There's a destination to die for in the Cheshire countryside - with just a little golf on the side, as Greg Rhodes discovers.
If you've tended the golfing turf at Gleneagles, you expect to work to exacting standards of greenkeeping. Peter Pattenden is privileged to have done just that and has been applying his experience and team management skills learnt there at an equally expansive golfing destination nestling between the open landscapes of the Cheshire plain and the rugged Welsh hills.
Carden Park is a rural sport and leisure destination that includes a 198-executive room high-end hotel, award-winning spa, sauna, gym, indoor swimming pool, and two 18-hole championship golf courses, the Cheshire and the Nicklaus, in England's Top 100, contrasting in their concept and design.
A 1,000-acre estate merits a grand approach and Carden Park is no exception. A one mile drive adds both an air of seclusion and builds expectation of what lies at the end of it.
Back in the 1980s and '90s, De Vere Hotels was one of the largest golf operators in the country and included some magnificent estates in its portfolio, including Carden Park which it later sold in 2006.
Today, the estate is being further developed under its present owner, who has reintroduced one or two of its finest, formerly forgotten, features and elevated the estate to a higher level of leisure provision, as the growing tally of awards confirms.
Carden Park's luxury golf breaks include time relaxing in candlelit treatment areas within the high-end spa, workouts in the fully-specified gym, a refreshing swim in the 20m indoor pool or an invigorating session in the hydrotherapy pool and sauna and steam experiences.
Tennis is on offer too. "We treat our two hard courts with algaecide, powerbrush them every six to eight weeks and paint them every season," says Peter.
Carden Park includes football among its wide-ranging provision. Training facilities can be hard to come by and Carden's sole surface has played host to some high-ranking guests, Peter discloses.
"Full-size, FA specified, the pitch has seen La Liga's Real Betis, Bulgaria's PFC Ludogorets Razgrad and Italy's Genoa all training here before European games, whilst Sheffield Wednesday came for pre-season training when their own facilities were being renovated, whilst Wrexham and Preston North End squads have also played here," he reveals.
Living on site is the dream of many a greenkeeper and those that do remark on how uplifting it can be to walk out of your home in the morning greeted by birdsong, fine views and manicured acres, without the intrusion of noise, traffic and transport delays.
Peter lives on the estate in "a lovely house I feel privileged to live in," he says of his period home, "and beautiful surroundings - something really special."
Peter spent his apprenticeship at Gleneagles between 1992 and 1996, before moving to Bonnyton Golf Club, East Kilbride, where he was deputy head greenkeeper for three years.
In 1999, he returned to Gleneagles as head greenkeeper of the PGA Centenary course. "I was born and bred nearby, so it was a natural move back there for me," Peter recalls.
Perhaps 'the seven-year itch' kicked in because he decided to move south of the border to Carden Park in 2006, the year that owner De Vere Hotels was sold and the estate passed into new hands.
"When the position of Golf Courses and Carden Estate Manager came up, I didn't hesitate."
A place like Carden Park can wrap you in a sense of security that must be hard to resist. "I have everything I need here. When I go out, it's into a beautiful setting that many would love to work within."
Both of Carden Park's 18-hole courses are said to pose a unique round, "with some excellent hazards and tight fairways to navigate through".
Left: The Cheshire 18th tee
Superb short game facilities - a new par 3 chipping area to the rear of the clubhouse has been added recently - are available for warming up before teeing off, as is the 21-bay single-tier driving range. A swing bay and fitting centre is taking shape too.
"Both courses are still in their youth and it's awesome to watch them maturing year on year," says Peter, "like seeing the changes to the tree plantation on the Nicklaus course."
Both present different experiences, he adds, the two loops of golf on the Cheshire contrast with straight play on the Nicklaus.
"They're so long though, and not only challenge golfers but also the greens team as they are extremely labour intensive. Fairways typically stretch to 500 yards and 100m wide, with hundreds of bunkers scattered across them - and of course we're cutting right through the winter months now because of the longer growing season, which adds to the workload."
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018, the Cheshire course was originally designed by John Higgins in 1993 at 6,824 yards. "Constructed on free-draining substrate, the course rarely if ever closes due to waterlogging," Peter explains.
The Cheshire 18th tee
"The layout has changed over time," he continues, "and major improvements put in place since opening include the permanently surfaced cart path, recently constructed under a £400,000 project."
Buggies can leave their mark on approaches and fairways - Carden's plan was to minimise the potential for turf damage by laying metalled trackways specifically for the purpose, bearing in mind the number of E-Z-GO carts plying the courses. "We run one of the country's largest fleets," Peter announces, "62 lithium battery-powered golf carts on lease, plus two six-seaters for transporting guests."
For many sports sites across Britain, 2018 was a year to remember, for all the wrong reasons. Carden couldn't escape the ravages of the weather.
"Last year's drought really affected the Cheshire, Peter recalls, "and we struggled to irrigate it off the mains. Every morning at 3.00am we'd be out watering the tees and greens."
Bunkers have come in for major work as Cheshire's original total of 104 is being cut to 64 under a five-year programme, with the remainder renovated.
"Raking, flymoing and daily marker moving was taking so much time out of the day, it was difficult to sustain," says Peter. Time devoted to daily maintenance of greenside bunkers and those on fairways once or twice weekly can mount up, and you have two courses to tackle, each attracting 40,000 to 50,000 rounds a year."
"And we have to keep repairing the bunkers - and the sides of the fairways - that badgers damage in their search for worms and chafer grubs - there are a couple of setts in the grounds."
By the time of its 25th anniversary, the Cheshire had notched up one million rounds. "Among many tournaments held on the course, perhaps the most famed was the Pre-qualifier 1 for the European Tour from 1998 to 2002," Peter says.
Famous faces have pitted their golfing prowess against Carden courses, including footballers Michael Owen and Peter Crouch, comedians Jasper Carrott and Paddy McGuinness, world snooker champion Dennis Taylor and actor Johnny Briggs amongst a host of other celebrities.
Leading majors winner (18) Jack Nicklaus carved a second career for himself designing golf courses, many reflecting The Golden Bear's record of long hitting off the tee. He constructed Carden Park's course in 1998 and, at 7,045 yards, it is a tad longer than the Cheshire.
A tour flagship, the Nicklaus hosted five years of the Senior Open Championship qualifying until 2005.
With USGA specification greens throughout, the Nicklaus has a head start on many private members clubs, but the course poses headaches for Peter and the team in other ways.
"The Nicklaus is a contemporary course," Peter notes, "with heavy tree-lined holes and tighter fairways. We leave it natural, but our biggest challenge is that the course is built on clay and the fairways can become very heavy going. Between 2007 and 2009, I brought in a construction team to work with us installing drainage across the course, costing six-figure sums. Laid at 9m centres, then sand slitted at 45 degrees angle to 2m centres, topdressed over the drain lines to keep them open."
"The greens, bunkers and tees are all drained and storm systems take off the water during heavy rainfall."
Last year, the team renovated 4,500m2 of teeing surface, lifting and levelling over an intensive two-week window, with help from contractor Greentech.
It also signalled a return to a more organic approach. "If you make the plant healthy, it looks after itself," Peter states. "Three or four years ago, we used compost teas and saw such a reduction in disease that we plan to return to them, with several being trialled currently. Bringing them back means we don't need to feed the greens so much in winter, which introduces high risk of disease."
The year-round maintenance workload demands a big team to help Peter master the terrain. He heads a 16-strong team of full-timers, bolstered by another four part-timers when the new season tees off in April.
Left: Jeff Jones
Peter's is no island domain and he relies on two deputy course managers to look after the courses. Both in their roles longer than Peter, they know Carden like the backs of their hands.
Phil I'Anson has been here for seventeen years. "He's a very clever guy, who'd like to be an agronomist, is in charge of our fertiliser calibration programme and completed his diploma in turfgrass science two years ago," says Peter.
At Carden just a year less than Phil is Dougie Neilson. "I first met Dougie as a Gleneagles seasonal greenkeeper. It was a pleasant shock to see a friendly face when I arrived at Carden. He's great at motivating the team to get up and out of the shed in the mornings."
Also one to be mentioned is Jeff Jones. "Still full time at 77, he communicates well with young people, is a first-class stonemason and tackles hard landscaping tasks."
"He has fantastic energy," adds Peter, "and leaps out of bed for the 40-minute drive to work from his home in Holywell. He loves it here. His wife Jill is 25 years younger than him."
Loyalty runs deep within the team. "More than half of the guys have been with me since I arrived. They love working here too. They're a versatile and multi-skilled bunch."
"Five or six new guys have come in on my watch," he adds. "The core of the team is pretty young - mid-twenties."
It comes as no surprise to learn too of the turnover of kit at Carden Park, given the huge acreage under Peter's care.
"We introduce new machinery every year on a rolling plan," he explains, "mainly Toro, with back-up from Cheshire Turf Machinery, which I've worked with since I came here."
Go with the flow
Climate change is on the lips of many now, usually for negative reasons. The big upside for Carden Park is the wines flowing from the three acres of vineyards that golf club members and hotel guests enjoy.
"It's all consumed on site," says Peter, "nothing is sold anywhere else. Laid in the early 1990s, the terroir delivers consistently high quality vintages - we harvest Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling white and "pink fizz", created using the traditional Champenoise method, used to produce Champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle, not in the vat," Peter adds.
"Estate worker Keith Latham is in charge of cutting the grass between the vines twice a week, whilst also pruning growth from the end of October to early November."
"Grapes are crated on a Monday, loaded and transported to Halfpenny Green Vineyard just outside Wolverhampton, where it is fermented and bottled for us."
Last year's swelteringly hot spell may have severely challenged turfcare across Britain, but Carden Park was enjoying a bumper crop of grapes, Peter reports.
"In 2017, the harvest generated 5,500 bottles - last year that had risen to 15,500.
"The vines grow from a sandy gravelly soil," he explains. "It turned hot in May, with showers and there had been no late frosts, which can knock the flowering back, so conditions came together perfectly to create a great harvest."
"We sell all our own wine in-house - for the 70 to 80 weddings we host every year and in the Vines restaurant, (its name inspired by Carden's viticulture). I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about winemaking - a high point of my time at Carden Park."
Not every grape goes into winemaking. "Our director of spa takes some of the juice, including pips, to use as the basis of certain facial treatments," Peter reveals.
Moving through to next year, 2020 could deliver another landmark for Carden Park. Nominated for World Golf's English Golf Course of the Year Award, the estate promises to reinforce its status as one of the UK's top golfing and leisure destinations. Just rewards for Peter Pattenden and the team working in what is a constantly evolving landscape of sport.
Peter's pick of the holes
"The 18th on the Cheshire, teeing off a sandstone cliff, takes some beating. A beautiful hole."
"The 17th on the Nicklaus - right in front of the hotel. The biggest hitters can make it over the pond. A really nice hole."
What's in the shed
Toro GTX electric utility vehicles x 7
Toro 1000 greens mowers x 6
Toro 3400 greens mowers x 2
Toro 3400, tees and approaches
Toro 3250, tees and approaches
Toro 4100 rough x 2
Pro-Flex 120 and Progress, both tractor mounted
Toro 5610 fairways x 2
Toro 5410, for the football pitch
Toro 3500 Sidewinder for cutting the drive and a 5-a-side pitch
Ventrac 4500Y with different attachments, tough cut deck, contour deck and stump grinder x 2
Toro 5800-D sprayer
Toro Workman with Dakota topdresser, for topdressing tees and greens
Dakota Turf Tender 440 for topdressing fairways and football pitch and topping bunkers with sand
Hardi Zenith 400 sprayer, for spraying the vineyard
Wiedenmann Terra Spike
Wiedenmann Mega Twister for blowing grass and leaves x 2
Smithco Tournament Ultra Roller for rolling greens
Kioti CK35 tractors x 2
TYM T503 tractors x 2
Ford tractors x 2