Strong family connections and school fell-walking trips 30 years ago lie at the heart of my love affair with the Lake District. My late father hailed from Kendal, my in-laws moved to Penrith 10 years ago, and my wedding took place in a tiny Lakeland church followed by an evening cruise on beautiful Ullswater.
If this is getting you a little misty-eyed, don’t just take my word for the Lake District’s appeal. If you can put the words “cloud”, “wandered”, “lonely” and “daffodils” in the right literary sequence you’ll know how fond some of England’s finest 19th century poets were of its brooding mountains and crystal-clear lakes, Mr Wordsworth included.
Yet because Cumbria is flanked by the Irish Sea, the range of golf on offer extends beyond merely a host of courses, with enviably picturesque backdrops to some excellent links, the most heralded of which – Silloth on Solway – kicks off this particular golfing journey.
Silloth will live long in my memory for it was here that I played my last game as a condemned… sorry, single man. The day before my wedding was a wretched, wet affair in inland Cumbria, but as we headed north-west the sun broke through and we played the whole round without so much as a drop of interference. I took this as a good marital omen. As for the course, there’s no doubt that, much like Royal Dornoch, it is only its slightly “off the beaten track” location that has prevented Silloth hosting more important events than it has. But nowhere is that inaccessible these days, and it should instantly top any “must play” list on England’s north-west frontier.
Fairways are attractively framed by vibrant heather and vivid gorse at certain times of year, and on a clear day the views stretch away to the Galloway Hills in Scotland and the distant Lakeland fells. It is a wonderful, yet sometimes testing place, so it’s no surprise that Cecil Leitch, who played here, should have become such a powerful and dominant lady golfer in the early 20th century.
Venturing back towards those distant fells, the courses at two of Cumbria’s largest towns – Penrith and Kendal – peer down over their respective urban settlements. I’ve played Penrith a couple of times and love the feel of the place. The stretch across the road from the 5th to the 12th sticks in the mind for its views and the back-to-back par-3 9th and 10th holes which, though chalk and cheese in terms of length, can prove equally tricky. The short 10th asks all sorts of questions should you miss its green, which isn’t that difficult if your wedge’s flight finds itself at the whim of a capricious breeze.
You’ll need a high-flying tee shot to negotiate the steep climb up Kendal’s opening hole. On my first visit some 20 years ago it was a par 3, which more or less guaranteed a bogey at best for starters. Wisdom has since prevailed, and it’s now a short par 4, which should leave you able to appreciate the marvellous views from the 2nd hole onwards free from any “bogey or worse” blues.
The course descends again from the 15th and I still recall a friend’s ball careering towards the quarry that then lined the right side of the hole, only to strike an inch-wide fence post and ricochet back into play rather than plummet to the quarry floor. I expect he went on to win, but I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is Kendal’s 17th because of the outcrop of rock between you and the green which gives the hole its “Battleship” name. I’ve never played so directly over an obstacle of this nature anywhere else, and if there’s one hole in England you don’t want to reserve your only top of the day for, this is it. Mercifully, it’s only 122 yards so you should be wielding the kind of lofted club with which even average players are moderately proficient.
I’ve not yet had the opportunity to enjoy Grange-over-Sands in the south of the county, but my father-in-law’s friends tell me it’s worth a visit. Originally laid out by Dr Alister Mackenzie of Augusta fame in 1919, it has recently been extended to over 6,000 yards. That’s still modest by today’s standards, but this and its generally flat terrain, make it an ideal choice should you wish to take a day off from undue physical exertion.
Fell-walkers keen to exert themselves are often drawn to Skiddaw in the north. Just east of Skiddaw lies Blencathra, an imposing mountain that dominates the skyline at Keswick Golf Club. You play directly towards it on the long par-3 2nd and before reaching the sanctuary of the 19th you’ll have to tackle a short, sharp cardiac hill, flirt with the disused Penrith to Keswick railway line and steer your way through dense pine forests. It’s golf in a spectacular setting, and recent drainage work has dramatically improved year-round playability here.
Back on the west coast, Maryport is another Cumbrian links – or at least part-links. It’s over 100 years old, with the original holes being complemented by a new parkland nine in 1994. It is a friendly, inexpensive place to play, with a simple clubhouse offering a welcome line in good, modestly-priced food. Away from our wives’ watchful gazes, my father-in-law and I enjoyed a pint of the local Jennings brew and a crafty all-day breakfast here on my most recent visit.
Windermere is Cumbria’s most famous lake and the golf club of the same name lies up on nearby Cleabarrow Fell. It’s another whose charms have thus far eluded me, though my college friends did play here after my wedding while I was motoring north to Skye, new bride in tow – or at least the passenger seat. I’m told I missed a treat. From humble 9-hole origins in 1891 the club quickly grew to 18 and in the early 20th century intriguingly boasted holes with pars of 41/2 and 31/2 giving added credibility to the phrase “well that was really a par 31/2” (usually following a bogey). I’ll definitely be trying to steer my way around this short 18-holer on my next visit to the in-laws.
Our final port of call is another links, that falls into our “something different” category on the grounds that few courses are set quite so close to nuclear power stations. The one in question is Sellafield, née Windscale, but don’t let this put you off visiting Seascale Golf Club. The course itself is as natural as the power station is unnatural – a true links that presents a thoroughly enjoyable and varied test and a particularly stout finish.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite here for golf in England’s third largest, yet second least populated county. Besides the golf, there’s all that majestic scenery to savour, and that low population density means those shrewd enough to avoid the Lake District’s hotspots in the height of the season will find fewer souls around to trouble them as they wind down and reflect on a hard day’s golf.
Silloth on Solway
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