Reckoning with artists from Shakespeare to Colt on a maiden trip to England's underrated inland gems
Words by Tom CoynePhotos by Tom Shaw
Light / Dark
Bad dreams are born on landscapes like these, where fog hangs in the heather and gorse chokes out the trees. These are the barren spaces upon which Shakespeare set his witches, and where he left King Lear to lose his mind.
They hung the Golden Farmer’s body here, draped in chains above land west of London; it was a warning to other highwaymen who might be eyeing the well-traveled road he’d raided for decades. (History recalls the 17th-century bandit, dubbed “Golden” for paying all his debts in pure ounces, as one of England’s more charming felons.) Fortunately for us, these abandoned English soils eventually were visited by the likes of Harry Colt, Harry Vardon and James Braid, men whose vision gave not just utility to the terrain, but beauty and intrigue and profit as well. Perhaps no other topography owes more to golf than this kind, where thorny patches fit for little more than penance or mayhem could finally reveal what they’d been hiding: sublime golf holes resting just beneath the bracken of England’s sprawling heathlands.
Let the sands cover the fairways, and linksland remains beautiful enough to paint. Pull the pins on a parkland layout, and the birdwatchers and dog walkers will still come. But these places we call heaths—from an old English word denoting untilled wasteland, inhabited solely by uncivilized “heathens”—have a singular purpose and might just be the planet’s best-suited topography for our game.
I felt like a heretic for even imagining it. As a longtime links chauvinist, I struggled to envision a world in which I’d rather play among the shrubs than the dunes. But what if there was sand beneath those shrubs? And what if you could get all the firm, linksy conditions for which you cross the Atlantic without having to brave the seaside squalls? I recalled Jim Finegan’s accounts of the magic he’d found outside London, and I’d read where Tom Doak called England “the most underrated place for golf in the world.” Investigation revealed that London’s surrounds, primarily the western Surrey suburbs, were something of a British sand belt, not too unlike Australia’s better-known string of links and heathland giants. Fifty million years ago, London was under the sea; when the waters receded, swaths of sandy, stony soil were left behind, good for little more than rearing goats, creating mood in Victorian novels and making par 5s reachable in two.
I’d visited London a half-dozen times, but never with golf clubs. How had I missed the golf destination directly under my nose? Why was I planning a trip for Australia when Heathrow was an easy hop from home? And how had I not noticed that “heath” was sitting there in the name of Europe’s busiest airport, calling us to come play? As a golf wanderer, I had to do better. And thanks to my friend Paul, who knows the heathland scene well and had been in my ear about it for months, I’d get that chance. He plotted a six-day London getaway, stuffing it with rankings toppers and Doak picks and obscure British treasures sure to win us points on Twitter. I let Paul do all the choosing; it was a welcome break from playing the golf planner, and I embraced this pack-up-and-show-up indulgence. But as I wiped the crust out of my eyes in Terminal 3 early on a Sunday morning/late on a Saturday night, I didn’t feel indulged at all. Rather, I was the loneliest soul in London, manning a hopeless post beside an empty baggage carousel.
Maybe I’d softened since my travels around Scotland and the States. Maybe the cancer that I’d kept hidden from most had robbed some of my resolve; the radiation wasn’t bad, but I was drained, and I could feel it as I reached for my phone and pecked a text I couldn’t imagine a former version of myself ever sending: No bags. Go without me. Won’t make the tee time. If they’re not coming, I don’t want to play.
Years before, my wedding ring slipped off my finger while I was playing the Old Course, and I wrote about it in a book. I’d been hoofing 36 a day for a month and had lost enough weight to where things were no longer clinging to me like they used to—pants, jewelry, existential dread—but the ring wasn’t gone 20 minutes when an out-of-breath caddie caught us on a tee box. He inquired if anyone had dropped this, producing the ring from his pocket and holding it aloft; it shone like Smeagol’s prize against a bright-blue Scottish sky.
A stranger finding both my ring and its owner amid the acreage of a golf course—it was a one-in-a-million shot. But when I met Paul six years later, it was two-in-a-million, because my St. Andrews hero happened to be carrying the bag of this new friend with whom I was now traveling the U.K. Paul told me he’d howled when he’d read the chapter about my Old Course ordeal, immediately recalling being there in 2015 when his caddie found a golden loop on the green and went searching for its owner. I didn’t know him yet, but he was there, on the other end of my miracle.
We eventually met during a chance round of golf in 2021, where Paul and I quickly identified one another as men of high golf availability. He was in sales and spent a fair amount of time traveling for golf with clients. He’d amassed a stout network of club contacts, and his colleagues called him the golf whisperer for his ability to arrange the most coveted boondoggles. He was a man who feared no tee time, and that sort of courage…it can be very charismatic.
Paul played to a 14 and putted from just about everywhere—putted well, mind you, and liked to sneak up with net par. He was a few years my senior, with kids in college, and he’d had an epiphany a dozen years prior at North Berwick, where the links had opened his eyes to what golf could be: fun, romantic, wild. He’d been reading the golf architecture canon and chasing golden-age designers ever since. Outside of golf, we had little in common, but as that is the case with just about every person I consider a friend, I didn’t flinch at the idea of spending a week on the wrong side of the road with him. I booked my ticket to LHR, and that’s where I received Paul’s response after I’d asked him to leave me, wounded and beaten, at the baggage counter: No way. I called the pro shop. They’ll squeeze us in whenever. No pressure. No rush.
I recognized most of the names on the itinerary Paul had sent, but not all: Woodhall Spa (yes), Alwoodley (nope), Hollinwell (familiar?), St. George’s Hill (yes), Sunningdale Old and New (of course), Royal West Norfolk (maybe?), Walton Heath (yup), Royal Worlington & Newmarket (where?), Reigate Heath (why?). And, perhaps most significantly, the Carpenter’s Arms—I knew this name best of all because Paul had been proselytizing for the pub’s chicken-in-a-pot for weeks, to the point where I suspected our entire trip might be cover for a chicken-tasting expedition.
Our week of London golf began far from the city. Straight from the rental agency and up the M1, Paul motored us north to Woodhall Spa, where the town’s destination mineral spring had ceased servicing tourists decades ago. My golf clubs eventually arrived, but my GPS tag said my suitcase was still sitting in Philadelphia. I didn’t have a stitch of golf attire with me, but British Airways assured me they’d reimburse for any shopping I needed to do. I grinned and thought, Pro shops of Great Britain: Brace yourselves for the reckoning.
Woodhall Spa was a three-hour trip during which we couldn’t get the Apple CarPlay to work in our blue Peugeot, which meant we had to listen to Paul’s “England Trip Mix” through the speaker on his phone. The Who’s “The Seeker”—or, as Paul sang it, They call me pin seeker/ I’m seeking birdies low and high—led the way. It didn’t bother me; I was sort of half-there, still mourning my Dopp kit and watching England smack the windshield as Paul veered wide left of oncoming traffic.
I sat quietly in the passenger seat, nursing a case of the first-days. I knew it would pass, that jet-lagged haze of hunger and unsettledness. Experience had taught that a quality course could shake it loose, and Woodhall Spa was golf of the highest order. Its Hotchkin Course had landed on Paul’s list as a design touched by Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, Harry Colt and, most recently, Tom Doak, whom our caddies said had decluttered the place and returned its natural heathland feel. He’d also transformed the bunkers into gateways to the underworld, digging raw fissures of terrifying beauty. As I crossed my life’s first heathland holes in a Woodhall Spa shirt, sweater, socks and hat, each stride was a step in humility. I felt bristly fescue underfoot as I brushed past clumps of sharp branches, watching fairways that rippled in the evening light. I’d seen, played and depicted so many of them, yet I wondered if I was just now discovering what a golf course should look like.
My caddie was a wistful “look at what isn’t here anymore” narrator, pointing my eyes toward trees and hedges I’d never seen and never would. (It happens at every renovated course, and it always feels like hearing the final chapter of a book you haven’t read.) Paul’s caddie had a more reflective nature. “Tell me why,” he asked, “when Thor throws his hammer, he’s dispensing justice upon the world, but when I do the same with my hybrid…” They were both members at Woodhall, and I was happy to see the member-caddie role thriving in England as it did in Ireland and Scotland. Forget my ideas about English golf snobbery—I was sure I’d find some, but here was the English home of golf (literally—England Golf’s headquarters shares a parking lot with Woodhall Spa), and our loopers could come in and join us for a drink. They declined, as it was near dark when we finished, but Paul and I had a quick glass and shared a bag of crisps in the quaint cottage of a lounge. Red plaid banquettes and low drop ceiling, it was cozy as your grandmother’s den, if she had John Smith’s on tap in the corner.
I took the wheel for the drive to our hotel, and by the time we reached the Petwood, a stout old Tudor that housed the RAF’s Dambusters during WWII (squadron motto: Après moi, le déluge, or After me, the flood), I’d been self-promoted to full-time chauffeur. Since boozy British jaunts were behind me, it saved Paul from tempting the U.K.’s tighter “unfit through drink” laws, and my months in Ireland and Scotland had left me steering-ambidextrous. Plus, it meant we could make Bob redundant, which would satisfy one of my golf-trip mandates: If it’s getting too complicated, cut it out.
I’d compiled a short list of touring guidelines, collected from trips successful and less so: Stop comparing here to home. Party after golf, not during. Leave the umbrella. Don’t skip breakfast. Lay out what you want to pack, then bring half. When you find an ATM, empty it. No politics, penny-pinching or whining. And if there’s a thorn in the itinerary, snip it off. You’re here to find happiness, not complete an assignment.
Our dealings with Bob were beginning to resemble the latter. He was a roaming caddie, driver and concierge whom Paul had met on a previous English sojourn. Bob caddied for Paul one day, and then showed up at the next course, and the next. Soon he was driving Paul’s gang around, and, for our trip, he’d adjusted the itinerary based on current course conditions (or proximity to his home, I suspected). He’d be happy to drive us, but would need a rental, as his car was in the shop, plus Paul would have to cover his hotel rooms and meals and pay him a wage. (Paul feared that he was about to pay for Bob’s new transmission.)
As a seasoned freeloader myself, I can sniff another one out from miles away. There was room for only one barnacle on this boat, and I’d been trying to intimate as much to Paul. We weren’t sure which of our tee times Bob had rearranged, and he hadn’t answered Paul’s texts in more than a week; it was a stress point that needed eliminating. I told Paul to leave the driving to me and let Bob down easy.
It wasn’t until Paul started writing their breakup text that I learned Bob’s name was actually Stuart. They’d nicknamed him after Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob? when Stuart kept showing up here, there, everywhere. Paul took a breath and hit send.
“It’s awkward. I have this feeling he’s going to find us and I’m going to feel terrible about it.”
I assured him he was being ridiculous. We were golfing one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Or, we soon would be.
Through Lincolnshire up to Yorkshire, then Nottinghamshire en route to London, we roamed England’s middle, one roundabout at a time, past names that conjured heroes and battles and puddings. As Paul Googled whether Robin Hood was real (unclear) and what a shire was (a county, more or less) and how, over here, one could have pudding as their pudding but pudding could be so much more (it basically means “dessert”), we rolled through towns lined with cinnamon-colored cottages, past so many church spires crooked with age.
Alwoodley Golf Club was another heathland waltz, with bunkers gentler than Woodhall’s, but whose angles and placement offered thoughtful defense. As Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s first design, it was evidence that he was thinking about his 13 famed principles from the start (short green-to-tee walks; heroic carries; beautiful surroundings; few lost balls; variety and character; challenge/enjoyment for all skill levels). From MacKenzie we moved 90 minutes south to Hollinwell (or Notts, for nearby Nottingham), where Open champ Willie Park Jr.’s holes had been updated by J.H. Taylor and club pro Tom Williamson. What they collectively created was sacred in the most literal sense, named for the holy well in front of its eighth tee. We’d heard we should take a drink when we visited, and so we did.
I left my clubs and climbed down stone steps into a nook of rock and water, where a spring trickled into a shallow pool. A silver chalice hung from a chain, and I dipped it into the water and sipped. While I expected a mouthful of sour grit, what I got was more deliciously void of taste than anything I’d drunk in my life. I refilled my cup twice and gulped (it was our 26th hole and I was parched), and on the very next hole, a 178-yard par 3, the mark my Titleist left was a tee’s length from the cup. With one swing, I’d nearly proven the powers of the well and the existence of the divine; I settled for birdie instead. Paul heard me yell, but didn’t see the shot. He’d drunk deeply too and was busy releasing his blessings by a hedge.
Hollinwell’s back nine moved in almost magical ways. Maybe it was the water talking, but the routing felt like a walk away from the world, further and further from the realm of people and walls and roads, into a place where only flags and fairways lived. Through deep valleys and along hilltop ridges, I was sure we’d walked too far from the clubhouse to ever find our way back, until suddenly we were standing where we’d begun, as if the back nine had been but a dream.
Part of me was still wandering Notts as we checked into the town hotel that evening, where lobby placards claimed D.H. Lawrence used to walk the nearby fields as a boy. Coincidentally, the carpet in my room—what remained of it—also hailed from those halcyon days, and the next morning I piloted a quick escape down to Surrey, London’s tony western suburb. The hours passed quickly as passenger Paul dialed every Carpenter’s Arms in London.
“Yes, hello, I’m looking for a Carpenter’s Arms that serves this delicious chicken-in-a-pot…”
The conversation sometimes ended there. Occasionally they listened a while longer before informing him, “We’re a pub, mate.” Paul’s quest to recreate his life’s best chicken dinner would have to carry on later, because as we pulled up to the castle atop St. George’s Hill, I didn’t care what they were serving—it was going to be fabulous.
If there was ever any doubt as to whether Harry Colt had a major impact on Pine Valley, St. George’s Hill should settle all arguments. The bunkering and flow and sense of scale, the inimitable par 3s, the hike up and around evergreen corridors—give George Crump credit for the vision, but note that Colt’s fingerprints (among others) are all over the pine barrens of New Jersey. A clubhouse replete with bastions and parapets stood guard above the first tee, and on the stone columns inside, the names of century-old champions were painted by a steady hand. Its logo of St. George slaying the dragon made me grateful my suitcase had yet to arrive, as I had one day left to shop on British Airways’ dime. I strode boldly into the pro shop, a knight in need of new armor.
I’d played plenty of the chart-toppers, but I realized I did so not to tick boxes, but because I almost always play well on celebrated golf courses. Most of us do. We arrive more prepared, play with more focus and are less inclined to surrender. Great golf courses, it turns out, are good for your game, and such was the case at St. George’s Hill, where my card clung to par and I wanted to return directly to the first tee. We’d need our energy for tomorrow, however: Our caddie called Sunningdale a club for “proper toughs.” Did that mean the members here were improper toughs? I couldn’t say. St. George’s Hill did seem like the posher pick of the two Surrey clubs, its golf set within a gated community that I’d been told was popular with Russian oligarchs. Sunningdale, conversely, was a golfers’ golf club, a place where you could find Sam Torrance, Paul McGinley and fellow Ryder Cupper Michael “Queenie” King setting stakes and teams on the practice green. With two courses (Old and New) of such fine architectural lineage (Willie Park Jr., Harry Colt, Tom Simpson), Sunningdale was the flagbearer for heathland golf, a place where Bobby Jones once remarked, “I wish I could take this course home with me.” An English itinerary without Sunningdale was not an English itinerary, and maybe that’s how he found us. It was an easy guess that we’d arrive there eventually.
Our morning kicked off on the New, and my caddie had to carry double while we waited for Paul’s looper to arrive. When we heard our caddie call, “Make tracks, Stuart! We’ll be done before you catch us!” I turned and watched as Paul’s eyes tried to leave their sockets. While the color drained from his face, he looked at me and said, “Here we go. Come meet Bob.”
Again—roam as far as you might, and you’ll find we’re all sharing the same holes.
Day Five held the long haul I was hoping we could skip for another crack at St. George’s Hill, but Paul was set on finally seeing Royal West Norfolk up in Brancaster, an old English links so close to the sea that its entrance is often unreachable during high tide. He won me over by promising a halfway stop to play somewhere called “the Sacred Nine,” and the drive was jolly enough as we replayed the previous day’s karma.
Paul had made a big, awkward fuss when Bob arrived, marveling at the fates that had reunited him with his long-lost companion. Bob was quiet and mopey for the front nine, explaining to Paul that he was late because he didn’t have enough scratch to get his car out of the shop. I could tell Paul was stuck in his head about the whole thing; he was walking and talking too fast, pulling clubs and leaving Bob behind, and he didn’t settle down until a few quick Pimm’s at lunch. He played better on the Old in the afternoon, which most people do; its greens are a bit more generous, and missed fairways come with a softer sentence. Some of the craters along the margins were put there by shovel, others by bombardier. (Sunningdale and St. George’s Hill had both been pockmarked during WWII; golf courses weren’t targets so much as a good place to dump leftover munitions.) Paul eventually repaired things with Bob via a guilt-ridden wad of cash, and Bob asked him to be sure to call next time he was in London, and Paul assured him that he would.
“I probably will, too,” Paul said as we pushed north for Norfolk. “He’d find me anyway.”
I was more excited for the nine-holer near Cambridge than the links up in Brancaster. I felt playing a links on a heathland trip sort of muddied the mood, and it couldn’t possibly compete with a golf course of five different names. In a well-coordinated scheme to confuse tourists, British courses typically go by both the name on the scorecard and the name of the closest town, but the Sacred Nine (Bernard Darwin’s label for it)/the Pink Jug Club/Royal Worlington & Newmarket/Worley/Mildenhall seemed irresistibly schizophrenic, with a logo that looked like the Kool-Aid Man.
This home of the Cambridge University Golf Society was a blissful walk of deviously pitched greens, meaty cross bunkers and more yardage than one would expect from a nine-holer. I admired its longstanding tradition of allowing only two-ball play (either as twosomes or alternate-shot foursomes), and some, including Herbert Warren Wind, called it the best nine-hole course in the world. While that felt like home-course hyperbole (Wind and Darwin were both Cambridge men), Mildenhall held moments that recalled the Old Course and Muirfield, with the same firm, sandy base to match either. What neither of those clubs could match was the amount of alcohol that the steward at Mildenhall managed to fit into one small jug. This concoction of legend was born when a members’ bacchanal ran out of vodka and gin, so the hosts started mixing whatever spirits they could find and served it in a cranberry-tinted pitcher to mask its color. The party raged on—and on, all the way to a quiet Thursday morning when journalism required that Paul sample a jug at 11 a.m. The barman added a dash of this and a splash of that, then dumped in an entire bottle of champagne and a fistful of lemon. Paul sipped from his glass and returned this report: “It tastes like champagne. With lemon.”
Paul might have finished more of his pitcher than he intended, which left me with a loquacious travel companion, then a sleeping one, then an overly excited one as our tires finally crossed a narrow stream and we docked in the car park at Royal West Norfolk/Brancaster at low tide.
There was a lot to love about Brancaster. The tidal barrier was cool, and to reach the course you walked across the public beach path before pushing through a gate to a traditional nine-out, nine-in links, all of it squeezed onto such a tight sliver of duneland that some of the outward holes shared fairways with the inward ones. I enjoyed this dangerous quirk, and having to plan golf around the tides was interesting enough, but I was too tired, too stiff, too aware of the looming three-and-a-half-hour drive back. Paul was all in on Brancaster, while I tried to stick to my traveler’s rules: No whining. I did concede that the smoking room in the antique of a clubhouse was worth seeing: high, chocolate-colored walls sticky from a century’s worth of tobacco, with worn wooden lockers sunk into the corners. (Paul wants his ashes sprinkled here someday.) The brass wind gauge by the taps was a nice touch, though it wasn’t working when we visited; if it was, the smoking room might have been all we saw of Brancaster.
I was sure that somebody, or something, had punished us for straying from the heath. Maybe the golf gods, maybe the ghost of Colt, or maybe Bob made it blow 50 at Brancaster. Even Paul was wind-whipped into submission, eager to beat the tide and get it all over with.
The Wall finds all of us if we wander long enough, and on Day Five, I found mine. As we drove back toward London in the dark, in my mind I scripted excuses for an early exit and even called to get an available flight while Paul slept. He woke before I could book it. He thanked me for driving and talked about the treasures awaiting us.
Double-heath day: Walton Heath by James Braid and Reigate Heath by who knows, but it held a windmill that was said to have inspired the one at National Golf Links of America. I felt my Wall lowering just a bit, to where I could peek over it and see myself playing in the shadow of a windmill. And when Paul finally dialed the Carpenter’s Arms that served his hallowed chicken, my Wall blew away on a Brancaster breeze. We were going out tomorrow with full bellies and a bang.
As I stood over a desk, staring at heavy black ink pressed into vellum, I was reminded that we travel for the chance to live according to accidents, free from the pressures of life by design. Wonderful accidents like this one, where we spotted a man at Walton Heath playing in plus-fours and a tie, with hickories over his shoulder, and thought we should go say hello. He turned out to be a collector of rare golf books, and he invited me to his home, which happened to be next to the entrance to the club, just beside the former pro shop where Braid, prolific designer and five-time Open champion, worked as the club’s first head pro, steps from where a Volkswagen-size topiary had since been shaped to resemble Braid’s trademark cap. As I gazed upon the page where the word GOLF was printed for the first time—in an Act of Parliament from the 1500s banning it in favor of archery practice—I felt a lump of gratitude in my throat. For a golf and book geek, discoveries didn’t get any better, and I owed it to the fates and to Paul, to Bob and to England, to Brancaster and British Airways and the Carpenter’s Arms (where we had a reservation that evening), and to my impromptu host, Philip Truett, who talked me through his shelves while handing me volumes that predated the birth of my own country.
Before we met Philip, Walton Heath had already been a heady day. A Broken Tee Society member named Padraig had joined us and injected fresh energy into our two-ball, and our caddie had reminded us that four prime ministers had been members at Walton, including Winston Churchill. I was more interested to hear that A.A. Milne had played here, and I envisioned him walking this heathland as he imagined adventures for Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne wrote about golf as well, once noting that “golf is so popular simply because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.” None of us were very bad at all at Walton Heath, where I was happy to embrace the recency bias and call it our best visit yet. There was little chance Reigate Heath could top it, but who cared? On our last day, I was finally just rolling to wherever the next hole waited.
As we turned at a sign for Reigate Heath, Paul and I both gasped at the sight before us: a towering windmill perched atop a golf course and soaked in golden light. The clubhouse beneath was crowded, but not with golfers; hikers, dog walkers and cyclists all hung around picnic benches and sipped pints and watched the Friday sun set over Surrey.
It took us a while to finally fill a foursome, but we did so; two more BTS members, Tom and Robin, guided us around a narrow nine-hole loop where the gorse finished off my ball stash. The routing offered alternate tees for a new perspective on one’s second nine, but we skipped them in favor of sunset from the benches and a peek inside the windmill. It housed a chapel where you could hold a small wedding; a sign advertised it as the country’s only windmill chapel, and we believed it.
After all our moving, we were finally stuck and happy for it, a pair of no-hurry heathens. I watched the sun touch the top of the trees and the Pimm’s touch the bottom of Paul’s glass, and the clock ticked past our reservation at the Carpenter’s Arms. No bother. We were sure we’d be back to golf London again, and we were too busy here taking in a long valley view, greeting Labradors and waving to horses and their riders as they trotted past. The heath, it turned out, was made for much more than golf. If you could see past the needles, it was a landscape for your dreams.
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