It is early May on an English spring morning and a howling wind is blowing hard off the North Sea, beneath a slate grey sky. We four golfing travellers are following in the footsteps of the great golf writer, Bernard Darwin, along the Norfolk coast, and the weather for golf is far from promising. It is also bitingly cold.
The Road to Brancaster
Before reserving a tee time at Royal West Norfolk Golf Club we must first consult the tide tables so as not to get our feet wet. The reason being that at high tide the clubhouse of this most estimable and traditional golf club is cut off and inaccessible by car.
Having done so, we set off on the hour’s journey north from Cromer to Brancaster although we might well have been stepping back in time. Royal West Norfolk, also known as Brancaster, is a club where little has changed over the years.
The Smoke Room
The club lounge is still known as the smoke room although no one smokes there these days. On one of the tables is an aged leather-bound suggestions book where recent requests included one to bring ‘gun-dogs’ into the smoke room which was declined and another for pork scratchings to be added to the availability of peanuts and crisps sold at the bar.
This was dealt with far more sternly than the gun-dog request with the writer being told by the club secretary that pork scratchings were both messy and unhealthy and certainly would not be allowed, although greater consideration may have been given had the writer’s signature been legible.
This is a two-ball club and if there are four of you then you must play foursome and take alternate shots. The course itself has changed little since it was founded in 1892 and it remains a very stern test of golf, which is why visitors must bring handicap certificates with them. This is no place for the novice.
A Round at Royal West Norfolk
‘Few things are more terrifying than the first hole at Brancaster,’ writes Bernard Darwin, ‘on a cold, raw, windy morning, when our wrists are stiff and our beautiful steely-shafted driver feels like a poker.’ Having enjoyed a fine day at Sheringham this was exactly the weather that greeted us at Brancaster and we had to get round quickly to be back before the tide came in.
As well as enjoying a fine day’s golf at Sheringham we had also enjoyed another fine night in the bar of the Red Lion at Cromer. With the wind pounding at our backs, my playing companion and I somehow just managed to keep our drives from disappearing miles out of bounds on the right of the 408-yard first, where the sensible shot is to aim left onto a fairway shared with the 18th in similar fashion to the start at the Old Course of St. Andrews.
A Challenging Track
The topography of West Norfolk is like nothing we seasoned golfers had experienced anywhere. Like classic links courses it is a long thin spit of land that goes pretty much straight out to 9 before turning back on itself to come home. What is so unusual is that on one side sits a great salt marsh with the North Sea on the other, just behind a run of sand dunes with us golfers sandwiched in between.
Bernard Darwin himself said that the best hole on the way out is the 8th and added, ‘There is nothing quite like it anywhere else, as far as I know. I can think of no better simile to describe it than of a man crossing a stream by somewhat imperfect stepping stones.’
The 8th is, quite simply, terrifying. At 487 yards from the yellow tees it is a short par-5, but when the wind rages, you have to cross a vast stretch of salt marsh to reach a fairway some 190 yards away. Then a lay up shot is required to the end of our fairway before swinging left across another huge swathe of watery marsh, crossed by a bridge, to reach a raised green in the far, far distance. Be short and be gone.
The 8th at Brancaster could fairly be described as the hole that time forgot, even if we never will.
Home, Sweet Home
We go back across the marsh at 9 for more bloody golfing combat and a green guarded by railway sleepers 402 yards away but at least we can finally turn for home. As Darwin said of the hole, ‘We are not likely to be happy until we have left it behind.’
Until we reach 14, the holes are more prosaic but the 420 yard par-4 sees us tackling lots more sand and a shot in over a marker post to another fortified green. The par-3 15th presents us with a giant bunker made from railway sleepers that looks much closer to the front of the green than it is
Three par-4s see us home just ahead of the tide and time to reflect on a round that would have been so much more pleasurable on a fine day. As it was, all we could say was that we had survived Royal West Norfolk GC. At 6,457 yards and par 71 it had been a savage test.
Sweet Respite at Hunstanton
After the rigours and brutal conditions at Brancaster, Hunstanton came as sweet, soothing balm. It lacks the primitive, wild grandeur of its neighbour but is still a first rate and most welcoming club for all that. The sun came out, the wind died down and we were on our game after a relaxing lunch in an airy, friendly clubhouse set behind the 18th green like all good clubhouses should be.
It has been a golf club since 1891 and amongst older members is referred to as Hunst’on which may, just possibly, be the local Norfolk pronunciation. Whatever it is called it has seen a lot of very fine golf over the years, especially after James Braid extended it to 18 holes in 1907. We must pay our respects to one exceptional feat when we come to the par three 16th, but more of that later.
The fiendish start of Brancaster was behind us and here we eased into our round on a shortish and straightforward par four of only 324 yards off the yellow tees. Just what we needed so long as we avoided that giant bunker only 100 yards or so ahead on the left created when the hole was a par three.
Bernard Darwin remarks on the quality of the next two holes down narrow, undulating fairways with firm, fast greens and lots of Mr Braid’s bunkers. There is a great deal of sand at Hunstanton and some very fine golf holes along with a couple of quirky ones.
Some Interesting Holes
Of the latter, the short par-4 sixth, under 300 yards from the yellow boxes, plays to a raised green shaped like an upturned saucer that is the very devil to stay on and we also really enjoyed a grand old Victorian style, 212 yards, par three at 14 with a blind drive over a marker post that bounds down to a tiered green protected by no fewer than nine bunkers. The sort of hole that can bring a smile to your face or a curse of frustration.
We agreed with Darwin that the par-5 eighth was the best hole on the course that, he writes, requires ‘a fine slashing second over the corner of a field that is out of bounds.’ Uphill all the way to another raised green and with a stream crossing at 231 yards and out of bounds down the middle right-hand section this is as good and as challenging a hole to be found anywhere even with the distances today’s players are hitting the ball.
We start coming back towards the clubhouse at 11 where we play into the prevailing wind and some classic links’ golf although only the 11th and last two holes run parallel with the beach yet, as we near the clubhouse, mention must be made of the par three 16th that plays 189 yards off the back tees.
Here we find a plaque to mark the extraordinary achievement of one Bob Taylor, an amateur golfer competing in 1974 in the Eastern Counties Foursomes. During the practice round, Taylor holed in one and the following day in competition he did it again. Just to prove it was no fluke he did it for a third time the following day. Our small group was simply happy to see our ball on the green.
After the long par four 17th the climb up to the 18th green found four weary golfers completing their final round in Bernard Darwin’s footsteps before climbing up the last slope to the bar. A low score at Hunstanton, Darwin tells us, ‘Though perfectly possible, has to be earned by sound and accurate golf.’ And even if the golf veers from the sound and accurate as ours regularly did this is still a wonderful course to play and enjoy over and over again.
Stephen Killick was a guest of the Red Lion Hotel in Cromer (www.redlioncromer) and played Royal West Norfolk GC and Hunstanton GC. Read part 1 of Stephen’ blog below as he traces the steps of Bernard Darwin.