A dream's come true for a Zimbabwean entrepreneur, who has blended grape cultivation with exclusive golf to create a first for the UK. Greg Rhodes learns more from the estate manager who has witnessed a game-changing transformation in turfcare.
Emperor Julius Caesar imported his wine into Britain from
regions of the Roman Empire blessed with more temperate
Two millennia later, England's weather has warmed - its southern stretches ripe for fruitful cultivation of vines that yield award-winning sparkling wines.
In a quiet corner of West Sussex, vines are sprouting, ready for the first grape harvests in 2022. This vineyard though is springing up in soil once surfaced with fairways, approaches, tees and greens.
Mannings Heath Golf Club and Wine Estate, south of Horsham, features two courses and a vineyard within 500 acres of delightfully undulating countryside.
Acquired by Zimbabwe-born entrepreneur Penny Streeter OBE in 2016, under her mission to develop the UK's first golf and wine estate, Mannings Heath delivers a luxurious destination dream for golfers. Within five years, the wine will start to flow too as part of a thriving enterprise mixing sport, hospitality, fine dining and events.
Within the 100-year old clubhouse, hospitality is already flowing, courtesy of the Benguela Brasserie and wine-tasting in the upgraded Spike Bar hosting themed events, including food pairings with chocolate and cheese, open to the public year-round.
A division of The Benguela Collection, a wine producer and hospitality group begun by Penny in 2013 and operating in the UK and at the edge of South Africa's southern coast, Mannings Heath retains the charm and challenge top players have appreciated for a century and more at tournaments listed on the PGA EuroPro Tour.
Created in the iron-making heart of rural West Sussex, Mannings Heath nestles near historic Hammerpond, its name conjuring up the heritage of foundry heat and industrial endeavour that made this region renowned.
The sweat and toil is long gone; only picturesque ponds remain to attract anglers and wildlife diversity of herons, raptors, grass snakes and adders.
Until the vines were planted, two 18-hole courses covered these acres; the championship par 72, 6,683-yard Waterfall - blending heathland, downland and parkland set amongst swathes of mature deciduous woodland and streams with patchwork fairways - influenced by architect Harry Colt
in 1905 - and the pay and play Kingfisher, opened in 1996, offering a challenging, interesting game, especially if you happen on the wild deer that roam the greens.
The Kingfisher course - now a 9-hole
No sooner had the Waterfall course been laid than the land was seized for agriculture to aid the World War 1 war effort. Conflict impacted again in World War 2 when a Handley Page Halifax bomber crashed on the course on 17 February 1945 - a plaque commemorates the casualties.
The Kingfisher, now a 9-hole, par 36, 3,314 yards, is set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and presents breathtaking, panoramic views over the tree tops and across the South Downs. "The abnormal, quirky design of the greens makes for an exciting round", the club says, completed in under two hours for those pressed for time.
The vineyard, now planted with 54,000 vines, is overseen by
viticulturist Duncan McNeill. The Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot
Meunier grapes are due to be ready to make sparkling wine in 2020,
with the first bottles available in 2023 under total planned
production of 150 tonnes annually.
Industry of another sort once thrived here, when smugglers gathered.
In the late 1740s.The site's Hawkins Pond was scene to the notorious Hawkhurst Gang's most brutal murders, reportedly.
It is also a notable early example of a golf course employing formal trade exchange pricing via its `Town's Section` subscription, where craftsmen worked on the course instead of paying subscriptions.
The Kingfisher course lost nine holes to cultivate the vineyard, plus other changes, including the redesign of several holes and an upgrade of practice facilities to fashion a short game area with two putting greens.
The vineyard 'terroir' rests in the hands of Johann Fourie, appointed in 2016 as Cellar Master for Benguela Cove Wines in South Africa and at Mannings Heath to manage selection of vineyard sites, grow the grapes, plan the wineries and oversee winemaking.
Everything else on the estate comes under the experienced eye of estate manager Giulio Vezza. "My parents came from a small village north of Naples," he reveals before I have a chance to ask the question, "and I'm an absolute nut over Juventus."
Moving on swiftly before a heated discussion ensues over footballing bragging rights, Giulio anticipates my next question about soil sampling out on course. "For over nine years, we've used an agronomist who prepares a course report, which forms our basis for the year," he says.
Born and bred in Crawley, near London Gatwick Airport, Giulio has worked in turfcare across the region throughout his career, starting out in 1990 for Ifield Golf Club as a seventeen year old apprentice, before moving to Mannings Heath after gaining his qualifications.
"Kingfisher opened only months after I arrived and one of my earliest recollections was digging out fifty-four bunkers." Fast forward to May 2016 when the estate was acquired by Penny Streeter and other vivid memories spring to mind.
"After nearly twenty years tending two 18-hole courses, it came as quite a wrench to see a 13-tonne excavator being driven across the Kingfisher's carefully manicured holes to prepare for the vineyard. We lost seven in total - the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th."
That loss turned into an opportunity to transform the quality of underlying soil. "Kingfisher was constructed during the rush to build courses across the country," explains Giulio, "being created on old farmland, so this was the chance to upgrade the course."
The par 5 9th hole became a practice hole and the 2nd green a turf nursery." The rest has been 'left to nature'.
"What we have is pretty much a deer park," Giulio notes. "As many as 250 roam the course - you can sometimes spy forty or fifty resting on the fairway, many are albinos. Although they can cause damage, they are great to see and, when you think about it, do their hooves divot the turf any more than golfers do?"
Bunkers are still much in mind today on the Waterfall course, Giulio reports, along with plenty else to keep the team busy. "We've retained Harry Colt's original features wherever possible although, between 1999 and 2003, we began to rebuild the clay push-up greens and that process has continued as we construct them to USGA standards."
"The forty-four bunkers are still in place and, in the last couple of years, we've redrained and reconstructed some with revetted edges to help eliminate washdown from the faces."
Once owned by Exclusive Hotels, Mannings Heath stood alongside the likes of Pennyhill Park in Bagshot as one of a group of prestigious venues. Giulio worked at the Surrey site occasionally; now he enjoys his life devoted to serving the needs of a 500-strong private members club.
"Pay and play is not my preferred golf model," he confesses. "We attract an increasing number of juniors here, but they don't stick around and want to play as many courses as they can."
Playing off a handicap of three in his teens, Giulio still "hits the odd ball", when he can spare a moment away from his hectic programme, which covers duties as diverse as maintaining Hawkins Pond dam and keeping the water clean and clear. "We're home to all kinds of reptiles, snakes and newts. Since the 90s, I've noticed lizards are proliferating, possibly due to the warming climate in the South East, and anywhere there's bracken, you'll find adders."
Six years ago, he oversaw the rebuilding of the irrigation lake, fed from the borehole, tripling capacity to just under two million litres. Sounds plenty to cope with in warm weather but "if a really hot spell strikes, we could lose up to 1.5 million litres in ten days, and we need at least 300,000 litres minimum to keep the pumps operational".
Only greens, tees and approaches are irrigated, which limits water consumption, he adds. "Up to 7,500m3 free water can be taken from the borehole and rainwater harvesting from the barn rooves is fed into the lake, so that helps."
Giulio manages a ten strong full-time team at Mannings Heath, plus a part-time gardener who splits his time between here and nearby sister site Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, bought recently by Penny Streeter. [We'll be glimpsing Leonardslee's Grade 1 listed garden and landscape delights in the next issue].
"Fifteen years ago, the team numbered sixteen," recalls Giulio, "but the advent of more efficient machinery enabled us to prune slightly as greater mechanisation has come into greenkeeping."
Brothers Roy and Alan Jones, have worked together here for nearly forty years apiece and are the site's service stalwarts. "Roy was head greenkeeper when I came here and it's invaluable to have his and Alan's experience to call on. They have such pride in the job."
Another vital part in the Mannings Heath maintenance machine is full-time mechanic Simon Ridgers, now nearing eight years at the club. "He saves us a lot of time, effort and money by keeping our fleet operational," says Giulio.
Deputy head greenkeeper Adam Bedson, 32, has already clocked up eleven years on site and "tries to do everything I do". Team member Tim Watts, 47, meanwhile, is celebrating twenty-five years. General greenkeepers David Burroughs and Keith Browning are positively newcomers. "They've only been here six or seven years."
Giulio is committed to bringing on young greenkeeping talent through training and his two apprentices - Dominic Groves, 20, and Liam Matthews, 21 - have both recently qualified in NVQ Level 2 from Brinsbury College, near Billingshurst, a stone's throw away.
"My policy is to bring the apprentices in, push them through college and then they can decide what they want to specialise in. The more they are qualified, the greater their chance of career progression."
Sounds like Giulio 'cracks the whip' figuratively speaking but "I'm not a hard task manager. As long as everyone understands me and my reason for doing what I do, they know what I expect of them".
"Everything is geared to presentation and is all about quality to ensure we give customers the best experience we can when they play the courses."
To that end, a focus on greater aeration five years ago boosted greens consistency. "We also frequently apply the lightweight Verti-Drain across the Waterfall greens, which has brought big benefits - 8mm solid tines in summer down to eight or nine inches, then 12mm solid tines to the same depth in autumn. Greens are hollowed cored twice a year, at the end of March or first week in April, then on the last Monday in September."
Keeping the paying customer up to speed with what's happening on the course ranks high in Giulio's list of priorities. "I issue weekly email updates to members so they are abreast of projects underway. They still fail to replace divots as often as they should and we try to inform them about how their behaviour on course can benefit presentation."
"What angers me are those who turn up for a round and who couldn't care less about keeping things in good condition. They just don't respect the course."
Members surely have little to gripe about though, given the rolling programme of improvements Giulio and the team put in place.
More than seventy courses lie within the Sussex boundary. Mannings Heath's Waterfall ranks a highly respectable six or seven, so Giulio knows the team are doing something right.
Perhaps in contrast to many greenkeepers, Giulio adopts a 'live and let live' stance on Poa. "There's no way to eliminate it really even if we wanted to and, over the last six or seven years, we've gone from 20%/80% bent/Poa to 50%/50%. Overseeding with bent once or twice a year does the trick as it thrives in our soil conditions. I don't skimp on seed. If you want the best performing cultivars, they'll cost you accordingly."
"The last couple of years, we're seeing good consistent greens for longer periods of the year, perhaps explained partly by the trend to warmer weather later."
"Now, October is a growing month, whilst Aprils are generally colder so grass growth patterns are shifting. From early May to mid-November, there is no reason why greens cannot be up to the mark. Our mowing regime contines almost right up to Christmas."
"As spring is starting later, we stay clear of cutting until the temperature rises. When those icy April winds sweep across the courses, it's not a time to be venturing out on the ride-ons."
Turf treatment is something Giulio prefers to be "simple and effective", applying a base feeder early on and two granular feeds plus plant growth regular when necessary.
Worms and casts are an issue, he concedes, "but we're not coping too badly at present. The banning of traditional treatments means next season will herald a new way to do things," he says, "but that's still work in progress."
The jury's still out on how to best tackle his other bugbear, fusarium. "Some greenkeepers leave it, some tweak with soil biology and other apply preventives. I want to apply as few chemicals as possible, so soil biology is going to be the way forward."
The heavily forested estate makes arboriculture a year-round occupation for the team and one that has risen up the agenda. "Introducing more air movement by cutting back around greens is a huge priority for us. Three of the team are chainsaw qualified, although Simon does most of this work at the moment. Oaks, silver birch and beech predominate, with some alder, presenting us with a massive leaf problem right up to Christmas."
For one who loves so many aspects of the Mannings Heath setting, and as a competent golfer himself, Giulio struggles to choose his favourite hole.
After some thought he sides with the Waterfall 11th. Our signature hole is the 10th but I prefer the 11th. You have streams on the left and plenty of rough on the right. A very challenging hole indeed."
His choice is echoed by another golfer who also loves the Waterfall. "In his book of all-time greatest golf holes, Gary Player chose our 11th as his 11th best," Giulio reports. Great minds think alike, clearly.
What's in the shed?
John Deere Gator TS x 4
John Deere Gator HPX x 2
John Deere Progator 2030A x 2
Toro 3400 greensmowers x 2
Toro 3250 greensmower
John Deere 220 pedestrian mowers x 3
John Deere 7700 fairway mowers x 2
Toro 6500 fairway mower
John Deere 2500 tees mowers x 4
John Deere 8800 semi rough mowers x 2
John Deere 1600T rough mower
Jacobsen HR 5111 rough mower
Kubota F2400 flail/rotary mower
Toro 3100 sidewinder banks mower
John Deere 1200 bunker bike
John Deere 5075 tractor
John Deere 4720 loader tractor
Case 485 tractor
Kubota b1700 tractor
John Deere Aercore 1500
Graden Sand Injection
Charterhouse 7215 Verti-Drain
Tornado tractor mounted blower
Toro 1800 drop spreader
Propass 180 spreader
John Deere HD200 sprayer
Smithco turf iron
Stihl blowers x 6
Stihl chainsaws x 3
Stihl strimmers x 4
Express Dual 4000 grinder
Toyota HI-LUX pick ups x 2
All grinding is carried out in-house