The Addington, Surrey
The Twelve Days of Christmas, #5
(This series is neither well planned or coherent. What it is, though, is the result of spending a few spare hours at Christmas 2021 looking through some recently located files of pictures, and thinking about my golfing journey to this point. I’ve been lucky to have played in some pretty special places, and made some lasting connections along the way, and year end seems as good a time to reflect back on a dozen of these as any. Who knows, it might inspire me to plan a few more exploratory trips for 2022…)
There are a thousand quotes about “first impressions”, but rather than the stock ones about never getting a second chance to make an impact, I am intrigued by Franz Kafka, who was no stranger to the idea of Metamorphis, and who is quoted as saying that “first impressions are always unreliable”. Replace “are always” with “can be”, and I will take this one, Franz, danke schön.
This sense of the excitement that can be found when exploring a new experience is what I am looking to capture here, and it has a lot to do with managing expectation. I can barely recall what I was expecting from The Addington in 2004, but it was likely that I’d been prompted to make this journey through heavy South London traffic as a result of it being one of Tom Doak’s 31 flavours of golf.
As first impressions go, I’ve had better. I pulled into the gravel car park, past a menacing but gorgeous old “PRIVATE” sign, to find only one other car parked, which turned out to be the Secretary’s. Having made his acquaintance, and thanked him for the permission to visit, I politely asked where the Pro Shop was, in order that I could support them on what was presumably a quieter of day, and replenish my limited stock of golf balls for the challenge ahead. No pro shop exists, I was told.
I made my way to the practice area, which in those days comprised a single net, and picked out a couple of the balls in my bag to warm up. The first 5 iron was swept off the battered astroturf mat, nestling in the endless folds of netting at ground level.
The second shot was, surprisingly, equally well struck, but instead of joining its predecessor, it flew straight through a tiny hole in the net and sailed, with that rare touch of draw that might otherwise have been a source of pride, just over the head of a distant member of staff, who was busy raking leaves in the greenkeeping equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge. Even at this distance, his surprise at both a lucky escape and the presence of an actual golfer was evident.
My practice was over - two good shots, only one lost ball, and zero serious injuries or lawsuits. Time to hit the 1st tee, but it is fair to say that part of the first impression of The Addington, aside from this feeling of general dilapidation, was of a place that somehow didn’t work like other Clubs, and this impression would be reliable, despite my butchering of Kafka’s original words.
Three hours later, with my stock of balls down to the single, scuffed “PREFECT” - a sphere that appeared hell-bent on visiting every remaining patch of heather on the course - I returned to my car stunned. The condition of the golf course had been seriously affected by the unchecked success of deciduous woodland, presumably over several decades, but the underlying form was clearly that of a masterpiece, a sleeping giant. I could barely wait to get home and scroll through the photographs to work out just what it was that was so compelling about this course, despite the neglect.
Hole after hole would appear before me, crowded by rhododendrons and cast in evening shadows by the thick curtains of trees; yet the holes themselves were bold, featuring fascinating green complexes, false fronts, and in places, outrageous banks that would take another errant ball away, never to be found again. In amongst all this were equally dramatic bunkers, and strange bridges to transport the golfer (i.e. me, the only golfer that afternoon) across the swathes in this captivating landscape.
I cannot recall a weak hole at The Addington, although the 1st is a fairly benign par 3, giving no indication of the severity of the golfing test ahead. There are, however, a couple of truly world-class holes that I can still picture all these years later, the 12th and 13th. My overall conclusion, besides wondering how good this decaying masterpiece must have been “back in the day”, was of a golf course that was both incredibly difficult and enjoyable, two factors that don’t always collide. There was something in the confident scale of the place that would later remind me of Pine Valley, where you can play your best golf, come out bruised and battered by the severity of the holes, and still never stop grinning.
In the years that follow, I would somehow fail to get back to this part of town, but would continue to notice and collect the stories that invariably gather around such unique clubs and courses. I discovered that Bernard Darwin, that great golfing diarist, was a Member here, and that another famous storyteller would include in one of his works the note: “Anyone wishing to write to the author should address all correspondence to P.G. Wodehouse, c/o the sixth bunker, The Addington Golf Club, Croydon, Surrey.”
I was also told by a long-standing Member of the nature of Sunday afternoons at the Club in the days before the then owner, Moria Fabes, passed away, which would involve a few holes of golf, depending on the weather, a lavish, boozy lunch, and some leisurely swimming for the dozen or so Members who could be bothered to turn upon a busy sabbath. No competitions, no real golf played. Just the sort of relaxed caper that Wodehouse might have dreamed up, while every other Club in the area was bursting at the seams. Meanwhile, the woodland just carried on growing, and the heather slowly died a death.
Abercromby’s output as an architect was modest in number, but extraordinary in quality. Besides this, and the no longer existent “Addington New Course”, which today sits under a local housing estate, and which Darwin was enormously fond of, he was responsible for much of what you can find at Coombe Hill, Worplesdon & Knole Park, among a few others. But this was where he spent his time, and, walking the property with an ever dwindling supply of ammunition, I can see why. Another story was that he responded to one polite enquiry with the phrase “I am the suggestion book”, a modus operandi that seemed to have been passed down into Ms. Fabes’ times.
These days, there is a new story being told about The Addington, and it is not the one that might have played out, of this rather secret and solitary Club continuing to slowly decline until it was no longer reasonable for it to exist, perhaps following its brother the New Course into the history books.
This latest twist in the timeline of this masterpiece will see the scrubbing away of the patina that has formed over one of the world’s great golf courses, with judicious tree removal and heather generation taking place alongside some architectural renovation.
After all these years of absence, my heart has grown even fonder that it was at the end of that strange afternoon alone with the spirit of Aber, and I can barely wait to get back there, and see once again those gorgeous shapes and contours, this time with the light and air moving across them, the fairway widths and full green shapes lovingly restored, and the heathland returning to frame this plot of golfing eye-candy.
From what I have heard, the restoration will be carried out with the same intense commitment that Aber must have deployed to build such a wonder all those years ago. If that is the case, it will be a genuine metamorphosis, and who knows, they might even replace the practice net.
Whatever it will feel like to be finally back at The Addington, assuming my chance of doing so is not ruined by this well-meaning love letter, two things are certain. First, I will never forget that initial visit, and second, I will make sure I take a few more golf balls with me this time. That old “PREFECT” won’t get me round there in one piece.
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