Ramside Golf Club in County Durham comprises two 18-hole courses, but it wasn't always that way. Tucked away in the middle of the older Prince Bishop Course are the greenkeepers' sheds, which is where Lee Williams met up with brothers-in-law Roger Shaw and Craig Hardy to discover more about the young history of the club.
Left: Craig Hardy Right: Roger Shaw
For brothers-in-law Roger Shaw and Craig Hardy, working at Ramside Golf Club has been a family affair for the last twenty-six years. Their working association began in 1994 with the construction of the original twenty-seven-hole project - the Prince Bishop course - a nine hole Cathedral Course and also a sixteen bay driving range.
The duo talk me through how their journey in the industry began. "I started my greenkeeping apprenticeship in 1973 at Billingham Golf Course," began Roger. "Then, in 1976, I went to Darlington Golf Club as Head Greenkeeper working alongside the old course manager who was in ill health. After a year, I was asked to take over as course manager. Then, ten years later, I was asked to apply for the job at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club, where I spent another ten years."
"Then the dream of the owner of Ramside Hall Hotel, Michael Adamson (who sadly passed away in 2010, at the age of seventy-four), was to build a golf course around the hotel. As I had known Michael since being a kid in my hometown of Sedgefield, I approached him to see what his plans were. Cutting a long story short, we had a really good conversation at his house one evening. He was totally lost and being bombarded by people in the industry wanting to come in and design and build the course. I told him I was potentially looking for a development to get stuck into and suggested that I could build his golf course and stay on and manage it. By the end of that night, we had shaken hands, and that was the deal done. The next day, it was officially confirmed and I handed my notice in at Brancepeth."
"We started work on the Prince Bishop course in 1994. I was responsible for the whole project from choosing the architect - Jonathan Gaunt at Gaunt Golf Design - the contracting team which included two project managers, Ian Martin was responsible for the construction/build and Bob Hornegold for the finishing works. Then Craig and I, along with our previous head greenkeeper Harry Lees, worked with them through construction to the final prep of the course."
I asked Craig when he first joined up with Roger. "I was encouraged into the job by Roger and started at Brancepeth in 1988 as an apprentice, eventually working my way up to assistant greenkeeper. After six years, I left to join Roger at Ramside as Deputy Head greenkeeper in the first year of construction. I was initially involved in doing a lot of 'muck shifting'. As soon as we started seeding and the grass began to germinate, I switched over to the growing-in phase, essentially going back to being a greenkeeper. I was promoted to Head Greenkeeper four years ago when Harry retired."
Construction of all twenty-seven-holes, each with USGA spec greens, was completed in an astonishing six months. Roger explains to me how this was possible. "We had the perfect summer, except for getting washed out once in August where we had to recultivate and overseed. To take advantage of the conditions, we were all working thirteen-hour days, seven days a week. That said, it went like clockwork; it felt quite easy building that course, compared to the new eighteen-hole Cathedral course."
"Craig will remember the fairway and semi-rough from tee to green on the nineteenth hole, which was a par three and was the last thing to be finished off. The project manager said we would have to come back and finish that in the spring. I was adamant the course was going to be finished, so I got a local farmer in with a Suzuki jeep with a Vicon spreader attached to it. Craig and I stood at either end of the fairway with flags and, with his one headlight turned on, we managed to get the seeding done so that night we were finished. The next day, it tanked it down and didn't stop; we literally shut the door on the whole thing until the grass came through and we could get back on the course."
It was then a matter of Roger getting his greenkeeping team together to help maintain and shape the course. "1995 was classed as our growing in year," explains Roger, "and we opened the course in August to limited play. Michael had some of his business friends play the course to show it off, and we had already sold some memberships who also got some limited golf. We then closed down over winter and re-opened up all twenty-seven-holes fully in the spring of 1996."
Roger tells me that, as the years went by, Michael's vision grew to build a spa and more bedrooms onto the hotel. To fund that, they managed to get planning approval for some new houses on part of the third nine holes. This meant a few areas were sold off for housing, taking the course down to eighteen holes in the autumn of 2011. "It was heartbreaking watching the contractors come in that winter and destroy all the hard work we originally put into building those holes," bemoans Craig.
The silver lining for Roger and Craig was that they were already in advanced planning for eighteen new holes which would eventually become the Cathedral course. Roger comments: "we were working with Jonathan Gaunt again, and we had the plans and the contractors ready to go. So, as soon as John Adamson gave us the go-ahead in 2012, we started construction."
The new course was to be built on the existing five holes of the Cathedral course alongside a hundred acres of derelict farmland over the main Pittington lane road. The land was purchased eight years prior to starting the work. "A tunnel had to be built under the road to give access to the new land. We had one week to complete this work whilst the road was closed or we would incur big fines," explains Roger. "The contractors did a great job and completed it on time. We built fourteen holes - the third to the sixteenth - on what was called Hill-Top Farm, with the first, second, seventeenth and eighteenth built on the original Cathedral course land."
Building the second course proved to be more challenging than the first. The farm was named Hill-Top Farm for a reason as it was sat on top of the brow of a hill. "Fifty acres of land you would class as 'slightly sloping back to the main road'," exclaims Roger. "Then you literally fell over a cliff into the valley, and this land had not been farmed for the thirty-five years prior to us taking it on. When I first went in there with the tractor and flail, the grass and shrubbery was literally over the bonnet. We cut it down, as well as spraying it with glyphosate, and 'farmed' it for a few years just to try and clean it up. This meant that, the day we started construction, we could get straight in."
"The biggest challenge we faced was discovering we were sat on a massive sand pile. When we started digging out one of the lakes on construction, I said to the guy on the job that I would be 'back in two hours to see how he was getting on'. When I returned, it just looked like an enormous bunker."
"All the site had been stripped of topsoil into big piles. The subbase was taken off and being moved to areas where we had to elevate the course from the road. One of the conditions was that we had to send all of the water down into the low side at Pittington Beck, a stream to the west of the course. We weren't allowed to send any water back to the Prince Bishops course. We basically had to mound it so it would fall that way, so that resulted in a massive muck shift and a cut and fill in some cases up to four metres which we achieved, but it took some time."
"As well as some of the more difficult issues we had to face compared to our first build, that year, we had a lot of rainfall - way above the yearly average. So, we didn't finish construction, which was very disappointing, and we locked the door on the place in mid-October 2012. In 2013, we got a better year and a good start, and we achieved what we set out to do. By the end of the season, we had a great coverage of grass. Then, in June 2014, we opened up nine holes of the Cathedral course for play and after a few more months of growing in we fully opened the course in September. We certainly saw two sides of the coin on construction though!"
Craig added: "Roger deserves huge credit for all his hard work whilst solely project managing the Cathedral course construction. He managed the enture build; dealing with all contractors on site on a daily basis ordering materials etc. which is no small task"
Helping Roger and Craig maintain the vast site to the highest standards is Nick Scott, Head Mechanic, 12 years at the club, 48 years old; Daniel Hardy, Qualified Mechanic, 3 years' service, 21 years old; Andrew Shaw, Qualified Greenkeeper, 12 years at the club, 28 years old; Nick Mansell, Qualified Greenkeeper, 2 years at the club, 53 years old; Shaun Embleton, Qualified Greenkeeper, 1 year, 40 years old; Jonathan Flowers, Qualified Greenkeeper, 9 years, 43 years old; Victor Southwart, Qualified Greenkeeper, 3.5 years, 33 years old; Chris Lumley, Qualified Greenkeeper, 1 year, 35 years old; Scott Lyons, Apprentice Greenkeeper, 2 years, 20 years old and Mick Dobson, Greenkeeper, 15 years' service and 67 years old.
Roger and Craig feel there is a contrast between the two courses. "The new one is quite open, and it is definitely not a heathland. We have introduced a lot of tall grasses, some gorse has also self-sown and it is very windswept. A lot of our members call it an inland links because it can get so windy. It's good to have as it gives the members two different options and a talking point."
Left: Dan Hardy
Daniel Hardy - Mechanic
How did you first make the decision to start a career in the sports turf industry? I was fortunate enough to have family who already worked in the industry, I originally started part-time on the golf course while I was at sixth form. Once I finished sixth form, I was then offered a role in the workshop being a full-time mechanic working alongside the Head Mechanic Nick.
What are the biggest challenges you face? There are lots of different challenges I face everyday such as solving new problems or working on a machine I've never worked on before. Luckily Nick possess a lot of mechanical knowledge and is always there to guide me if I need help.
Are you currently working towards a qualification or taking out any extra training? I completed my NVQ Level 2 Land-based Service Engineering qualification at Askham Bryan College last year.
What do you enjoy most about the job? Being a mechanic there is a lot of diversity and each day there's a new problem to be solved. The process of successfully diagnosing and fixing a problem is very satisfying.
What do you find the most difficult part of the job? Has to be the early mornings; I've never been a morning person. LOL.
How could the industry as a whole help support and help further your career? I feel the industry needs to focus on providing enough resources for the younger generation. For example, there is no specific qualification for a "Golf Course Maintenance Technician" available in my area.
Do you attend industry shows or educational days? I have attended a couple BTME shows, I think shows like this are important for the industry as it allows you to meet new people and provide more opportunities.
Where do you see yourself in the future? In the future I see myself moving away and working abroad in a hotter climate. I may continue to work as a golf course mechanic, who knows? Time will tell.
Is there anyone person in the industry who has inspired you so far? I'd like to say a special thanks to Nick Scott as I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him passing on his knowledge and guiding me through my apprenticeship. Honestly don't know how he's coped with me the past three years!
Craig explains the situation they face with Covid-19. "After the announcement from the government on Monday 23rd March, we arrived at work on the Tuesday morning and had a meeting at a safe distance. Then, immediately after that, we had assurance from our director that we were able to carry on working to maintain the two courses and surrounding areas. We are following the government's guidelines on social distancing, having staggered starts and lunchtimes to limit contact with one another. It's very surreal as the whole complex is on lockdown; only the greenkeeping team are working within the whole company."
In 1820, Thomas Pemberton demolished an old hall known as Ramside and built a new home which he called Belmont Hall. In 1900, John S G Pemberton lived there. He was MP for Sunderland where the family had many connections. In the 1960s, when the family sold the estate, it reverted to its original name of Ramside Hall and was converted to a hotel under the ownership of Michael Adamson.
As detailed in the article, Ramside Golf Club features two highly regarded courses; the Prince Bishop and the Cathedral.
The par 72 Prince Bishop Course, measuring 6,851 yards from its championship tees, has views of the world-famous Durham Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Prince Bishops' course is named after the warrior clergymen who ruled over the lawless north of England from Durham Castle after the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century.
The par 72 Cathedral Course, measuring 7176 yards from its championships tees, opened in September 2014 and was inspired by Durham Cathedral. It was built on rolling countryside between the villages of Belmont and Pittington with breathtaking natural features including ridges, becks and valleys. The course extends out over a broad hill-top with views of Durham Cathedral and as far afield as the Angel of the North in Gateshead.
What's in the shed
Saxon pedestrian mowers x 4
Jacobsen HR 9016 wide area rough mower
John Deere 1200 sprayer
John Deere 2500A triple mower
John Deere 2653
Saxon LM26 tees mower
Case IH 125 MXU tractor
Jacobsen Groom Master II sand rake
Ferris IS 5000 zero turn mowers x 2
Charterhouse Verti-Core 1700 aerator
Imants Shockwave 2.1m
Imants Shockwave 2.2m
John Deere 3245C rotary mower
John Deere 4720 tractor x 2
Toro Workman 4300D
Toro Workman 200 sprayer
John Deere 4720 tractor
Jacobson Eclipse 2wd greens mowers x 3
Jacobson Eclipse 3wd greens mowers x 2
John Deere 3235C fairway mower x 2
Progressive TD15 wide area mower
Dakota 440 material handling unit
John Deere 8700A x 2
John Deere 2500EH x 2
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 2220
Massey Ferguson 5612 tractor with loader
John Deere Greenstar 6000 GPS system
Wacker Neuson E65 excavator
John Deere 9009A rough mowers x 2
Charterhouse Core Harvester 1200SP
Charterhouse Speed Brush
Classen HSC185E Pro Hydro
Shelton Chain Trencher + Trimble Laser
John Deere Gators x 3
John Deere Pro Gator
Dakota 410 Turf Tender
Bernhard Express Dual 3000 Grinder
Bernard Angle Master 3000
Bernard Express Relief Grinder