As a golfer myself, I have, over the years, heard tales of this special place called Llanymynech, set on 'The Hill' as it is affectionately known, but had never been to see for myself just what the fascination was. So, when Pitchcare invited me to spend some time with Course Manager, Allen Lewis, to find out just what it is that has held his affection for so much of his lifetime, I jumped at the opportunity. Welcome to Llanymynech Golf club, the jewel in the Welsh and English borderlands.
Fortunately, the day that Allen and I agreed to meet was one of those glorious blue sky, late autumn ones. I have to confess that, on arrival at the car park via the narrow lane that leads up to the traditional club house, for this 6,968 yard Par 70, the very first thing I did was get out of my car to photograph some of the wonderful views you get to enjoy from all parts of the course.
Sitting in his office and enjoying a mug of tea with his three assistants - the team consists of Alan Evans, James Hampson and Alan's son Mathew, all keen golfers, and qualified to NVQ Level 3 - during their morning break, we chatted about all things golf, and I began to find out more about his love for the club and just why and how it has held him there for so long.
"I was a junior member here and lived just a few miles from the course, so I suppose you could say that I have grown up alongside it and with it," comments Allen. "When the opportunity arose in 1972, at just fifteen years of age and straight from school, to become one of two greenkeepers, I guess I was attracted by the chance to care for and maintain the course where I played my own golf. I then went on to be appointed Course Manager in 1975."
One of the oldest hill fort sites in Wales, a site for copper mining since Roman times and now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), golf has been played on the one hundred and sixty acre limestone plateau for over one hundred years. But, in 1931, the then Oswestry Golf Club moved to a new site at Aston Park and the course, for a two year period, fell into disrepair.
In 1933, in the form of a £400 guarantee, an attempt was made by a small group to re-establish the playing of golf on The Hill. The nine-hole Llanymynech Golf Club grew in popularity, in spite of a dip during the Second World War, and, in 1963, the number of holes was increased to twelve. By 1968 fifteen were open, and the full eighteen became a reality in May 1971, when the present 4th, 5th and 6th were declared open on FA Cup Final day.
The stunning views from different vantage points around the course, which at its highest point reaches 740 feet above sea level, take in both the relatively flat English Landscape and the mountain ranges and valleys of Wales.
"To play golf on an SSSI site, in this particular location, is pretty special, but it can make the greenkeeper's art quite difficult," explained Allen. "The substrate on Llanymynech Hill is a mixture of limestone rock and clay, which sets us a number of problems, ranging from water retention in some areas of the course to virtually no grass growth in others where thin soil cover and prevailing winds have an impact. My team and I pride ourselves on the limited number of days play lost to course closure over the years, but I do think the climate changes experienced more recently, in the form of much colder and longer winters, present us with a host of new challenges in the future."
"One of the big decisions we took, with regard to course changes, was ten years ago when we replaced all eighteen greens. We were suffering from poor drainage and, as a consequence, pooling, resulting in greens that were generally too soft, particularly over the winter months. As we took the decision to carry out the work in-house, it was a big project for such a small team, representing a cost to the club of £200,000. We ultimately decide to replace the existing turf as opposed to re-seeding and, as a result of that work, the greens here have improved consistently year on year."
"Our only course irrigation system is that serving the greens, installed by North Staffs Irrigation and opened on President's day in 1979. We did, at the time, manage to secure a Welsh Development Agency grant of £6,000 towards the total cost of £17,000."
"The changes we are experiencing to our particular microclimate have resulted in events like November 2010, when we experienced a high average monthly temperature of 8.5OC. This was followed by snow and frost, resulting in no golf being played for about two months. Our annual rainfall figures have also fluctuated in recent years with a reduction, to date, in the 2011 figure, to around 11.5 inches when records show that we have been more accustomed to a figure of around 29 inches!"
"Another example is May this year, when temperatures ranged from 15OC to 20OC during daylight hours and fell to as low as minus 1OOC overnight. Last winter, for the first time, we even experienced snow mould on the greens as a result of snow falling on moist greens and the snow blanket producing the warm conditions required to produce the fungi."
"Our exposed location does mean we are a little on the cautious side where cut heights around the course are concerned. As a rule of thumb, with the greens, we work on the basis of 4.5-5mm through spring, moving down to 2.5-3mm as growth kicks in and through the summer months. From October we will revert back to 4.5-5mm. On tees we maintain at 12.5-13mm and, on fairways, because of the lie of the land, we stick to around 16-18mm area."
"Our location on The Hill does mean that we always get growth later in the year than surrounding lower level courses anyway. Other issues we have had to cope with over the years have included foot and mouth outbreaks, most recently in 2002, and damage to greens caused by vandals, when a toxic substance was scattered on the 4th, 5th, 6th and 15th greens. We also suffer from rabbit and badger damage, but the sheep left The Hill at the end of the 1970s when the club purchased the historical grazing rights. I do love to see the buzzards hovering over the course."
"I think it is fair to say that climate change and global warming will continue to affect the way we greenkeepers maintain our courses. I have kept a daily diary for the past thirty years and the changes in our approach here have been quite radical over the intervening years. Our location does dictate that, whilst we have a basic maintenance plan, we do have to be very flexible within the structure, and be able to react to particular conditions and changes in weather patterns as and when they occur."
"Whilst Llanymynech can certainly be described as a natural golfing environment, we do have to use fertilisers and nutrients. Where the greens are concerned we apply granules early in the season to kick-start growth, and every three to four weeks throughout the summer we apply in liquid form, which means we don't have to wash-in, saving on valuable water usage. Periodically, we also make use of wetting agents and iron. Additionally, although the course sits on a very exposed location, we do suffer from disease where the dew lies. Here we selectively apply a fungicide. As far as the fairways are concerned, we spray with liquid weed and feed in the spring."
"On the nature conservation front, we currently have around one hundred and thirty different moth and butterfly species, and one condition we have to adhere to is to maintain all south facing banked areas as suitable habitation for them. We also have a Great Crested Newt population which must be protected. A two acre area has recently been fenced off and designated for wild life habitation."
"Our SSSI status also demands that we have to get approval from CADW (Conservation and Development of Wales) for any form of excavation works, including any tree planting we may wish to carry out. The cost for use of a CADW archaeologist's time is currently £350 per day. This restriction had a big impact on the club in 1995 when we began construction of the greenkeepers' facility we are sitting in now, to replace the old wooden structure. A skeleton, thought to be that of child, and flint dating back to 2000BC, was unearthed, resulting in CADW putting a stop on all work for over two months, along with archaeologist fees of £4,000 on top of the original budgeted cost."
Allen is a keen golfer himself, playing off a handicap of four, and is also the current course record holder, breaking the record previously held by a certain Ian Woosnam, with a gross sixty four, net sixty. Woosie, like Allen, was also a past junior member of Llanymynech, coached by long standing club professional, Stuart Penrose. "Being a golfer myself, I think I understand how to set up and maintain a course to please both members and visitors. We do also offer buggies, as certain parts of the course are quite steep and, whilst they can do some surface damage, we try to give the golfer the best experience possible."
On the equipment front, Llanymynech, like all forward thinking golf clubs, has moved with the times regarding the quantity and quality of their kit. "We used to hand mow the greens here," says Allen, "but now we use a John Deere 2500E greens mower E-Cut hybrid model. We also have a Graden scarifying and sand injection system to rip any thatch out and inject sand into grooves up to 40mm deep. It certainly helps us to achieve firmer winter greens. For our fairways, we have moved from a gang mower and tractor combination to a dedicated John Deere 8700 fairway mower, complete with cab, which handles our fairway undulations extremely well and is a real plus for the staff on days when there is a cold blow across The Hill."
"I am a John Deere enthusiast and our previous local dealer recently lost the franchise. Fortunately, Charlies in Welshpool took it on and, whilst I was a little wary of using them at first, as a turf machinery dealership is a new venture for them, I have to say that things have, so far, gone without a hitch. All our equipment with Charlies is on a three year contract hire agreement, which helps us control cost and means we are also working with reliable kit."
Following our chat, Allen takes me for a buggy tour of the stunning course, mentioning as we set off, that they have recently completed the fifteen year mortgaged purchase of the club from the Lafarge Group, currently have around 575 full members and a thriving junior section of 85.
To demonstrate just that point, an early stop-off for us is at the recently completed six hole junior development course, complete with covered driving bay, funded by money from the Ryder Cup Development programme kitty.
As we drive from hole to hole it becomes very apparent that he has a real affinity with, and affection, for the course. He knows every square inch of the place and can recall what work was carried out where, when and why. Our next stop is the tee at the fourth green which may be unique in as much as the golfer gets to tee off in Wales and putt out in England. The 5th and 6th holes keep you in England before the 7th takes you back into Wales.
On we go taking in the most amazing views of the English and Welsh landscapes, from some very lofty locations, with Allen telling me that, before the boundary changes it was possible to see nine different counties from the one position.
When I leave the course, after one of the most pleasurable experiences I have had on a golf course without actually playing, I am left with memories of a very special place to play golf, and a man who was lucky enough to find exactly the right place for him to earn a living. Oh, and by the way, for all you golfers out there, the answer to the question "do they play golf in heaven?" Yes, they do, and its on Llanymynech Hill.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 2500E Greens Mower
John Deere 2500 Cylinder Mower
John Deere 2653 Trim Mower
John Deere 8700 Fairway Mower with cab
John Deere 4100 Compact utility tractor
John Deere 1445 Series out-front Rotary mower
Massey Ferguson 230 Tractor
Izeki Tractor with Lewis front-end loader
Ryan Pedestrian scarifiers x 2
Greentech verticut and scarifying units x 2
John Deere Gator
Ransomes Jacobsen pedestrian greens mower
John Deere Aercore Aerator
Sisis Slitters x 2
Proseeder and topdresser
Assortment of strimmers
Various hand tools