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 First Stop: Cromer
In his handsomely illustrated book, ‘The Golf Course of the British Isles’ – first published in 1910 – Bernard Darwin writes that, ‘There are four courses in Norfolk which naturally divide themselves into two groups of near neighbours, Cromer and Sheringham, Brancaster and Hunstanton.’
We are staying in the welcoming and spotlessly clean Red Lion Inn. This place is worth the pilgrimage for beer lovers as well as golfers. We are down to play Cromer first, on a grey and miserable day that the Scots would rightly describe as dreich (translating to ‘Wet, dull, gloomy, dismal, dreary or any combination of these’).
A Warm, Windy Welcome at Royal Cromer
Arriving at Royal Cromer as it has been since 1888, we can now add howling wind to the dreich. So we head immediately to the bar after alerting the cheery professional that we are going to have a leisurely lunch and hope things improve.
The rain stops but not the wind so it is time to go. Much has changed here since Darwin’s day, not least because a number of holes have simply dropped into the North Sea along with the 9-hole ladies’ course.
This is not a links course but a seaside course, with springy turf on the clifftop with well manicured greens. Darwin writes, ‘The holes inland, to which were led later are long and well bunkered, but they are just a little agricultural and uninspiring.’ Whilst a number of changes have been made since Tom Morris first laid out the course, the remodelling of it by James Braid and most recently by Frank Pennink & Donald Steel has done much to remove the ‘uninspiring’. Although the most dramatic holes are most definitely on the edge of the cliffs.
We battle our way around and one of our party asks rather pitifully, ‘When you are facing a two club wind and you already have a driver in your hand, what are you meant to do?’
Take What You Can Get
Things start off well enough, although these are lengthy par-4 holes with every bit as much sand as Bernard Darwin himself noted.
The first of the cliff holes comes at six. A long par-4, uphill with a deep pit on the left, becomes a hole where a bogey is a very good score. One of our group even watches his ball fly high, right, and not at all handsome into the North Sea.
We all rejoice at huge drives on the par-5 10th with the gale behind us. However, we then have another one to face at 11 which is 26 yards shorter, but plays 100 longer because of the wind. Darwin writes that to succeed at Cromer, one requires ‘the agility of a chamois and the maximum of local knowledge.’
The Long Haul
Were it not for the wind battering us, the short par-4 12th would be a welcome respite, but for the fact that we must climb up a steep slope to reach the par-3 13th. This takes us back towards the sea, or what Darwin calls the ‘German Ocean’. Having recovered our breath we arrive at 14. A wonderful golf hole with a squat, white, heptagonal lighthouse tucked behind the green.
A good drive is required over a brow and another large pit that is invisible from the tee, before turning left to thread the second shot through two green side bunkers. The 395 yards off the back tee played as if it were 500 yards and we were delighted with bogey. But at last we could start our journey back down.
The 119 yard par-3 17th shows once again that a hole does not have to be long to be tricky with a small green set on a plateau and four, nasty little bunkers surrounding the front. Only one of us made par here!
We reached the last in a state of some exhaustion and my memories of this par-4 are mainly of spending a good deal of time in bunkers. Of which, there are another four on the left of the green.
On a fine day, Cromer would be a delight given its location and the changes of wind direction deliver a constantly changing course. When we played, it was really baring its teeth and we reached the friendly clubhouse with a sense of relief more than satisfaction at how we had performed. It was time for something we could all do with, namely a warming and restorative glass of something potent.
‘From Cromer to Sheringham is but a few miles, and we may play a morning round on one course and an afternoon round at the other,’ writes Darwin.
We lacked Darwin’s enthusiasm and after an excellent post golf dinner at the Red Lion we rejoiced in the small, complimentary Bloody Mary’s at breakfast to help set us up for the day. The day itself broke bright, clear and sunny, which might not have been a wholly accurate description of we four golfers.
Darwin tells us that we ‘Shall be called on to do a moderate amount of climbing’ at Sheringham and older golfers might welcome booking a buggy well ahead of playing. When we arrived however, the course was almost full with a large group and none were available.
Sheringham Golf Club
On a clear fine day, as we enjoyed it, Sheringham is an exhilarating place to play. The sea is visible from each hole, the gorse was shining golden on the cliff top and it is much more of a genuine links than Cromer. Even down to the railway line that borders the West side of the course along which North Norfolk steam trains still run.
Designed in 1891 by Tom Dunn, it has undergone numerous changes. Including suffering the same loss of holes as Cromer, that just tumbled down onto the beach as the soft sandy cliff face fractured. However, today’s player need have no fears when playing the opening nine holes, the majority of which are set up on the cliffs and are as testing as they are scenic.
Darwin reckons that even the great James Braid, armed with a Dreadnought could not get on some of the long par-4 holes in two – and there are seven of them at Sheringham. These include two exceptionally tough ones at 17 and 18 to complete our round.
He writes of ‘Two-shot holes of extraordinary splendour,’ and he is correct.
Our favourite came as early as the fifth – rated the hardest hole on the property. It also provides the most wonderful views from the highest point on the course. It requires a long, straight drive to advance us towards a narrow and firm green about 445 yards away.
Another long, accurate second is also needed, as although there are no bunkers, the ball is easily carried away down drop-offs both left and behind. This is a truly outstanding golf hole!
The society playing ahead of us did what many societies tend to do and were not doing it very briskly. So we had ample time to appreciate the subtleties of this fine course. The short par-3 11th, is another of those fiendish little short holes, this one only 150 yards long off the white tees but surrounded by five bunkers. The sea breezes were also doing their best to take us offline from a green that runs steeply back towards us.
The last of the par-3 holes, at 15, leads us into what is a tough finish and introduces us to the railway line along with the charming trains that puff their way between Sheringham and Weybourne. By the time we finished we were puffing too.
Bernard Darwin aptly summed up our feelings for the course when he wrote, ‘The greens are excellent throughout the course and the number of people who drive off between sunrise and sunset on a Summer’s day shows that Sheringham does not suffer from a lack of popularity.’
Indeed, we may have liked it even more, had it not been quite so busy.