England's Golf Coast…By Rail!
England’s Golf Coast, near Liverpool, boasts an incredible concentration of quality courses that should be on every golfer’s tick list – and many can be reached easily by train. We put Peter Masters on the 11:07am from Euston to Lime Street to investigate.
It’s a juxtaposition you hardly think possible, chatting to a gardener in the leafy suburbs of Sevenoaks in Kent one minute and then to a fellow golfer among the dunes of West Lancs Golf Club the next. Two moments in time that are, to all intents and purposes, worlds apart, yet they happened within a few hours of each other. I’m talking about London to Liverpool. The Big Smoke to Birkdale. A journey of discovery to England’s Golf Coast, where there lies a stretch of courses that might not be equalled in their proximity and quality anywhere in the world. That’s quite a claim, but where else do you get such immaculate links terrain huddled together in such concentration? Hoylake, Hillside, Formby, West Lancs, Birkdale, Southport & Ainsdale, Lytham, Fairhaven, Wallasey... the list goes on.
We marvel at the wonders of modern travel, but this trip was done old-style – a train, delivering me, my clubs and my overnight bag, door to door in a way that most of us would have thought only a car or a taxi could manage. Golf and the railways have always had a rather special relationship. At Prestwick there is a story of someone making a two at the opening par 4 by bouncing back off the railway twice. Royal St George’s used to have a horse and cart to transport members to the club from the station, while Sunningdale might never have been built if it hadn’t been for the station close by (although they did have to give the Station Master honorary membership to ensure the trains stopped there in time for the Sunday morning medal).
For the courses on the Merseyrail Northern Line from Liverpool Central, the option of a horse and cart isn’t really necessary. In some instances, if the station was any closer to the first tee, the starter would be telling you to mind the gap. West Lancs is a good example, in that if a green was built on the clubhouse roof, you could probably hit it from the centre of the platform with an 8-iron. I lasered it at 146 yards as I waited for the 18.45 to potter by and take me back to my base in Southport.
I’ve always rather liked trains and I’m of an age when I can remember steam ones going under the footbridge next to the car park at Woking Golf Club. The speed at which they can whisk you across the country is not to be sniffed at either. Boarding the 11.07 out of Euston on Virgin Trains and sitting in a surprisingly affordable first class seat, I was in Liverpool by 13.21, walking into West Lancs at 14.00 and teeing
off at 15.20. That meant time to hit balls, putt and play 18 after a breakfast in Piccadilly!
The lap of luxury is never a bad place to be, especially with some decent reading matter. And if Michael Portillo had his copy of George Bradshaw’s Victorian Railway Guidebook, then I was flipping through the pages of an ancient tome in which esteemed golf scribe Bernard Darwin was extolling the virtues of England’s Golf Coast – albeit this particular strip of golf land wasn’t entitled that back then.
Darwin wrote: ‘At Hoylake the golfing pilgrim is emphatically on classic ground. As he steps from the train that has bought him from Liverpool he will gaze with awe-struck eyes upon the surroundings in which the irreverent might see nothing out of the ordinary.
“Perhaps it was here,” he will muse, “that the youthful Johnny Ball once toddled to school, his satchel on his back. The infant Harold Hilton may have been wheeled by his nurse upon these very paving stones. Nay, Jack Graham may even now, perchance, be seen at this identical station at which I have just got out of my train taking his train to go into Liverpool every morning.”
Darwin goes on to describe how, as you saunter along Meol Drive, you’d have very little idea that a course of global renown lurks behind the low red brick wall and the red brick houses beyond. It is still rather like that, which is one of Royal Liverpool’s charms. Host to the 2014 Open Championship, having held that same event in 2006, along with countless other championships of eye-watering stature, Hoylake is, on an ordinary day, in an ordinary week, not immediately noticeable.
But cross the car park in front of one of the more grandiose of the red-bricked facade, you see a gap and a glimpse of the hallowed golfing arena that lies beyond. For a links course, Royal Liverpool lies on predominantly flat land, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. You rarely get a flat lie and the atmosphere
is an ever present tonic. From 1846 until 1876, the Liverpool Hunt Club held flat and steeplechase meetings on land that is now taken up by three of the opening holes and four of the finishing ones. The wooden acorns on the fence outside the clubhouse were taken from the old winner’s enclosure.
Hoylake is not as encased as Royal Lytham, another of the giants that bestride this section of the English coastline. Although it has hosted the Open 11 times, Lytham doesn’t pretend to be aesthetically pleasing. But while it is cosseted by urban sprawl, it has few peers as a robust test of golf.
“Most members have a honeymoon period when they first join this golf club when they do OK,” says the club’s former pro Eddie Birchenough. “But then they start to get mental scars and their scorecards suffer. “There’s probably only a dozen or so who can get it round here regularly in a decent score.”
The secret, apparently, is to avoid the sand because that is Lytham’s greatest defence. When Tom Lehman first arrived here for the Open in 1996 – a Championship that he went on to win – he headed straight for the pro shop to ask how he should set about conquering the course. “Keep it on the short grass,” he was told. “The conversation was no longer than that,” remembers Birchenough, “because that’s all you
need to know. It’s better to hit an iron off the tee and be safe than find one of the bunkers.”
Hoylake to the south and Lytham to the north act something like bookends to this very English golfing coast. While so many of its courses can be accessed by train, to find the right links you have to get things right when you pull into Liverpool Lime Street. Your only option here is to hop on the Wirral Line, but if you want to head north then you need to change after one stop. Of course, if it’s Hoylake or Wallasey you’re after then it’s panic over because the Wirral line heads out in that direction.
My first port of call had been West Lancs, which is accessed from Hall Road Station. (And for the record, it took me longer to play the course than it did to get there from Euston). That though might have had something to do with a recent weather pattern that had followed damp with hot. I lost half my ball supply in thick rough that was sometimes no more than a couple of clublengths from the perfect spot.
While this had a detrimental effect on my scorecard, it somehow didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the game. Why? Because jumping from any urban sprawl into gentle sea breezes and the tumbling terrain of hills, swales and scraggy dunes is enough to ensure the transfixed smile and glassy eyes of a golfer mesmerised by his blissful surroundings. The highlights for me, probably because they offered more than the classic links perspective, were the 13th, a cracking driving hole from an elevated tee, and the tricky 14th that features a green tucked above the fairway in a small wooded copse.
Trains travel every 15 minutes along this stretch of track and from the windows you get to see all the golfing gems. If you’re coming home you can probably appreciate it; but if you’re on your way to work it must be a nightmare looking out to see cheerful groups ambling up pristinely cut fairways.
The ticket office at the main station looks much more like a convenience store, but for the three gentlemen behind the tills dressed in Mersey Rail shirts and ties. And a word of warning here because things are not what they might seem. Birkdale is not for Royal Birkdale and Formby is not for golf at Formby. You need to hop off at Hillside for Birkdale and Freshfield Station for Formby. And Hillside for Hillside, obviously. Mistakes and long walks must have occurred in the past.
All three courses could register very easily as the pinnacle moment in any golf trip and if there was a big group of you (and big groups seem ideal for this ‘travel together on the railway’ style of exploration) then it would be no surprise to see people’s favourites registering equally across the three.
Royal Birkdale, host to the Ricoh Women’s British Open this July, will seduce all those who carry prestige high on the agenda. Generally regarded as the best links golf course to be found on the English landscape, Birkdale has a history rich in legendary names and dramatic moments. Maybe you can still hear the cheers that greeted Justin Rose’s holed sand iron on 18, Arnold Palmer’s escape from the rough at 16 or Padraig Harrington’s terrific approach on 17?
If it wasn’t quite so close to its most illustrious neighbour, then Hillside would surely be touted even more loudly than it already is. Greg Norman once described the back nine here as the best he has ever played, which may or may not be over-excited praise on his part, but you get the drift.
My personal favourite might just be Formby. It’s not as ‘big’ as Birkdale in terms of championship golf, but it has a number of holes that you feel are unmissable on any trip to this corner of Lancashire. The ones ‘through the trees’ from the 7th to the 10th are utterly sublime. The threat of sea erosion in the 1970s forced the club to create this stretch instead of keeping holes that raced out closer to the sea. The whole erosion issue is still a concern however and in a recent report it was predicted that by 2050, the sea would be lapping up close to the current 10th tee.
Head out of Freshfield Station, turn right and right again up Golf Road and Formby is a club that will fill you with a boyish anticipation of all that’s great about the game. The clubhouse, with its clock tower, is a delight and the playground that stretches out before it is like a golfing Garden of Eden.
Strolling around town and city centres, stations and streets with a golf bag on your back, and worse still, golf attire, can be a test of one’s self-consciousness. But you soon get used to it and, apart from some smirks from schoolchildren, most fellow travellers are probably more envious than they are amused.
The journey from Liverpool back home will no doubt be spent mulling over your great shots and near misses. For wherever you have chosen to inspect the English Golf Coast, the chances are that a return trip to take in those that got away is already being pencilled into the diary.
How we planned our golf trip
Everything you need to know to let the train take the strain.
Getting there by rail – London To Liverpool
We travelled to England’s Golf Coast by taking the Virgin rail network from Euston to Liverpool Lime Street. Direct trains run every hour from 7.07am and the journey takes just over two hours. Returning from Liverpool, direct trains run every hour. The last direct service leaves Liverpool at 6.47pm, arriving into London Euston at 9.04pm.
Where We Stayed
Our base was the Vincent in Southport – a hotel perfectly suited to this type of adventure due to its leafy location just five minutes from the station. We ate at Warehouse restaurant, which is very much a hidden dining gem and trying very hard to win a Michelin star.
The Golf courses
Tel: 01704 552020
Tel: 01704 567169 Fees: £60-£140
Tel: 01704 872164
Station: Hall Road
Tel: 0151 924 1076
Royal Liverpool (Hoylake)
Tel: 0151 632 7772 Fees: £80-£175
Royal Lytham & St Annes
Station: St Annes
Tel: 01253 724206
All of the above six courses feature in our Golf World Top 100 Courses: GB&I. Click here to see the full ranking.