Extreme golfing, Welsh-style

First published in Travel & Food, Sunday Times, 27 April 2008.

Golfing in Wales separates the men from the boys, and the sheep from the sheepish, writes John Young.

Dr Johnson said that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life. He also said, “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.” Which is two parts true and eight parts complete rubbish, as so many famous sayings are. The old cynic once wrote that he was “weary of being at home, and weary of being abroad” and he was a famous hater of “Scotchmen” and things Scottish. He had opinions on further flung places too. When a Jamaican died, Johnson commented, “He will not, whither he is now gone, find much difference, I believe, either in the climate or the company.”

            Having sorted out Johnson, I can now own up. I once grew tired of London, but I found the ideal antidote to the strain of life in a megalopolis – a round of golf on top of a mountain in Wales. Johnson’s views on the principality are not known, but the person who introduced him to Boswell, the man who made the doctor’s utterings so famous, was Thomas Davies who must have been Welsh. In any event, Wales is a wonderful place to visit after the hurly-burly of London.

            The first Welsh brochure I saw after a sleepy train-ride across England promised “Peace and Tranquility” in the rolling hills which surround the town of Welshpool. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I was intending to try out the golf course at Llandrindod Wells, many miles to the south. No matter, I thought, they must have a golf course at Welshpool.

A spark of sunshine at Welshpool, amid the rain and wind. PHOTO: John Young.

            Ye Gods, do they have a golf course in Welshpool! Eighteen mountain-top holes are set amongst impenetrable gorse and bracken, punctuated by steep ravines and deep gorges. It is a fearsome thing, the very antithesis of peace and tranquility, especially when a Force Nine gale is blowing straight off the distant Irish Sea via the mountains of Snowdonia, as it was on the day of my visit.  

            I borrowed a set of clubs from the friendly barman, admired the spectacular view from the first tee and hit a respectable six iron shot not far from the green. Not far from the green but lost forever in centuries-old undergrowth! It was clear that this was going to be a battle for survival.

It is entirely appropriate that Charles Darwin’s grandson has written extensively about golf at Welshpool – only the very fittest would survive a full round there. Bernard Darwin was a renowned golf writer and he called Welshpool “A Golf Course of Dreams”. The man who built the course compared it to the iconic Gleneagles in Scotland and Darwin loved it, “There is nothing like it in the country.”

Darwin wanted to avoid casting a “covert slur” on the quality of the golf by writing about the view but he made an exception for this course because “it would be absurd not to mention this view … it takes the breath away.” The great mountains of North West Wales and the smaller hills of distant English counties can be seen from almost every tee-box. The tenth hole is called Five Counties because of the panorama.

            The second hole is ominously called “The Graveyard”. It was here that I had my first encounter with Welshpool’s malevolent sheep. Six of them were huddled in a woolly bunch beneath a huge oak tree, cuddled up end to end to avoid the icy wind whistling up the long uphill fairway. Local farmers’ ancient rights to graze their sheep on Golfa Hill were not disturbed when the golf course was laid out in 1928. A recent concession to golfers’ rights has seen the erection of low electric wires to protect the greens from nibbling sheep.

            There are no sheep in the world less sheep-like in their behaviour than the Welshpool sheep. Perhaps they have inherited some sense of their rights to the land from their ancestors. Perhaps the dark clouds and howling wind had me thinking in Wuthering Heights terms. Whatever the cause, I found the way one sheep sniffed at my ball when it came to rest near him quite creepy. And when I hit what I thought was a fairly decent mid-iron back towards the clubhouse on the next hole, one of his mates let out a muffled snort, as though to say, “What sort of shot is that?”

            When one’s game is as fragile as mine, one can do without a gallery of furry quadrupeds giving their verdict. And then there was the wind.

Having tapped in for a rare par on the short third hole, I returned to where I had left my bag only to discover that the wind had shifted it about ten metres down the hill. Later In the bar I was told that the wind once lifted a man off his feet on the 18th green. I believe it. Never again will I complain about the breeze that passes over the golf course at Milnerton in the Western Cape or Humewood’s cooling zephyrs in Port Elizabeth.

            Somewhere between the eighth and ninth holes I got lost, emerging quite by chance on the tee of the 18th. I decided this was a signal to take a short cut to the club house and a bracing tot of whisky. The Links at Fancourt has some daunting tee-shots but nothing to compare with Welshpool’s final hole. It hasn’t changed a bit from when Darwin played it in the 1930s, “Between me and the club house yawned one of the most stupendous ravines that ever produced a joy shot from the tee.” Somehow I propelled the ball over the bracken and negotiated the precipitous downslope. The same sheep who had glared at me on the fifth were now glowering near the final green. Or was it their cousins? I finished as quickly as I could.

            Despite the wind and the cold, the ravines and the animosity of the animals, golf at Welshpool is a bracing and unique experience. The course is, as Darwin wrote, “so unlike anything else, so perched on the roof of the world … a truly beautiful place.” The extremities of weather and topography are quickly forgotten in the cosy clubhouse pub where the barman understands what’s needed after an extended walk on an exposed mountain top.

            In Dave Evans, Welshpool Golf Club also has a barman who knows more than most people about the battle of Isandlwana. Anyone wanting to know even more about that famous Zulu triumph can travel about 80 kilometres south along the A483 to Brecon and the regimental museum of the The South Wales Borderers. The emphasis is more on Rorke’s Drift than Isandlwana but among the displays are wooden ammunitition boxes still bearing the desperate scratch marks of the British soldiers (most of them were from Birmingham) who tried to claw the containers open at the height of the battle.

            Brecon is a quiet town on the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park and Llandrindod Wells, where I would have played golf had I not fallen asleep on the train, is about halfway between Brecon and Welshpool.

            As one would expect in a small town, the locals at the golf club bar quickly recommended a good place to stay and rustled up a taxi to take me to Severn Farm Bed and Breafast. Alun Jones showed me my room and recommended for dinner the Royal Oak Hotel, about five minutes’ walk away.

            When it came to choosing a main course, there really was no choice. After my encounters on the golf course, it had to be “Rack of Welsh Lamb” and I can confirm Thomas Peacock’s opinion from almost 200 years ago: like revenge, “The mountain sheep are sweeter.”

            I only had one night in Welshpool but the area has many attractions apart from the spectacular golf course. Powys Castle is a commanding 500-year-old presence, trips can be arranged on Victorian steam engines or canal boats –  and Julie Christie lives in the area, or so I was told in the bar. If she farms sheep (as everyone else seems to do), then she will be a regular at the Monday sales, the biggest one-day sheep market in Europe.

            I did not have time for breakfast before I left Welshpool. Because Britain’s privatised railway system is not always coordinated, I had to leave very early to get from Wales to the nearest English town, Shrewsbury. This is Charles Darwin’s birthplace and the setting for the novels by Ellis Peters about Brother Cadfel but this wasn’t much use to me. Although I had to wait a long time on the platform for the first south-bound train run by a different company, there wasn’t enough time to make sightseeing worthwhile.

            I was sorry to leave Wales. My host Alan drove me to the station and only took my money as the train started moving off, which is when I remembered that I had not yet paid for my bed. It is difficult to imagine something similar happening in London. By seeing a part of friendly Wales, I had seen more of what the world can show – and was happy to have proved Dr Johnson wrong.

BASICS: Welshpool is in Montgomeryshire, Wales, about 30 kilometres west of Shrewsbury on the A458. A good general website is www.welshpool.org.uk. Accommodation from £30 is available at the Royal Oak Hotel (tel: 01938 552217 www.oakwpool.aol.com) and Severn Farm Bed and Breakfast (01938 555999 www.severnfarm.co.uk) charges £25. There are more than 200 golf courses in Wales, many of them outstandingly good. They are also cheaper to play and less crowded than many courses in other parts of Britain. Wales will host the Ryder Cup in 2010.