I am, at heart, a modernizer. When the time came a few years ago for me to join a club I had a choice of three local tracks. The one I joined was the one where I could wear what I liked in the clubhouse, denim included. The one were I could use my mobile phone, even on the course. The one where I didn’t feel like I had walked in to God’s waiting room when I arrived. You see, I am a firm believer in change and change, I feel, is coming sooner or later to golf.
My father is 73 and a 73 year old today grew up in the rock n roll era. He was wearing jeans and singing in a band when he was 16 so he has been happiest in denim his whole life. When he retired he threw his suits away. He saw them as the symbol of slavery to a convention he had always disliked. Once he no longer had to adhere to that convention he reveled in disposing of its semiotics. I couldn’t get him into a suit now if I tried. And he’s not alone. My wife’s father-in-law did the exact same thing. The only people who wear suits to work now are bankers, lawyers, accountants, estate agents and people who work at mobile phone shops.
My grandfather was different. He DID come from a generation when men always wore a suit and tie, but he was born in 1923 and had he been alive today would have been 97. I completely understood why my grandfather and his friends wanted to maintain that dress code when he and his chums were running their golf course. But the time is soon coming where these kind of conventions are actually destroying the ability of clubs to attract new members. And I use dress codes here as an obvious example of a much wider problem. Many clubs have a much more relaxed dress code today than they did, but the general miasma of judgement still permeates a sport that has done much over the last 30 years to be more inclusive and anyone under the age of 70 today just won’t put up with that kind of regulation in their lives. They have too many other options.
My point is that I get annoyed by clubs who refuse to change on the basis that they simply don’t like change. Digging one’s heels in while the world moves on around you, leaving you behind, is plainly idiotic in my book. It’s what businesses do just before they fail.
So, believing all that as I do, why did I find myself falling in love with the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, a club so steeped in ancient tradition and ceremony that it makes Hogwarts look like a modern comprehensive?!
I had heard about Brancaster, as it’s known locally, well before I set foot in the place. Friends had played it. I had read about it. I had even taken my dog for a walk along the dunes there to peer over the fence and take a sneaky look. I had heard that the clubhouse hadn’t changed in a century and that it felt like stepping back in time. I had heard the pro was still not allowed into that clubhouse. I had heard that you weren’t allowed to be a member unless you owned a Labrador.
To really cement my suspicion that visiting Brancaster would be a chore, I had gingerly tiptoed up the short path to the course entrance on that dog walk, which is a memorial gate to the fallen in both World Wars, and stared through to the fairly austere looking first and eighteenth holes. The wind was howling that day and I could see the sand whipping across the fairways. I was on a mission to play all four north Norfolk courses and so I was determined to play it during this sojourn, but with everything I had seen, and heard, it didn’t seem like it would be much fun.
Then the Secretary, Ian Symington, invited me to play and I duly turned up. I walked into the clubhouse, turned right into what is known as the Smoke Room and pretty much turned into a 13 year old schoolboy again, arriving for the first time in the refectory and gazing up at the wood paneled walls behind the masters table. Slightly terrified. Slightly awed. Completely charmed. Even the notices pinned to the walls in here look like they’ve been there since the 1950’s, it’s that kind of place.
Silverware and old golf equipment add just a touch of understated embellishment but the room is mainly dominated by the two boards celebrating past captains. Royal Highnesses, Dukes, Earls, Viscounts, knights, admirals, Air Chief Marshalls of the RAF, brigadiers, colonels, major-generals and even a professor. It seems the history of Brancaster is the history of the British Empire, though I must add there are a good few plain Mr’s on there as well to make me comfortable.
They serve sandwiches. And cake. Tea is proper British tea. None of the fancy nonsense you get in pretentious hotels. But the kind of tea you took at school with your housemaster when you had done something wrong and he felt a quiet word about your life choices was more worthy than the cane. And damn, it’s good tea.
The changing room smelled like a rugby team had been in it and the less said about the bathroom the better. A motion had been put forward in the 1970’s to include a shower and was shut down when a prominent member said that “Brancaster members bathed at home”. They did eventually get one but you’d be better off staying at a campsite and using theirs. It’s one of those places where the members revel in hardship.
Ian and I made our way to the course, which requires you to cross a 30 yard stretch of beach, complete with soft golden sand under your feet. If a less dignified but more wonderful approach to a first tee exists I have never seen it. We had a few putts on the practice green. It’s fast. Then we ambled over to the first tee and… realized we couldn’t see 50 yards in front of us! Admittedly it was October, the natural home of the dreaded har, but this had come down so quick I thought it would swallow me up and eat me. Visibility was decreasing by the second. I was bitterly disappointed that my game would have to be called off but prepared myself for the long sullen walk back to my car.
And then, almost as quickly as it arrived, it started to lift. We hit some shots and by the 2nd tee we could see all the way to the end of the course. Welcome to Brancaster, where the weather is never less than extreme.
I once wrote about Royal County Down that it was like playing a Tolkien novel – wispy fantasy played out in epic dunes. Strangely, Brancaster gave me the same feeling, though the course is in no way as majestic as RCD. It’s dangerous to talk about golf as emotions but I am greatly affected by aesthetics and here I felt like it transported you to another time, when the struggles and travails of the modern world no longer exist. A time machine for the soul.
The 1st and 18th share a flat fairway reminiscent of the Old Course but from about the 3rd it coaxes you into a much more tumultuous, undulating topography that delights and deceives you in equal measure. By the time you get to the 6th you’re dizzy from one of the course’s quirks – tee boxes and holes that criss-cross each other. To get to the 2nd you cross the fairway of the 17th. The short par three 4th requires a tee shot that cuts across the tee shot for the 5th. To get to the 6th tees you cut across the 7th fairway. And so on. It’s the same on the way home. To be honest had I not been with a local I would have been totally lost, though I expect a course map would help, had I taken one.
The thing about Brancaster is that this never feels inconvenient. On so many courses, especially the big championship courses, tee times are packed from dusk til dawn so it’s regimented and stressful. Brancaster isn’t like that. It’s golf played amongst friends. A cheery wave here, a little giggle there. Everyone skips round the course like they are children playing in the back yard of their favourite grandparent. And you can’t help joining in. There is the sound of birds, the distant mumble of the waves rolling in on the other side of the dunes, the occasional chirp of a satisfied member and … not much else. It’s a world unto itself, where the 21st century and all it’s haste is quickly forgotten.
The course itself lacks the modern polish that many may have come to expect, but somehow it works here, in this setting. It is not manicured to within an inch of its life, like so many others. Even links courses on the tourist trail now often feel like the scruffiness is manufactured, painted on just so. Not in Brancaster. It looks scruffy and windswept because it’s been clinging on to life with its bare hands for over 100 years. That’s not to say it doesn’t look beautiful or that it isn’t well presented. The tee boxes are amongst the flattest I’ve played on recently, the fairways are lovely and the greens roll true. But you get the feeling here that it’s fragile, delicate, like we’re privileged to play here because one day, sooner or later, Mother Nature will swallow it up and that will be that.
That did in fact nearly happen in December 2013 when a high storm tide flooded the entire course, destroying over a £1million worth of machinery. The club has a permanent and not insignificant fund kept aside for repairs and sea defenses. Climate change is really poses a threat to life here.
The course furniture is old, the kind of sand boxes and tee markers that were fashioned from iron and steel and sweat by real craftsmen who took time to learn a trade, not thrown together in a plastic factory in China or Indonesia. And they look perfect. Not old. Not past their sell by. The patina tells stories of epic battles, told intricately around the bar and embellished over time, not the throwaway sound bites of our transitory culture. Which goes to show that if you spend the money to buy the right things first time, you won’t need to do it again for years.
It’s a perfect links. Intricate one moment. Brutish the next. It’s not long, even the long holes are built to be played in the prevailing wind, but it requires a deftness of touch off the tee that you wouldn’t need in say, Woburn. You can’t bully your way around here. I was glad to have a guide to point out the places to aim and the places to miss. The green complexes are often surrounded by a secondary defense of troughs, sworls, ridges and hollows, accentuated by magnificent bunkering which you have to navigate before you even get to the green. The third is once such hole, where a huge wall of wooden railway sleepers and bunkers blocks your path about 80 yards from the front of the green. If you leave your tee shot short you then have this intimidating complex to deal with.
Wooden sleepers are used in a lot of the larger bunkers to stop the sides collapsing, a problem because Brancaster really is built on the sand. The fairway turf is only about half an inch thick, which makes it possible to really attack the ball like you would on a parkland course, and not requiring you to nip it clean off the ground like in a lot of hard ground links, though the greenkeeper probably won’t like me for saying this (I did replace all my divots!). This is usually one of my biggest problems when playing links golf and something I am determined to feel my way around, but for now it was nice to not have to worry so much.
The signature hole is the 8th, a par five which requires a tee shot over the salt marsh to a sliver of land and then another shot over another salt marsh to get near the green. Ian played his tee, and then played up the sliver of fairway before crossing the second marsh with the third shot, which is how most locals play it. Being an idiot I drove straight over the first fairway into the marsh. Like I said, trying to overpower this course is unwise. Luckily the tide was out and I managed to salvage a par.
The tide, while we’re talking about it, plays a big factor in the life of the club. Coming so close to the course it can actually affect play at certain times of the year when it is extraordinarily high. That sliver of land on the 8th can be just 20 yards wide. Even at normal tide heights the long winding road across the marshes to the clubhouse floods and it pays to check the tide times before attempting to cross. Tee time bookings need to be considerate as well, or else you’ll not make it. You can also be easily stranded out there unable to make your way home until the waters recede, which admittedly just means you have to sit in the Smoke Room, which is no bad thing.
Groups should also note that fourballs are not permitted. It is a two ball course, though the club Secretary does have it in his power to allow the occasional three ball. This is actually fairly common on the north Norfolk courses and though I don’t know why it does ease speed of play. It seems round these parts the quality of the golf is more important than the raising of funds.
I had a really rather pleasant round, even playing to my handicap, which is hard on any new course, never mind a famously difficult links. But it must be noted that after the fog lifted the playing conditions were unnaturally serene, especially for the time of year (October). A week earlier and the wind would have taken the skin off my face. I know people who have played it as visitors in 45 mph winds and really struggled. I can imagine it is brutal if inclement. There is even a device in the clubhouse indicating the wind strength and direction to anyone tempted to play.
And when you clear the 18th and cross that beach again it’s back to the Smoke Room for more tea and cake, though there is a very pretty dining room upstairs, with a veranda overlooking the sea, which can be used and would certainly be an equally pleasant place to sit and while away the hours, albeit in the style of a kindly aunt’s orangery. Personally I’ll be downstairs, talking about my round with the friendly members.
And that’s one of the highlights of Brancaster. For all the famous exaggerations and mistruths told about the place (the pro is allowed in the clubhouse and you can own any breed of dog to be a member) the most unfair is that the members are old fashioned or aloof. It is true that it draws members from a certain social strata and the public schoolboy aura of the place is undeniable, but Billy Connolly once said that the people at the top and the people at the bottom get along just fine, it’s the Pringle jumper wearing Volvo drivers in the middle that cause the problems. Golf has traditionally been the bastion of those social climbing middle classes, which is where the history of dress code exclusionism comes from. But the British upper classes have a history of polite, super amiable friendliness that permeates everything in Brancaster. Of all the traditions they have kept over the decades, this is perhaps the most important of them all and it gives the club a very special allure that is hard to find and impossible to replicate.
There is a 7 year waiting list for membership and I’m thinking of applying now – that’ll give me about 7 years to persuade my wife to move to Norfolk