No sign of water, but there’s a lot of it

Neville Johnsonin Golf

There is a golf club like no other that has London's 21st century skyline as a backdrop. It was the golfing 'birthplace' of one of this country's greatest ever golfers and it has a multi-million gallon water hazard without penalty. Neville Johnson sought it out to learn more.

Nine holes, par 66. Sounds easy enough. Just a routine small course? You couldn't be further from the truth. As soon as you step inside this walled, green oasis in otherwise indistinguishable south-east London suburbia that is Honor Oak you feel properly outdoors, and there's a golfing challenge in front of you that only the word 'unique' can describe.

I'm here at the invitation of Head Greenkeeper Jack Percival, who introduces me to the Secretary of the Aquarius Golf Club Jim Halliday and its Greens Chairman Derek Hunter, both of them volunteers and representing another uniqueness of a club which began a year before the First World War. This golf club is run by volunteers. Without them, it wouldn't exist let alone thrive. But thrive it does with a membership of 180 and rising. Only Jack and a couple of part-time bar staff are on the payroll.

The golf club is a tight ship, but it sails very well, and to continue the analogy - though Aquarius is actually an air sign - water is its bedrock as Jim explains.

"The course was built in 1913 on top of an operational water reservoir which, these days, belongs to Thames Water. The water hazards on this course are the concrete access points to it. There is a one-ton weight limit to the 'roof' of the reservoir, which limits maintenance work on large areas of fairway.

"The reservoir was originally completed in 1909 and the then owners, The Vauxhall and Southwark Water Company, decided in 1912 to have a sports club on the site to make recreational use of the above ground green space. Months later, professional golfer James Riddell designed a golf course that remains substantially as you see it today."

Left: Club Secretary Jim Halliday (left) and Greens Chairman Derek Hunter with the 100 year-old reservoir pump house and the 5th green in the background, and right: The BBC's Peter Alliss in the clubhouse with Jack Percival

The club was run by successive water companies until the 1960s, and into the early 1970s by Thames Water employees.

In 1981, Thames Water wanted to hand over club responsibilities and have some sort of management committee set up to keep it going. A constitution was drawn up and, from then on, the active running of the club has been conducted entirely by local volunteers.

Greens Chairman Derek Hunter came to the Aquarius to play a bit of golf in his spare time, but soon after he got the volunteering bug when there was an invitation to help out with renovations to the greens and tees. He reckons he's played just half a dozen or so rounds in the past year.

"If I'd practised all the hours volunteering I've done, I'd be a scratch golfer. But that's the real fun of the Aquarius and its unique appeal. The voluntary nature of the club is what makes it so special," said Derek.

"We're not in the same league as the vast majority of private golf clubs, with their well-financed resources and equipment. The only way we can hold membership levels and attract a wide range of people to play golf here is to keep the running costs as low as possible, so we can keep the fees as low as possible. It's the community spirit that keeps us going, carries us forward."

Valve House to Honor Oak Pumping Station

"Local demographics have changed substantially in recent years and there are lots of young working professionals wanting a golf club on their doorstep."

Jim Halliday has been Secretary at the Aquarius since 2001, in his spare time when in BT management and now in retirement. A big achievement of his in building up club membership was to take it through the Investors in Volunteers process, making the Aquarius the first golf club - if not sports club - to achieve this status. Quite a feather in Jim's and the club's cap is that the English Golf Union now uses Aquarius documentation in respect of the award as a template to encourage other clubs to achieve it.

The most recent example of volunteering zeal was when the supporting floor beams in the clubhouse required urgent repair. Six club members with suitable professional skills stepped forward and put things right in a week. Two of them even gave up their day job to come and help. It's clearly quite normal for Aquarius members to chip in when the chips are down.

Thames Water is the club's landlord. It is very much a working site, so occasionally there are issues that affect play and course maintenance. In his time, the course has twice had to be dug up to replace a vital section of reservoir membrane, Jim Halliday recalls.

"Occasional smaller scale excavation for reservoir maintenance has to be accepted as a hazard of life at the Aquarius," he said.

This brings us to the subject of looking after the course itself, and Jack Percival's part in things.

Jack has been at the club since September last year. Previously, he was at Addington Palace Golf Club as a mechanic and Purley Downs Golf Club before that. He first came to the Aquarius to offer mechanics know-how to renovation work, and it was his knowledge of course upkeep and enthusiasm for the special challenges here that brought the offer of a full-time job looking after the playing surface.

Left: Aquarius Head Greenkeeper Jack Percival, and right: Volunteer fairway cutter Eric Wildego

All work is done in-house, and Jack is never short of volunteers. He does admit though that his weekly job planning nearly always has to adapt to their availability. He can pretty much count on six regulars, most notably 86-year old Eric Wildego, who cuts the fairways every single day and been doing so for the past twenty-five years.

"They just wind me up and let me go," Eric said wryly. Seeing him later, skillfully making neat work of the sloping grassed roof of the reservoir shows it is far from a mechanical operation.

Jack is hampered in the care of much of the course fairways because of restrictions in the use of chemicals. The risk of leakage into mains water simply cannot be taken. He is setting about making the course entirely organic and is already getting over the 'no chemicals' restriction by spraying with compost tea, which he gets from Symbio. He and Derek spray the course twice a week using knapsack sprayers.

As far as the nine greens are concerned, he dresses all of them by hand and, in the first week of September alone, had put down twenty tonnes by shovel!

There are three different ages of green at the club. Two are just eight years old, three were re-built in 2003, and the remaining four date right back to 1913. Putting surface consistency is a challenge for the golfers and, of course, Jack too. The second green, for example, just sits on a clay bowl and is a particular problem.

Left: Tees near the clubhouse. The Shard on the skyline makes a useful target for driving, say members. Just remember to avoid all those concrete reservoir access points!, and right: pump house and fairway

Jack is trying gradually to evolve all of the greens to a mixture of bent and fescue in order to achieve a decent consistency for play and maintenance purposes. Bit by bit, he is making an effort to change the soil content of the clay greens (like the 2nd) by 'digging' holes and brushing in the sand dressing by hand. He knows it won't work overnight and it will take him a couple of years to be able to grow the same grass species successfully on all greens. He's on the case, and Aquarius golfers say the greens are already so much better than they were.

The fairways on the reservoir surface area are on generally poor soil and twice in recent times, in 1990 and 2001, the whole area had to be stripped and put back by Thames Water. Soil depth is actually just eighteen inches or so.

A particular problem Jack has on the fairways that's a direct consequence of the reservoir beneath is the abundance of daisies in spring. "It looks like snow sometimes," he says.

"We cannot use herbicide, so our only course of action is to mow them out. It sounds amusing, but it can make spotting a golf ball quite difficult."

A visual inspection of the reservoir slope is carried out two or three times a week by Thames Water to see that there is no untoward movement. A regularly cut golf course makes this task easier and, in reality, without the existence of the Aquarius the company would have to pay to have the whole area constantly kept trim. Club volunteers do the job for them.

Every one who joins the club is made well aware of its unusual nature and challenges. Jim Halliday takes every prospective member around the whole 9-hole course by way of a health and safety induction.

"Now and again you might drive off either the first, fifth or seventh tee at the top end of the course only to find, when you get near the green, a couple of men in white boiler suits digging a hole. It's not a daily occurrence, but it is a something our members now and again have to accept," said Jim.

This summer, a 39-inch main, responsible for supplying over 50,000 homes, sprang a leak, which showed itself as a bubbling mass of surface water on the fourth fairway. Within an hour, it was cordoned off and diggers were in position to tackle it. Reinstatement is a recurring issue, and the club deals with the smaller ones itself. A while ago, however, two greens were affected by leak repair work and Thames Water paid for complete replacements. The course is a feast, but it can be a moveable one, which is another aspect of its uniqueness.

Left: Henry Cotton putting at the Aquarius in the 1950s, and right: A fifteen year-old Henry Cotton (left) with his elder brother Lesley

The club doesn't have a lot of resources, but it's far from hand to mouth. The volunteer management and Jack Percival do what is sensible and practical to meet all the needs using whatever contacts they have and whatever is volunteered by the membership. For example, galvanised tee-markers for each of the holes are made by a club member, who happens to work in a metal factory.

The formidable Henry Cotton, one of Britain's greatest ever golfers, started playing golf at the Aquarius when he was twelve years old, not long after the First World War. It was on the course that he honed his natural schoolboy talent for the game and won the first of many titles. In 1923, he was one of the early winners of the Hutchins Trophy, named after the Chairman of the Vauxhall and Southwark Water Company, which built the reservoir and started the golf club.

Back in 2008, Jim took this and other Henry Cotton trophies and books relating to his time as a player at the Aquarius (owned by club) along to BBC's Antiques Roadshow when it was filmed at the nearby Dulwich Gallery. Archive footage shows the club secretary on screen talking about the Henry Cotton memorabilia which, at that time, was valued at £6-8,000.

Jim Halliday with Henry Cotton memorabilia on the BBC Antiques Roadshow in 2008

Henry Cotton went on to win the British Open three times, in 1934, 1937 and 1948. His legendary appeal goes on and is a proud part of the Aquarius history. Earlier this year, golf broadcaster Peter Alliss visited the club, and particularly asked to see the club books with Henry Cotton's scores in them.

The club has an excellent on-going working relationship with Thames Water, whose engineers are on site almost daily for routine maintenance work, but there is no formal reporting procedure with the company in respect of how they conduct golf club matters or look after the course.

Thames Water and the Aquarius Club are always going to be mutually beneficial to one another. Secure and private golf for the tenant golf club on the one hand: a landlord's responsibility for an open green space satisfied by having it kept in good order for them on the other.

For health and safety reasons alone, Thames Water do not want external workmen coming on to a jungle to carry out maintenance tasks, and it has the dawn to dusk security patrol of club members and its volunteers. For Aquarius golfers it's a small and quirky price to pay, and gives a round an extra element of surprise.

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