‘We had nudity on the greens!’ The battle over Britain’s golf courses

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Hollingbury golf course is a big splodge of green bleeding into Brighton’s grey urban sprawl. For more than a century, its 18 holes have risen above the seaside city towards the ruins of an iron age hillfort, which is now enclosed by holes nine, 12, 13, and 14. From Hollingbury’s highest point, it is possible to look west on a clear day and see the hills of the Isle of Wight.

As housing has spread around the course, which is owned by the council, so has tension between golfers and walkers, who are permitted to cut across it on a network of footpaths and old drovers’ tracks. Relations seem calm on the autumn day I visit, but I gather “Fore!” is not the only four-letter exclamation to have bounced along the manicured fairways.

In late March, the awkward relationship flipped on its head when a lockdown ban on golf coincided with a yearning for green space among Britain’s confined households. A national campaign, supported by the Brighton MP Caroline Lucas, called for golf courses to be opened to the public to relieve crowded parks.

At Hollingbury, which has no fences and is part of the South Downs national park, residents responded like calves put out to pasture. They cartwheeled on the fairways and picnicked on the greens. “It was like being in the mountains up here, with that open-space feeling that makes you feel immediately better,” says Michaela Spryanova, an office administrator who lives just beyond the course’s western edge.

Rachel Henson, an artist and translator, came here every day, basking in the spring sunshine and sweeping views over Brighton and the Channel. She taught her daughter to ride a bike on the sloping fairway of hole 10. “We learned all the common birdsong together,” she says.

Michaela Spryanova (left) and Rachel Henson at Hollingbury golf course in Brighton

But then, in June, golf was permitted once more – and golfers reclaimed the course. “We knew it was coming, but it was a terrible shock,” Henson says as we walk with Spryanova from their children’s school after the morning drop-off. We stroll up towards the hillfort on one of the old paths to which non-golfers are again confined. “It depressed me so much I couldn’t come up here for a while,” Henson adds.

The struggle for space at Hollingbury – and a second council-owned golf course two miles to the west at Waterhall – reflects a wider debate about conservation, ecology and democratic access to green space. As a pandemic triggers a revolt on many of Britain’s fairways, it poses a vexed question: is it time we opened up all golf courses to the public for good?

One of the joys and challenges of golf is that it requires a lot of nice green space. How much space is disputed. A common claim that Britain’s golf courses occupy more land than housing is based on dodgy estimates, but it is a lot of land.

The American writer Malcolm Gladwell once considered the scale of gated golf courses in Los Angeles, a city of few parks. He calculated that if you gave each player on a basketball court the space a golfer commands, the court would cover 12 hectares (30 acres); the hoops would be more than 400 metres apart. “They’d have to play on motorcycles,” Gladwell wrote.

Yet this calculation depends on a course being busy. Not all courses are busy. Steve Garrioch, who has been the captain at Hollingbury since 2009, tells me he was one of significantly more than 500 members when he joined 20 years ago. There are now 122 members and about twice as many season-ticket holders.

Garrioch, a leather merchant, blames an oversupply: Hollingbury is one of six courses within five miles of Brighton Palace pier in a city of about 300,000 people. But its decline is not unusual. According to a participation report by KPMG late last year, membership of golf courses in Great Britain dropped to a low of slightly more than 850,000, down almost 20,000 in a year. In Scotland, membership has dropped by 14% since 2014. Yet the number of courses – more than 2,000 – is relatively stable.

Hollingbury, which opened in 1908, is not exclusive. “It’s for working-class people,” Garrioch says. “We’ve got taxi drivers, builders … there’s nothing elite about it.” Yet perceptions fuelled the debate about the role of courses in lockdown. “I think a certain US president has done golf no favours,” says Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner and the author of Who Owns England?. For Shrubsole, Donald Trump – and the eponymous courses on which he has played out a large part of his presidency – exemplifies the image of golf as a gated, gilded pursuit.

In early April, when many councils threatened to shut the gates of crowded parks, Shrubsole launched a petition at change.org calling for golf courses to be opened. More than 7,500 people signed it. Lockdown was highlighting space inequality; studies show that people in poorer postcodes not only have smaller gardens, or none at all, but also less access to smaller parks.

Waterhall golf course

Pushing open the gates of golf courses began to feel like a moral imperative. “There’s a sense that golf is played by a small number of people and that they are potentially quite wealthy, retired, white men who don’t necessarily represent society,” Shrubsole says.

It is not known how many courses opened to the public. It was a fraught process for many that did. “We had nudity on the greens and kids riding bikes straight over the bunkers,” Garrioch says. Elsewhere, there were reports of quad biking, horse riding and rampant picnicking. One couple were spotted playing a rather different sport in a bunker at Glenbervie golf club near Falkirk in central Scotland. “This isn’t Butlin’s,” an anonymous member of the club told the Daily Record. “It’s frustrating that members aren’t even allowed to get their daily exercise by playing a round on their own in the fresh air, yet you’ve got locals having sex in the bunkers. Where’s the social distancing in that?”

But for the responsible majority, including Henson, Spryanova and their families, the overnight arrival of new parks was a revelation. “I wanted to shift debate and say there was something deeper going on here – this was about our exclusion from public space and our inability to provide enough of it,” Shrubsole says.

That debate was big in Brighton before the pandemic. Ten-year management contracts at Hollingbury and Waterhall were due to expire on 31 March. “It came up at pretty much my first committee meeting last year,” says Marianna Ebel, a German-born IT engineer who was elected as a Green party councillor for Goldsmid ward in May 2019.

Kim Greaves, an amateur naturalist, is part of the campaign to restore Waterhall

Brexit inspired Ebel, 35, to enter local politics. She is now the joint chair of the council’s tourism, equalities, communities and culture committee, so council-owned golf courses are her responsibility. For a while, it was assumed a new operator would simply take over the leases. “But I remember looking at the membership numbers,” Ebel says. “I thought: ‘Instead of continuing, how about rewilding the courses?'”

In October, the council appointed an estate agent to market the courses, offering 25-year management leases. But they also invited bids for other uses, including projects to restore the wildlife-rich chalk grassland on which the courses were laid.

“We simply cannot miss this exciting opportunity to create a health & wellbeing sanctuary and a wildlife haven for all,” read a petition launched in late December by the Brighton branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the environmental campaign group. Counter-petitions called for golf to be saved. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat councillors pushed for the space to be used for affordable housing.

More than 5,000 people signed the rewilding petition, including Chris Packham, the presenter and campaigner. In January, XR Brighton held a protest outside a committee meeting. They marched on Hollingbury. “We’re not anti-golf,” insists Ben Benatt, an ecology surveyor and XR member. “It’s about a sustainable solution that addresses the climate and biodiversity emergency.”

In January, the council awarded a new contract for Hollingbury, securing its future as a golf course. It was a blow to campaigners and the families who had roamed the course. But the council also announced that Waterhall, where membership was in steeper decline, would shut down for a rare experiment: the rewilding of a golf course.

“They call chalk grassland rainforests in miniature,” says Kim Greaves, as we crouch low on the first green at Waterhall. The 37-year-old played here briefly as a teenager. These days, he works with adults with learning disabilities and teaches Brazilian jujitsu, a martial art that relies on skilful leverage. He is also an amateur naturalist and part of the campaign to restore Waterhall.

Waterhall is already providing a home to flora and fauna including common blue butterflies, adders, devil's-bit scabious and fox moths

Golfers abandoned the course when lockdown stopped play just seven days before the old lease expired. It had stood here since 1923. Six months later, the greens are cracking up. Daisies and ragwort are growing and the old holes and bunkers are filling with soil and debris.

The clubhouse, which sits just above the first green, has sweeping downland views. There is one proposal to move the building towards a rugby club, where dog walkers now park to enjoy the old course, and turn it into an education centre. For now, it is a symbol of a lost era. Abandoned trophies left in the window of the Spike Bar collect dust next to a golf glove, on which a large bumblebee has expired.

The very thin layer of soil that covers chalk in valleys across the south-east of England – the result of centuries of grazing – lets rain drain straight through it. Nutrients are scant, so dominant grasses, and the shrubs and trees that would succeed them, tend not to do well. Instead, an array of resilient wildflowers cling to the earth, supporting rare species of butterfly and birds.

Diversity on the old greens is still low; it will take years for the effects of mowing and pesticides to be flushed out. But Greaves wants to show me what is happening on the fringes of the fairways. Wildflowers with evocative names – betony, harebell, devil’s-bit scabious, lady’s bedstraw – are creeping in from the rough.

“I even saw a round-headed rampion in the middle of the fairway,” Greaves says of a survey he did in the summer. “It might have been there without flowering for decades.” The delicate blue flower, also known as the Pride of Sussex, is a magnet for the chalkhill blue butterfly.

Rewilding here will require management. Without any intervention, ecological succession will do its thing, even on thin soil. Last month, the council took responsibility for the project after a leaseholder pulled out. Greaves is anxious to start controlling the hawthorn that is already dominating areas between fairways. In other ecosystems, big fauna would do this kind of work. “Perhaps we’ll introduce elephants here eventually,” Greaves says with a smile.

Wildflowers on Waterhall golf course include harebells (pictured), lady's bedstraw and betony

Golf still offers pleasure and exercise to hundreds of thousands of people. Many clubs enjoyed a growth in visitor numbers when they reopened in June; golf is nothing if not a socially distanced sport. Even XR Brighton says a sensitively managed links is far from the worst way to preserve green space, “especially if it brings a revenue stream that can help manage it in the right way”, Benatt says.

Housing can be an obvious – and lucrative – alternative, especially when privately owned courses can rescue their finances with a sale to developers. Reading golf club, another old, struggling course, will next year merge with Caversham Heath, a club two miles to the west. A controversial housing development will take its place.

But Waterhall’s fate adds weight to campaigns for old courses to remain green yet public, making permanent the freedom that excluded communities briefly enjoyed this year. Four years ago, Lewisham council closed a municipal 18-hole golf course that had occupied an old Georgian estate in Beckenham, south-east London. It is now a public park with a restored lake for swimming and boating. “It shows what local campaigns can do,” Shrubsole says.

It will take time for balance to be restored at Hollingbury. Today, walkers and joggers outnumber golfers by far. “It’s just getting ridiculous,” says Brian Coomber, a club member who is looking for his ball in the rough next to the 10th fairway. He says people have been using the footpaths way more since golf resumed, interrupting play and messing up the fairways. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a dog myself, but at the end of the day this isn’t common land,” he says. His friend, Dave Slocombe, nods in agreement. Days later, the men leave Hollingbury to join East Brighton golf club, which is only three miles away.

Henson and Spryanova still walk on Hollingbury, where Spryanova says a few comments from golfers have made her children feel uncomfortable on their walk to school. Lockdown inspired Henson’s art. She made videos of the course, in which images of cartwheeling children fade into more recent footage of golf. Birds sing in the background. As we stand at the hillfort, taking in the sweep of Brighton, she can still picture those weeks. “At sunset, everyone would have been sitting here looking west, each little group taking a mound,” she says. “It looked a bit like a very spaced out village green.”

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