Or, the pull to Westward Ho!
It was about time I got to Royal North Devon. It’s been on the agenda, the bucket list, for longer than I can remember, but lately a few people have waxed lyrical of its charm, so the long-anticipated experience could wait no longer.
Not for the first time recently, the weather forecast was dreadful, and the playing partner I had lined up - the least fair-weather golfer I’ve ever met - pulled out, citing, alongside a screenshot of the outlook, another friend’s description of RND as “the wettest place in Britain”. I’ve lived all my life in Wales and England; this alone would be something worth seeing, but perhaps from indoors.
My alarm went off at 5am, but instead of the usual deliberate, quiet start to the day, Friday’s early morning was a frantic shuffle through the darkness of the house, gathering the clothes and sustenance required for survival. By 6am the luminous satnav was directing me left and right, drifting through the silent Surrey streets towards the Roman-like directness of the M3, and then the A303.
It took a google search to find out why Westward Ho! is the only place in Britain with an exclamation mark after it, but the Westward part needs little explaining, as anyone who has driven there from these parts will testify. The road rumbled on and on, and my companion for that first chunk of the journey, Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Everything”, had somehow run its course long before my arrival in Northam. It’s that far away.
Turning a corner into the town that sits above RND, I suddenly saw the white crashing waves of the ocean, a cloud of spray hanging above them, and the whole environment changed as I drove down the hill and approached the club. The torrential rain I’d driven through was well behind me, for now, so I could open the window, flooding my senses with the salty fragrance of the fresh sea air, so welcome after three and a half hours in a sealed metal box, with a squeaking wiper blade.
But unlike the initial, intoxicating glimpse of the sea, the first look across the golf course was less of a great reveal. I could see a flag or two flapping away, but it looked very flat - the wooden gate through which the golfer passes to play more suggestive of farming land than a famous links golf course. I inhaled some breakfast, and a coffee, and headed through the gate into the field beyond. The first (“The Burn”) and the second (“Baggy”) took me directly away from the clubhouse, towards the sound of the waves and into the stiff sea breeze, from where the compass turns north-east, into a triangle of land between Northam Burrows and Greysands Beach.
For the next two hours, I would move across this landscape in a breathless mode of discovery, soaking up the rustic charm of the course as it revealed itself. I took photos of the beautiful surroundings, of golf nestling amongst the natural splendour of the coastline here, with dark clouds all around, but somehow the photos never got close to capturing the feeling of freedom out there. There were only a handful of other golfers, no doubt the forecast scaring off a few dozen more, but the rain was minimal and it was just glorious.
Besides the images of the waves crashing in beyond the far reaches of the course, I took several snaps of the many charming touches that seem to sum up the place. Each green is surrounded by an electric fence, to stop the many sheep grazing on the short stuff, hence the gated entrance to these golfing fields. The course runs through common land, which explains not just the sheep and the dog walkers, but also the hoofprints on the thirteenth tee (“Lundy”, which is visible in the distance).
Instead of distance marker posts, each hole has beautiful, dark grey slate rocks on each flank to denote 150 yards to the centre, and these glisten in the occasional shaft of sunlight, and appeal to my preference for a pencil bag, half-set of clubs, and reliance on judgment, or a lack thereof. At RND, it is often necessary to try and fathom where the target actually is before guessing at the distance. Precise distances are meaningless and unnecessary out here.
Often the tee shot will seem a little featureless, the minimal definition of rugged links golf in late winter enabling the golfing terrain to blend effortlessly with this stunning chunk of land that sits on the very edge of England, at the mercy of the sea. Erosion forced the club to make sympathetic changes to the end of the front nine in 2018, the club website noting that the course has “undergone a sustained attack from the sea for all of the time it has existed”. As have many of its golfers, no doubt.
The resultant new seventh hole fits in seamlessly with the rest of the course, England’s oldest links, but there is something humbling in that, in this most traditional of golfing destinations, change was forced not by the latest fashion or by some mindless pursuit of distance, but by the raw elements that make up much of the local challenge. As I prepare to play the eighth, the broken hull of a boat on the rocks to my left catches my eye, and near it sits an abandoned yardage marker for a previous incarnation of this tee, its rusting metal plate a reminder of the obstinate power of the sea here.
Here and there, other signs are equally charming. A huge white pole with flaking paint sits behind the fourth, shouting “4” at the disorientated golfer; another plaque is half-buried in the sand, warning that the beach is “not out of bounds”, but that “access is at your own risk”. Today the powerful wind is off the sea, blowing my ball back inland as it propels the ominous clouds eastward, but the beach, and the area that was until recently the end of the front nine, remain close by, and it adds to the wild feeling of this place.
Dog walkers march by on the paths that lead to crashing waves and a visitor centre, and the sheep meticulously nibble the turf as I wander aimlessly in pursuit of a white ball. A cavernous cape bunker on the fourth (“Cape”, appropriately) has sleepers lying up its face instead of the typical revetted style of the links, and a large white arrow, fixed at a slight angle near the top of the sleeper wall, indicates a preferred line of play. This simple guidance is at once welcome and preposterously straightforward, as the distractions of the grazing livestock, nearby pedestrians and the ever-present wind render the search for such pinpoint accuracy a farce.
The Club brochure talks of it being “impossible to collect a full impression without playing here on several occasions” and the comparison to The Old Course in St Andrews bears up well. On first visit, both links seem somehow mysterious, illusive, and elsewhere it is noted that RND “often defies straightforward description”. But elsewhere, the same welcoming narrator manages a pretty good job of describing it, saying “Royal North Devon is a great links and as far removed as possible from the manicured and manufactured championship courses we see every day on television”. This, to me, sums it up perfectly, and I love the implication that this gulf in style is intentionally protected, and celebrated.
I carry on hitting my ball into and around the wind and the bunkers, via a few rushes and a ditch, until I am back at the gate in front of the old clubhouse again. Somehow the ball I started with has got me round, and as I look back at the wide open grasslands before me, still buzzing from the adventure of the past two hours, this gate, and the demarcation between the clubhouse and the course, seems meaningful. It is a portal into a special, fragile piece of land, where the golf is pure, and as I slowly click the gate shut behind me, staring out at the mists of the surf as the dark clouds above grow ever more threatening, I know I will be back, and soon.
This theme of it being “about time” I played here keeps jostling for position in my mind as I reflect on the experience whilst hammering east towards the crowded, suburban safety of normal, inland life. This place, Westward Ho!, is all about time to me. It’s a place where, for a change, time hasn’t ruined something special; a place where we might get a feel for the simplicity of less hurried times. For a couple of hours, my own precious time seemed to stand still, as I grappled with these ancient bunkers and bounces like a million golfers before me, from 1864 onwards.
Driving home, I am less focused on listening to audiobooks, for I am deep in thought, about the golf course, this strange pastime that has beguiled me for decades, and the various paths it has led me down - sometimes dragged me down, it seems. As the heavens open again and the van slides past Stonehenge, another ancient monument to the passing of time, I have been away from RND for almost two hours, and I am already nostalgic for those minutes in the 170 acres of that blustery, coastal paradise.
A few quotes from a cheesy Richard Curtis film drift into my mind - “About Time” - the sort of movie that the teenage version of me - the one that got hooked on golf - would have dismissed as hopelessly romantic. But I’ve softened with age, and I must be hopelessly romantic about golf at least - why else would anyone set out on such a wet-weather mission for a few solitary holes so far from home?
In the film, the male side of a family have a secret weapon, the ability to jump into a dark cupboard when things don’t turn out the way they’d hoped, and have a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) chance to get things right. Time travel, but with a wardrobe instead of a Tardis (or a very old golf course). By the end of the film, which is marginally longer than the time I’d just spent on the links, the main character no longer relies on this mechanism, but instead tries “to live every day as if I've deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life”.
As I weave through the early rush hour traffic of another Friday afternoon, this day has felt like a pilgrimage, and this notion of time just keeps ticking away at me. Given the weather forecast, given that my playing partner bailed on me, given that I will, by the time I park up, have spent over seven hours on the road for a little over two hours of golf - given all that, most sane people would have decided to postpone the trip - go another time, or not at all. To have not opened that gate into the magical playing fields of Royal North Devon until now, I must have put it off myself a number of times already, and with less good reason than today’s apparently perfect storm of factors.
But, as I step through another threshold, back into family life, I realise that my face aches a little. It is not the stress of so many miles, or that the wind has burned my delicate skin out there. It is simply that, for a combined nine hours of this particular expedition, I have not stopped smiling. And perhaps that is what those screenwriters were getting at, this feeling of doing something beyond the ordinary, building memories, feeling alive. For once looking beyond the logical decision, in case there is something of value hiding beyond it, just out of sight.
It’s all About Time, to me, this course, this place, this state of mind they call Royal North Devon. It was about time I got there, and typing this a week or two later, it’s already about time I got back. To again head Westward, smiling. To again step through that gate into some other, delightful dimension. For, in the words of Mr Curtis, “some days you want to re-live forever”.
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