Royal West Norfolk
Location: brancaster, norfolk, england
Designer(s): Holcombe Ingleby, Horace Hutchinson (1892)
Windswept and at the mercy of the tides, Royal West Norfolk – aka Brancaster – remains a links course of rare challenge and beauty. Golf World arrived early to take on one of Britain’s best golf courses – and the best efforts of Mother Nature.
Upon arrival at the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, an undeniable sense of expectancy washes over the visitor. Having made their way down a short, sandy and sleepered path with cambered timber walls holding the dunes at bay, two granite gateposts bear the names of members who fell in the two Great Wars – a poignant reminder that what lies in wait for a golfer beyond this gate should not be taken too seriously. Pushing hard on the heavy handle, that gate squeaks open and they step across the threshold and out onto one of the most individual golf courses on Earth. Simply arriving here is an experience to uplift the soul, however hard the North Sea winds are buffeting.
In truth, the ‘adventure’ starts a little time before you arrive. Approaching the north Norfolk coast from a smidge out of Brancaster village on the Docking Road can just nudge your senses awake if you gaze over St Mary The Virgin church tower to three-quarters of a mile beyond. Perching there is the understated and sentimentally shabby chic clubhouse sitting, almost precariously, on the water’s edge. With a little squint you can make out a few wind-whipped flagsticks on the holes that stretch directly east from there and, depending on the time of day, it may seem as though they rumble out on an impossibly slim peninsula.
Drop down into the flint-walled collection of cottages, cross the A149 Hunstanton to Cromer coast road, sneak down Broad Street opposite and within moments the lane narrows and shimmies its way through banks of reeds for half a mile to the clubhouse. there may well be puddles on the road even on the sunniest of days, but this gives us a clue as to why Brancaster (the most commonly used name for the club) is unlike virtually any other in the world. Its geography defines it.
The out and back links sits on an elongated spit of land shaped like a boney wrist and hand and is guarded on one side by shaggy dunes and a majestic sweep of north-facing beach, and on the other a tidal marsh full of squat salt- hardened plants. At low tide the sea retreats almost as far as the eye can see, but at high tide the course is faced with an altogether different proposition. Waves romp up the beach taunting the dune barrier between ocean and course, but more influentially the saltwater floods in an around the point to the east and Scolt Head Island and creeps along the marsh to engulf the channels and inlets south of the peninsula. It is enough to re oat the yachts tethered in Mow Creek by Brancaster Staithe Harbour, and on more prominent tides teases golfers in a major way.
Golf World visited on a September day when the highest tide of the year was expected, a 9.3 metre swell which would inevitably ll in the marsh completely and show the course in its most enigmatic state. It was due to be at its peak at 8.22am, so anyone wanting to play the course when the salty waters engorge the course fully had to be down the road by 7am as access becomes impossible for several hours.
A hardy few had made the early start to witness the phenomenon, including Ben Hanbury, a retired classic- winning racehorse trainer from Newmarket with his faithful black labs, Brollie and Franklin by his side. The tangerine glow of first light was spreading out over the dunes flanking the 1st hole when he set out, meaning that the outward half would be directly into the rising sun, not necessarily a golfer’s dream ticket but a small price to pay for this inimitable experience. “I’m surprised there aren’t more out. I’ve come especially to see the tide. But even without it, I never tire of coming here. It’s a real treat. It did for my car once though,” he laughs. “I was late one day and the road was filling up. The water was halfway up my tyres. I got in all right, but six months later my car was buggered. Saltwater had got in the engine. I won’t do it again.”
By the time he reached the par-5 8th where the tide’s full effect is most noticeable and intrusive, the waters had filled in the long basin separating the tee from the fairway some 165 yards away, and the wide channel between fairway and green. The dry land is negotiated via at wooden bridges and the brine was threatening to creep over those, too.
So, too, at the 9th where the waters lapped at the timbers holding the green from falling away into the drink, creating an approach a little like Sawgrass’ 17th. A perilous tide and weather combination is not the only natural phenomenon that threatens the very being of Brancaster. Coastal erosion has played havoc with certain parts of the course since it was founded in 1892 and, in recent times, drastic measures have had to be taken.
Rock armour defends the isolated clubhouse and now, too, fortifies the area by the practice ground. More insidiously the course was under threat from the battering of the wind and waves, but a clever system of herringbone geotextile fencing has halted the erosion of the dunes so much so the sandhills are rebuilding after decades of retreat. Not long ago the 17th tee, once the most exposed and closest to the sea was gradually losing its tussocked barrier to the waters, but since the fencing has done its job, it’s safe for now.
But it’s swings and roundabouts with this erosion game. Older members report that there were once three rows of beach huts near the 15th and 16th, now just a few survive close to the 16th tee. Likewise, the waters were reported to be close to the punchbowl 14th green, but today it is a decent iron away.
Clearly, the membership will do all they can to preserve this historic links and safeguard it for future generations. With some families having been involved in the club throughout its existence, Royal Norfolk is unquestionably a members club for its members, one which resists the overtures of corporate power or a more inclusive relationship with the wider golfing world.
But if you think Brancaster is full of the airs and graces and sti ing traditions that only two-ball golf is allowed suggests the vibe is different from within. The thesaurus has to work overtime to try to encapsulate what Brancaster is about. Terms like eccentric, quirky, unbeholden to modernity, esoteric and unashamedly traditional could be representative of the holes that scamper close to the arcing beach and marshland, but also to the clubhouse and, dare anyone say it, the members, too. Mere words can’t do the ‘feel’ justice.
No modern course architect would come up with a design so idiosyncratic. As scenic as the first tee shot is, it irts with the edge of the 18th green. And since the 1st and 18th fairways are shared, sometimes the nerves on the tee have to be held together for a little longer as etiquette suggests a short wait rather than a strangled ‘Fore!’
Add together the plethora of railroad tied bunkers and sleepered walls, the odd crossover hole at four and five, a stroll across another fairway to get to the next tee at six and, of course, the interaction of the tides and coastal breezes, and you have a capricious gem. Brancaster is the antithesis of a modern country club, or even some of the vaunted Surrey sandbelt courses stashed with new money and awash with men in cashmere driving an Aston. A glance around the car park here returns the usual prestige marques, but many have estate boots brimful of man’s best friends. If someone does emerge from something ash, they are more likely to be sporting a frayed-collared check shirt and a holey-elbowed navy sweater and some well- worn cords. Brancaster doesn’t do fancy. “What I love about the club is that it doesn’t matter what title or how much money you have, those things are left at home and everyone is equal,” says one member. And there is plenty of both. There are more double barrels than on the Sandringham shoot, and royal and aristocratic connections have been deeply rooted from day one when the club was a orded the Royal pre x as the then Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, accepted the post of Club Patron. Four senior Royals have been captain, including another Prince of Wales later to become Edward VIII. A handful of prominent Dukes, Earls and Viscounts still make the members’ handbook along with the families such as the Cory-Wrights and Neville-Rolfes who go all the way back. To that end the clubhouse has an ambience which is like few others, more homely than most.
Once inside the stone and red brick-fringed ‘house’ the rst-time visitor might be taken aback at how understated it all is for a Royal ‘residence’. Immediately in front of you is a large blackboard on an easel chalked up with the tide times and heights, so you can plan your getaway or relaxed drinking time. To the right, a dark, scu ed wooden door entices you into the Smoke Room that doubles up as bar, lounge, part locker room, trophy cabinet and a way through to the changing rooms. A replace sits at either end below the boards that list the eminent captains of past and present. Clad in sombre timber, it manages to be both elegant and, politely put, well lived in. There are no sink- into sofas here, just simple wooden tables and chairs and a mish mash of faded pictures and memorabilia.
What strikes you, too, is the lack of honours boards. Grandly, the members may well play for the King Edward VII matchplay cup and The Prince of Wales handicap medal, but you won’t nd the winners’ names anywhere public. It is just not the Brancaster way. Apparently victors don’t even receive trophies as they remain behind locked glass above the beaten up lockers in the Smoke Room. God forbid there should be a scratch cup. No one trumpets success. It even stays quiet within families.
In the corner of the Smoke Room that houses the small bar counter, an essential piece of equipment hangs from the wall – the club’s wind gauges, measuring speed and direction on two di erent dials. No doubt there have been many times when the needles have caused a golfer to turn back round to the bar for a sti ener before venturing out. That day the westerly was nudging 25mph, making the inward nine a bit of a brute. But it can get a lot worse, particularly on a course both unconventional and slightly eccentric. The early stretch from the 3rd tee epitomises the oddities and challenges. Braver drivers might y a wire fence on the corner of the marsh and then follow it with an approach that has to avoid a gaping bunker dug deep and hard into the left edge of the green. It would take someone standing on another’s shoulders to be certain of seeing the bottom of the ag from in there. Then the 4th green sits over a valley through which drivers from the 5th tee smash one over a blind dune, and is embraced by a three-foot timber wall on three sides. Just beyond it is the bowl of the 14th green and 120 yards left, one of the most cavernous traps in golf on the short 15th. All very unique and all quite magical, especially on days when you can only hear larks, curlews and redshanks and ting-tinging of cable on yacht mast.
As a general rule, fairway bunkers are sodded and the greenside ‘pits’, yawningly deep in places and are usually faced with sleepers between 42 and 48 degrees from vertical. They are intimidating enough without the fear of dodging a rebound.
The inclination for change has been rightly resisted, and much of the links is exactly as Holcombe Ingleby, a local MP and mayor of King’s Lynn, had laid it out more than a century ago. Today it is almost invariably immaculate, due in most part to the 30-plus years of experience head greenkeeper Gavin Playford has on the ckle links, and in some part to the state-of-the-art watering system. With water taken from a brackish borehole in the middle of the course, life-preserving drops of moisture are dispatched through 790 sprinkler heads. It is so controllable that they are able to keep the links rm and fast as nature intended and to give it a little more playability of purer surfaces.
Brancaster is an experience never to be forgotten on whatever day you visit. Without a doubt one of the best links golf courses in the UK. Just remember to shut the gate behind you.