportive of my book – more importantly, they are magnificent courses in remarkable settings. Richard is distracted by thoughts of driving to these wild extremities, so much so that his chip to the green is thinned into a waiting bunker. He makes cheerful reference to lack of concentration and what might have happened had he been on two wheels.

And by this observation, I know he has been paying attention. And this is what we do, we listen; we listen for stories; we listen for the perfect whipcrack as the ball finds the sweet spot on the face of the club; we listen for the delicious pop, bang, crackle of a Ducati V-Twin on the over-run.

Robin Down – golfing and riding in the wild.

Learn more about “Golf in the Wild” and “Going Home” via Robin’s website: https://golfinthewild.org.uk/.

A Kindred Spirit

Tales of Warkworth Part One

By Richard Pennell

Once again, word of mouth opens a gate I’d have otherwise walked past. A free morning on this winter golfing pilgrimage, towards the shore that peers out at the North Sea and Holy Island; a chance to retreat into golf, and writing, and to meet fresh horizons with that energy that always accompanies “the new”.
I ask a few people for ideas for this vacant slot, and Warkworth is one of a few in contention. I call, eager to speak in person, and the conversation that follows tells me that this is the sort of place I should be seeing. For the person on the other end of the line is friendly, funny, welcoming.

… from Warkworth GC

 

I ask a few people for ideas for this vacant slot, and Warkworth is one of a few in contention. I call, eager to speak in person, and the conversation that follows tells me that this is the sort of place I should be seeing. For the person on the other end of the line is friendly, funny, welcoming.

And it is a chance to connect with another soul touched by golf, whose writing on these same themes beguiles me. R’s path to his golfing prose is different from mine, but we have each arrived in a similar place – the game an avenue for a deeper exploration of who we are; the lives we’ve led. Before we meet, we’ve spoken a little on the phone, and exchanged a few messages, but nothing can compare with the freedom golf provides for this sort of relaxed conversation.

Continue reading on Substack by clicking here

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Further East

Chapter 3: Among the Skerray headstones is this touching tribute to another George Mackay, erected by his friends in London. Enough is known about young George to imagine his last days …

It was early morning, 12 April 1912. The house was slowly coming to life, and George was wide awake. In fitful excitement, he had hardly slept. Some last tearful farewells to the early morning maids, a final check that his tickets were secure in his pocket and quietly he slipped the safe moorings of 11 Queens Gate, Kensington, and his life as a footman. Emerging from the colonnaded porch, he touched the iron railings one last time, turned left, and then right onto Prince Consort Road, heading for Waterloo and the 07:45 train to Southampton. He was dressed in his Sunday-best suit and wearing a Sunday smile. He did not look back. The city was already bustling with the clatter of hooves and the too familiar smell of horse manure, soon to be replaced by the salt sea air he had known as a boy.

The young George had only just turned twenty, but already he had travelled far from his humble beginnings on a croft near Tongue, in Sutherland. One of twelve children to William and Christina Mackay, he was determined to better himself. Too often he had heard tales of regret, of lives half-lived in the bitter north. George, the Heilam ferryman, spoke of nothing else but his plans as a young man to travel to Canada and how he was persuaded to stay by the Duke of Sutherland. This George would not make the same mistake.
The third-class boat train from Waterloo pulled into Southampton Docks at 09:30, stopping at Berth 43/44. Clutching a small brown suitcase and ticket 42795, George alighted into the dockside sheds, crossed the road, controlled by a man with a red flag, and momentarily stood, awestruck by the sheer overwhelming size of the ship. It was beyond anything he could have imagined. Nothing like this was ever seen in the Kyle.

As a third-class passenger, George had a simple berth, shared with six other passengers. Keen to escape the claustrophobia of steerage and the company of strangers, many of whom could not speak English, he quickly found his way to the open decks. He was there when the ship cast off and was towed into the River Test by tugboats, there for the near collision with USMS New York, there when Cherbourg appeared on the French coast and there when the ship set sail for Cobh in the dim light of an April evening. All the while he grasped ticket 42795. It had cost £7 11s, all his savings, but he was bound for Rochester and a new life in Detroit. Of one thing he was certain: he was never going home.

Golf in the Wild – Going Home.  Chapter 3 – Further East

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Reay

Chapter 2:  There is a wild beauty to this place which is quite different from the west. After the high uplands of Sutherland, Caithness is a gentler, flatter and a largely treeless landscape, where landmarks stand out like exclamation marks on the horizon. The golf course at Reay (pronounced Ray) owes its existence and survival to the occupants of Sandside House to the west and the Dounreay atomic energy site to the east. Both are visible from various parts of the course.
Thomas Pilkington, the St Helens glass manufacturer, acquired Sandside House and some of the surrounding estates in the late 1800s for use as a shooting and fishing retreat. Like many landed families of the nineteenth century, the Pilkington clan, relatives, friends and accompanying servants would up sticks from smoky Lancashire and spend the summer sporting in the far north. The contrast between industrialised St Helens and the wilds of Reay could not have been more pronounced. When not shooting, contemplating salmon or installing an early version of double glazing, Thomas’s thoughts turned to golf. Looking east from the upper, condensation-free windows of Sandside House, he would see the perfect location for his very own course …

Chapter 2 – Reay

A different sort of golfer …

…  a different sort of biker.  Durness is the place where Golf in the Wild ends and its sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, begins.  The image of the 8th green shows a ball adjacent to the pin – it will not have arrived in regulation.  The approach has the characteristics of an infinity pool – just fairway and water.  It takes confidence to go for the invisible green, anything long seemingly destined for the briny sea.

The view from the 8th/17th green takes in many highlights of the course: the dunes and the edge of Balnakeil Bay; sturdy Balnakeil House – available for rent to the well-heeled and grubby – it has six bathrooms; the graveyard where lies the Clan MacKay henchman, Donald McMurdo – was ill to his friend and worse to his foe; the 18th tee, which provides such a glorious finish across a rocky inlet and the Clubhouse which resembles a coastguard station, forever keeping watch for those in peril on the course.

The image does not sparkle, it was not one of those days – hazy sunshine turned dreich, but I was grateful for the benign conditions; when the winds blow strong across the Parph from Cape Wrath, this will be an inhospitable place for golf and much else besides.

The view from the 8th green, looking east

It was taken in August 2012 and, sad to relate, I have never played the course since, despite becoming a country member for a couple of years when the club’s finances were stretched. Their secretary, Lucy Mackay, has always been very supportive of Golf in the Wild.  That is not to say I have never returned to Balnakeil and Durness – I have been several times, most recently in 2021 by motorcycle.

The NCA Motorcycle Club at Balnakeil Bay – May 2021

My standard line is that I have yet to fathom how to carry golf clubs on my BMW GS, but as I proved on Barra, dependence on my own clubs is entirely illusory, indeed, my game seemed to benefit from using a mixed set of hire clubs.  With this in mind, I am planning more extreme wild golf by motorcycle – in 2023 the intention is to ride to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and play golf under the midnight sun on Lofoten Links.  I have travelled there by car, sea, ship and aeroplane which only leaves the motorcycle to complete the set.  On my last trip I travelled with my eldest son by train from Oslo to Bodø and then took a short flight to Svolvær.  It was the beginning of March and snow was still thick on the ground – the Lofoten Islands are well within the Arctic Circle such that Lofoten Links will only open from 5th of May until 15th of October in 2023.

The road to Lofoten Links – March 2020

Near Lofoten Links – March 2020

Why post this now? It is all part of the process of making it happen – a commitment to myself, and now, to others. It is about not losing face.

Golf Mates at Covesea

The Golf Mates have discovered Covesea!  This entertaining video captures the essence of Andy Burnett’s course in a way that the written word never can.  It is the perfect companion to Chapter 9 of Golf in the Wild – Going Home – the Moray Coast:

Built around natural features, high ground, cliff faces, enormous rocks and ideal links land, it is remarkable.  Andy Burnett bought the land about fifteen years ago and, with his brother Graeme, expended huge effort in turning it into a 9-hole golf course. … as soon as I saw the place, I fell in love with it completely.  Unusually, Covesea is not a members’ club, so the course is entirely Andy’s domain, thereby avoiding the plague of the grumpy golfer who will seek to blame all his misfortune on anything but his inadequate game. Consequently, the usual rules, regulations and members’ priority are entirely missing. “We’ve always run the place without any airs and graces—everyone is welcome to come and play.”  It is an operational model that I find extremely attractive.

The heroic trio came to the same conclusions – a remarkable course that golfers must be encouraged to visit – they will not be disappointed.

 

St Andrews & Anstruther

I guess most golfers have an ambition to play St Andrews, the home of golf.  Scheduled to play Anstruther at 13:30 we had some time to spare so we drove the extra ten miles north and spent an enjoyable hour gongoozling at St Andrews’  first tee and the eighteenth green.

Much as I would like to play the Old Course, I have some reservations.  I would feel obliged to use a caddy and I would imagine a continuous analysis of my fragile game by an old hand who has seen it all before, not least the incompetent hack.  There is also the gallery, especially at the eighteenth where a wayward finish is all too publicly on display – and always remember Doug Sanders.

This good man cleared the Valley of Sin but, his ball ran through to the rough at the back of the green and found a testing lie which he wanted the ‘gallery’ to know about.  Despite this he chipped to within feet of the pin – a fine effort in spite of the attentions of the man with a camera.

Look at this lie!

A great chip

To within feet.

The final drawback is the cost – all well and good if you are in reasonable form but a recipe for certain depression if you are having a poor day.  Nevertheless, I suppose it has its compensations – later that day when I parred the eighteenth at Anstruther, there was nobody present to admire my final putt, just my good buddy who slightly resented me adding salt to his wounds.

Anstruther’s second

 

Anstruther proved to be everything I had hoped for – a fine course with some challenging holes, not least, the three consecutive par 3s at the southern end of the course.  The first of these, the fifth – The Rockies, was deemed the toughest par 3 in Britain in 2007 by Today’s Golfer. Ian parred this on the back nine, something I feel obliged to mention 😉 And, yes, but for Covid, Anstruther would have been in the sequel.

Tomorrow we head south again – this time to Jedburgh, a course I have not played since it was extended to eighteen holes. If the sun stays out, it should be a fine finish to an excellent three days of escape.

The tee is back beyond the gorse – near the square structure

Gifford

First golf impressions are influenced by the weather and how well you play.  The skies over Gifford were an unbelievable blue and the scoring surprisingly good.  Consequently I consider Gifford to be a spectacular golf course.  A parkland layout surrounded to the northwest by Blawearie Wood and  in the lee of the Lammermuir Hills, it is well presented with large, immaculate greens.  The Speedy Burn runs across the course and comes into play at the second, seventh, eighth and ninth holes.  The small but tidy clubhouse could feature in George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces.  At not far short of 6000 yards off the yellows with just three par 3s (6000+ off the whites) good distance off the tee will help post a reasonable score.

A nine-hole course, there is some variety on the back nine: the first is a par three whereas the tenth tee is at the edge of the car park – this being some 200-yards distant from the clubhouse where the first tee is positioned; the fourteenth par 3 is significantly shorter and easier than front nine fifth; the eighteenth tee is set back some distance in a small copse and turns the front nine par 4 ninth into a par 5.  The narrow perspective from this last tee presents a challenging finish.

Had Covid not interfered with travel plans in 2020, it is almost certain that this course would have featured in the sequel – Golf in the Wild – Going Home. If asked what has been the greatest influence on writing the sequel, I would have to respond ‘Events, my dear boy, events‘ (H. Macmillan).  As I head for Anstruther with my long time golfing buddy (Ian the L Plates – see book #1), I feel certain the same will apply.

The second

The eighth

The fifth

Yester Parish Church in the centre of Gifford

Golf in the Wild and Kindle

The first print run of 1000 books has nearly sold out and so I have reached a decision point – reprint or make available online.  I have always much preferred print media to e-books and it was this that motivated the high production standards for Golf in the Wild.  It was the unknown book I wanted golfers to find on the shelf at Waterstones which would immediately inspire them to rush to the check-out.  Not that Waterstones was ever persuaded to stock the book but, therein lies another story.

The sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, is due for publication in September 2021.  At the same time I will reprint the first book.  With a gap in availability of several months, this seemed an opportune time to experiment with Kindle.  After several frustrating hours with Kindle Create, I eventually decided to upload as a Print Replica which, in plain English, means that the content appears exactly as it does in the printed book format.  Retention of the original formatting and imagery means it is a large download – more megabytes for your buck.  The Kindle price is £3.49 in the UK, with equivalent pricing in other worldwide territories – Kindle Unlimited members get to read if for free.