A Kindred Spirit
Tales of Warkworth Part One
Image courtesy of Robin Down
Once again, word of mouth opens a gate I’d have otherwise walked past. A free morning on this winter golfing pilgrimage, towards the shore that peers out at the North Sea and Holy Island; a chance to retreat into golf, and writing, and to meet fresh horizons with that energy that always accompanies “the new”.
I ask a few people for ideas for this vacant slot, and Warkworth is one of a few in contention. I call, eager to speak in person, and the conversation that follows tells me that this is the sort of place I should be seeing. For the person on the other end of the line is friendly, funny, welcoming.
And it is a chance to connect with another soul touched by golf, whose writing on these same themes beguiles me. R’s path to his golfing prose is different from mine, but we have each arrived in a similar place - the game an avenue for a deeper exploration of who we are; the lives we’ve led. Before we meet, we’ve spoken a little on the phone, and exchanged a few messages, but nothing can compare with the freedom golf provides for this sort of relaxed conversation.
So as the geese honk past this deserted car park and Northumberland casts its magical light upon us, we shake hands and start talking, and were it not for the other landmarks of life, we’d probably still be up there, throwing round ideas and chopping at pitches. On first impression, R is as charming as Warkworth, and for three splendid hours, we get to know this place and each other through shared smiles and laughter.
Golf has a way of gently encouraging us to see a lighter way of being - perhaps it is simply a binary case of “laugh or cry” - and before a ball is struck, we’re setting expectations. R confesses “a reputation for missing tiny putts”, as if half-expecting me to have heard of this chink in his armour from three hundred miles south, but he’s in safe hands here as I’d rather give a slippery six-footer than have someone think I’m tight.
In turn I reveal that, thirty-six holes into this golfing trip, I am already down to my last golf ball, and feel like Trevino in those old stories of his youth, with a big stakes match on the line and only six dollars in his trouser pocket. R nods, and seems to look more carefully at my ball each time I lurch at it, for any comparison with Trevino stops abruptly here, and we both know, strangers or not, that it will not always fly straight. In fact, once or twice, it won’t fly at all…
Warkworth is just gorgeous from the first tee onwards. Perched above a vast watercolour of rippling marram grass and rolling waves, we strike off down into the dunes and weave our way back up and onto the plateau, talking all the while. Old Tom’s holes are wide, open - the challenge obvious but never easy - and the rugged feel of these loops couldn’t be more in tune with the preferences of this pair.
R’s two books weave in most of the themes of life with obscure nine-holers as the backdrop, and, little more than a year into this strange journey back into golf that I am on, it is exactly this version of the game that feels so precious and important to me. Warkworth is certainly off the beaten track, but I’ve seen enough of that more conventional route, and it seems to drag us along like sheep to slaughter.
Instead, places like this are so much more than a footnote to golf; they are, certainly for us on this glorious day in February, a realm where decency and simplicity exist in abundance, and on this ancient stretch of coast, with all its holy relics and medieval castles, my own version of a sacred space opens up before me. On one tee, we pause to look out to sea, and a sailing boat is visible, bobbing in the distant waves. R’s response is “silly fools”, and we smile, imagining the crew finding us in their binocular lens and casting a similar label our way. We’d struggle to argue, were that the case.
We cover many topics as we travel through Warkworth’s simple majesty, but those twin mysteries of golf and writing hold much of the conversation, and a single note of R’s just keeps coming back to me in the days that follow. Life after retirement has been for him all about play - playing with golf, playing with his wonderful, evocative stories, playing with photography, and playing with motorcycles.
This magical formula for keeping us grounded and in touch with ourselves - the permission to once again play as we did when children - seems so obvious, but perhaps that’s why we manage to let it slide, and have to go looking for it. There’s a lightness about this state of play that we adults need, and besides the many other valuable thoughts R shares in the gentle breeze of Warkworth, this familiar one is a timely reminder to not take things too seriously.
Right on cue, we notice that the old greenkeeping trailer near our final green has a Mercedes sign glued on the back, and chuckle. And then, somehow using the same old ball with which I cast off three hours earlier, I manage to badly skull a simple chip - my imagination drifting off towards Durness, the destination of R’s first book , “Golf in the Wild” - and once again golf renders me a “silly fool”, but a very happy one.
In the lounge, there are dozens of voices, and laughter surrounds us. It is Friday in a fairly remote spot on the north-east coast, and yet there’s this vibrant sense of community here. As we wait at the bar, R slips me a copy of “Going Home”, the return leg of his golfing odyssey, and a tall man nearby notices it in my hand, and starts to talk about the courses inside. I ask if he’s read it, and his answer is “yes, he’s that bloke from Allendale”, and R pauses before revealing that he is “that bloke”.
And in this moment - in the pregnant silence as we wondered what this stranger might say next about R’s wonderful, personal book - something meaningful emerges about these connections that we make through golf, and writing. About word of mouth, and the path less travelled, and about friendship. We arranged to meet up as it felt like we were “kindred spirits”, and though we’ve played Warkworth twice on this fine morning, golf enables the sort of flowing, creative conversation that we might easily have maintained until dusk, or at least until I lost sight of that last golf ball…
We take our mugs of coffee and find a perch that looks out across the dunes, and R tries to convince me that the presence of a true fan at the bar was just a pure and delicious coincidence. And we laugh, and then talk more, about families, and memories, and dementia, and it is clear in the chatter all around us that these are the gatherings that keep people vibrant. Out in the fresh air, grappling with an unconquerable quest; then back in the bar, jostling for honours and for the chance to buy your playing partners one more round of teacakes. That’s what keeps us golfers young; keeps us going as the years slowly cycle past.
For it is the sense of play - childlike, innocent play - that is golf’s great secret, and the camaraderie and gentle exercise that accompany it create an alchemy that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And so, while I could have spent another month talking to R, the lure of a swift afternoon round at Goswick - the lure of the new again - drags me from the table and back out into the car park, where the roll-up draw brings the same howls of laughter as every other Friday lunchtime round here.
R and I shake hands once again, and go our separate ways, for now, but I drive away captivated by his happiness, and humour, and our shared sense of, in his own, delightful words, “the possibilities for playing this most frustrating of games in wild, beautiful and unexpected places”. And later I start to read the book he gave me, and look forward to a day when I might get to press my own book in his hands with a broad smile. And if I ever get the chance to write another, well then it will sing of these sort of days and places, off the beaten track. Something special in the air. And at least one spare ball.
With thanks to Robin Down, for an unforgettable morning. And to Warkworth GC, for being the perfect place for these two “silly fools” to meet!