In the 16th century Bideford in North Devon was one of the most important towns in England. After Elizabeth I granted a trade charter with North America only London and Topsham, near Exeter, had a larger share of that business than Bideford. By the mid-18th century the town was importing more tobacco than anywhere in England. Ships also set sail from the port to fight the Spanish Armada when England was threatened in 1588, and then during the Napoleonic Wars Bideford was regularly targeted by the infamous pressgangs, who forced men of seafaring age to board vessels bound for naval war with France, the majority never to return.
North Devon also has an important place in the history of golf. The first course I visited in the area was Westward Ho!, or Royal North Devon (RND) as its also known. Founded in 1864, its the oldest golf club in England. Golf courses are often described as unique and sometimes that description is unjustified. But its fair to say RND fits the bill. The coastline of the British Isles is dotted with seaside courses but few, if any, resemble Westward Ho!
Standing on the first tee its difficult to believe a golf course even exists in front of you. A flat coastal plain stretches into the distance covered in sea rushes, sheep and wild horses. Playing the course reveals the complexities and subtle nuances that make this such a captivating and enthralling test of golf. Its relatively open but you must be strategic from the tee and on the approaches. Although RND appears to be flat there are many undulations and run-offs to deceive and perplex. Its often difficult to see where youre going from the tee and on a number of occasions the only option is to trust your swing and commit. This is epitomised by the tee shot on the 4th hole, Cape. Here you have to make a long carry over a huge bunker, and failure to do so could mean waving goodbye to a good round.
The rich history at Westward Ho! is evidenced by the amazing clubhouse. Packed with memorabilia, this must be one of the most interesting 19th holes in the UK.
Almost visible from RND and just a few miles north-east across the Taw Estuary lies Saunton. Set in the largest expanse of sand dunes in the UK, Saunton boasts two 18-hole layouts, East and West. The former is the more famous of the two, and that was the track I tackled.
In clubhouse debates on the best courses to never host an Open Championship, Saunton East will always receive a mention. Its a superb links and certainly provides a stern enough test, placing you under scrutiny right from the outset. The first hole is a 478-yard par 4 demanding two long and accurate shots, a real baptism of fire. With thick rough, humps, hollows and treacherous bunkers, this is a real thinkers course. You cant stand up and bludgeon the ball, and good placement from the tee is critical. The wind plays a crucial role in any round at Saunton. I was lucky enough to enjoy unusually benign conditions but the standard south-westerly can turn some of the more innocuous looking par 4s into real brutes.
Back in Bideford by early afternoon, we had time to explore the picturesque former port. Although its a relatively small town theres plenty to see. View some local artwork at the Burton Gallery, then stroll through the Pannier Market where local farmers sell their produce. Its a bustling hive of activity and great for people watching. Also impressive is Bideford Long Bridge. Built upon an ancient causeway, a bridge has existed here since medieval times. If youre feeling energetic hire a bicycle and travel the Tarka Trail. Its so named because Henry Williamsons fictional Tarka the Otter lived alongside nearby rivers the Torridge and the Taw. Elsewhere, the picturesque village of Clovelly is well worth a trip too.
The final leg of our brief golfing sojourn to the West Country was Ilfracombe. The course at Ilfracombe, dating from 1903, provides a different set of challenges from the two previously visited. Its not long, in fact it measures less than 6,000 yards from the back tees. But the undulating terrain and long par 3s make playing to handicap a difficult proposition. The views over the Bristol Channel are delightful, with some of the best to be enjoyed from the clubhouse. After three energy-sapping rounds this was the perfect place to relax and reflect on a West Country adventure.
Where to play
Royal North Devon
T: 01237 477598
Stats: par 72, SSS 72, 6,653 yards
T: 01271 812436
Stats: par 71, SSS 72, 6,779 yards
T: 01271 863328
Stats: par 69, SSS 68, 5,795 yards
Where to stay
Saunton Sands Hotel
T: 01271 890212
Part of the luxurious Brend chain of hotels, the Saunton Sands enjoys a position right on the seafront. Its a sizeable yet attractive building with a modern and comfortable interior.
Yeolden House Hotel
T: 01237 474400
Originally a Victorian home, Yeolden House sits on the banks of the River Torridge in Northam, just outside Bideford. Its a peaceful and charming spot, perfect for unwinding after a hard days golf.
Market days in Bideford are Tuesdays and Saturdays. Butchers Row and Market Place are open six days a week.
Hire a bike from Biketrail Cycle Shop, Fremington Quay, in Fremington.
Burton Art Gallery
Open Mon-Sun. Please check opening times.