Playing Through England’s Lake District
The North Country of England, which sprawls across rolling green pastures dotted with small cottages and large families, cuts a wide swath through the heart of Britain. Scotland hovers above the region, while Wales grabs at its feet. Thick, lush grasses and conquerable mountains appeal equally to both sheep and city dwellers. It’s nature’s version of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The area is at once quirky and cosmopolitan, trendy and traditional. A seven-hour flight from the United States to Manchester plops you down in the center of this compact region, where you can easily tour the best of the Lake District, play some spectacular golf courses, and marvel at how once-industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool have transformed themselves into white-hot urban playgrounds. Although you can hop a quick flight from Dallas or Houston to London on several airlines, BMI Airlines makes the journey across the pond particularly easy.
They land directly in Manchester, which saves a long drive or another flight.
Within a couple of hours of landing in Manchester, you can touch stones laid down by Romans 2,000 years ago in the town of Chester. Or you can stroll among the cutting-edge architecture and cityscape of a reborn Manchester city center, alive with sidewalk cafes, artsy boutiques, modern museums and endless blocks of upscale shopping. The downtown vibrates with newfound wealth and energy, populated by young white-collar workers and financiers who bask in the popularity and economic impact of Manchester United’s famed football team and the city’s renaissance. It’s nearly impossible to stroll through the designer boutiques of the West End or St. Anne’s Square without stumbling into one of the football players shopping with their girlfriends or wives. And on a game day, you won’t find a ticket into a United match in their Old Trafford Stadium, but popping into any pub might be the auditory equivalent.
Manchester has rugby, Liverpool has the Beatles and the 2006 British Open Championship. Just outside the city limits, in the town of Hoylake, lies Royal Liverpool Golf Club, one of the three Royals and the site of the first match between American and British amateurs – now known as the Walker Cup. On this same course, Bobby Jones captured the 1930 Open’s Claret Jug on his way to his Grand Slam. A year later, Frank Stableford, a local surgeon, invented and introduced his scoring system at nearby Wallasey Golf Club.
Like the British Open, Liverpool is steeped in golf, and Royal Liverpool Golf Club is its star.
Teeing up on the first hole, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. The course appears flat, dull and unappealing from an architectural standpoint. But when your opening drive (into the wind, naturally) scrapes perilously close to out-of-bounds – which lines both sides of the fairway – you’ll see why this traditional links layout on the edge of the River Dee remains a classic. The greens are fast, large and contoured, which favors the long running approach shot played on the ground rather than the lofted wedge approach ubiquitous in the States.
Golf carts aren’t a normal component of the golf experience in the U.K., so be prepared to walk. You’ll either carry your bag or roll it on a trolley you rent at the pro shop of almost any club.
Although access to hallowed greens and securing a tee time at a Royal course might seem daunting, the reality is that virtually all private courses in the U.K. (and most of the golf courses are private), including the Royals, permit visitors to pay a modest greens fee and play the course. A brief correspondence with the course’s Secretary via e-mail is usually all that is required.
Royal Liverpool isn’t the only course you’ll want to play in the area. Nearby is Carden Park, the home to the De Vere PGA Senior Championship. Jack Nicklaus designed one of the two 18-hole courses at the 750-acre Carden Park Resort, which has a stately old hotel replete with a grand dining room, tired bedding and equally exhausted couches in the lobby.
The Cheshire course is parkland in style, rolling and hilly, and the Nicklaus U.K. layout resembles a Nicklaus U.S. track. Both the Cheshire and Nicklaus courses are worthy of a golf outing. Check out the incomparable views of the Welsh countryside from the finishing holes on Cheshire.
Back up in the Lake District, a couple of hours drive from Liverpool, it’s no coincidence that the pace of life slows to the cadence of a William Wordsworth poem. Wordsworth and children’s author Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) both were drawn to the area’s tranquility. Two-lane roads lace across the valleys and twist beside thousands of miles of three-foot-high stonewalls hundreds of years old, each rock tightly stacked upon the other without the use of mortar. It’s in the undulating foothills of the Lake District that you’ll find two gems, both representative of the fine quality of golf in the region.
Windermere Golf Club carpets a rolling, forested valley and feels as natural and grounded as its 114 years of age would suggest. In a couple of months, Windermere will have completed a multi-million dollar refurbishment of the course, including replacing all of its greens and much of its 5,132 yards of fairway.
You won’t encounter a sand bunker on the entire course, but elevation changes, sloped fairways, heather, bracken, trees and water will force you to think your way around the track. The course is tight and immaculately conditioned, and its members eagerly welcome American visitors.
Barney Cunliffe is a longtime member of Windermere Golf Club. With his family, Cunliffe owns and operates Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel, a cozy 15-bedroom hotel fashioned from his great-grandmother’s original estate home, just up the road from Windermere. It’s hard to imagine an award-winning restaurant taking root on this rural stretch of road, but the local lamb, venison and cheeses from the area make easy work for Gilpin Lodge’s chef. Oak logs crackle and pop in each room’s fireplace, making sleep come easy in this elegant manor house.
Cunliffe and John Tattersall, another Windermere member, describe their course as a local version of Scotland’s Gleneagles, and it’s easy to see why. Don’t dream of visiting the Lake District without playing Windermere or staying at Gilpin Lodge.
A few miles up the road from Windermere is Ulverston Golf Club, which feels equally grounded. Another centenarian, Ulverston sits high above Morecambe Bay, more parkland than links in layout but equally charming and a good test of golf. Low clouds roll in from the bay as a mix of light rain and sun washes over the valley. From the 17th tee box, it’s a 30-foot climb to the fairway. But once you’ve hiked to the green, you’re rewarded with expansive views of nearby Ireland, Liverpool and Wales across the bay.
The English love the peace and tranquility of golf, yet they seem hopelessly preoccupied with the idea of facing some element of danger. It’s not unusual to find yourself navigating rickety stairs or low ceilings marked with signs admonishing you to “mind your head” or “watch your step.” Add to that this message spotted on a sign near one fairway: “Danger, Golf in Progress.”
Whether you’re in the States or in England’s remote North Country, golf remains a game of risks and rewards.