The beautiful Cotswold village of Castle Combe is perhaps best known for its motor racing circuit, but nestled away in 350 acres of rolling Wiltshire countryside is the Peter Alliss and Clive Clark designed Manor House Golf Club, complete with mature oak trees, manicured fairways and spectacular par 3s, together with the By Brook dissecting the course to bring both drama and beauty. Lee Williams met with 37-year-old Course Manager Rob Preston to discover more.
The Manor House course is a relative youngster, opening for play in 1992, but the maturity of the setting, where stately oak and beech trees line the magnificent fairways, make it appear much older. Peter Alliss and Clive Clark made the most of the undulating terrain, fitting the course into its surroundings like a silk glove. The By Brooke punctuates the layout bringing its share of beauty and drama, especially at "Brunton Brooke" the 17th, where you'll find the best and most exciting par 3 anywhere.
On a cloudy, but dry afternoon in April, I am welcomed just outside the greenkeeper's sheds by Rob Preston. We first sat down for a chat in Rob's office, before he took me for a tour of the course and the Manor House Hotel which, I must say, was a pleasure.
Rob explained how he first got into this industry and the challenges he has faced throughout his career so far. "Firstly, I am a Castle Combe boy. That estate just behind the woods, next to the greenkeepers sheds, is where I grew up; my nan still lives there. I knew this land before the golf course was even built. I used to play soldiers and various other games when I was younger on the land the course now sits on. When the course was being built, the locals where not very happy. It was like 'this isn't good', but clearly, later on, it worked out alright for me."
"When I left school, I didn't have a clue what to do, so I took a summer job here as an apprentice. They then took me on full-time I was here for five years. I met my lovely wife at that time and we needed a mortgage, so that led me to move out of the industry. I worked as an engineer for Honda I for eleven years travelling around Europe. One day, I got home, looked at the children and thought 'you know what, I'm not really happy with the work-life balance and not seeing my children grow up'. This led me to get back into the industry that I have always loved, so I came back here in 2013 as a first assistant working my way up to deputy head within a year or two. When the club wanted a change at the top, I slotted into the Golf Course Manager position, which I have been in for the last three years now."
Since Rob first came back to the club as the first assistant, he has completed various educational courses. "I was able to go straight to my NVQ level 3 in sports turf management due to the qualifications I had gained at Honda, so I was able to bypass an NVQ level 2. I have all my spraying certificates and various management qualifications that I have gained through the club."
Rob has a strong team comprising: Deputy Course Manager, Mark Bolton (five years), Qualified Greenkeepers Sean Riley (four years) and John Murzyn (fifteen years), Assistant Greenkeeper, Jake Jones (one year), Assistant Geenkeepers Jordan McClean (one year) and Johnny Capp (ten months), part-time Mechanic Charlie Gaisford (twenty-four years) and part-time Assistant Greenkeeper Tony Simmons (eleven years).
The Par 72, 6500-yard, parkland course is built on Cotswold brash which enables it to drain really well. The course, along with the hotel, Italian ornamental gardens, croquet lawn, tennis courts and an allotment, covers 365 acres.
It has a 27-year-old irrigation system which Rob is continually trying to improve. "The course has changed over the past few years. For example, on the 18th fairway, the irrigation goes down the side instead of through the middle. On the wish list each year we put a certain amount of money into the irrigation system as it is getting old. Now we are pinpointing individual holes and the fairways have become a big priority. Greens and tees are also getting attention; slowly! This involves replacing heads, looking at the electrical side of things, changing pipes and isolation valves. It will be a matter of slowly ticking the jobs of the list."
Rob talks me through the seasonal maintenance on his USGA spec greens. "In the growing season, we cut the greens at 3.5 mm. As we approach the winter months, we lift the height of cut to 5mm. For club and open championships, plus the Pro-Am (which took place on 28th May this year), I will go down to 3mm. I am quite lean with my nutrition on the greens so, when the grass is growing quite strong, I like to be coming in with my boxes full but not emptied once in the whole 1.2 hectares of greens. To help keep the nutrition down, I will check the greens daily; why make more work for yourself by putting down loads of nitrogen and double verti-cutting every other day, when I don't need to."
Water hazard on the 18th
"I am very organic with my fertilisers. I don't use too many granules and what I do use is low in nitrogen. My general mix, during the growing season, would be a chelated iron, seaweed, phosphite and a liquid feed. I have also started to use MolTurf to get some sugars into the greens at certain times of the year. We suffered badly with nematode stress in my first year as course manager. Alongside the help of my main supplier
AGS, we have the nutritional values and health spot on now with the nematode damage under control. Over the three years, I have worked closely with Sam Honeyborne, we have a great relationship where we can bounce ideas together and stride for better results."
"With having sand-based greens, I like to adjust what we use based on the current health of the greens plus the weather. I don't think you can work on the basis of 'I always put that down every two weeks', it just doesn't work like that."
Rob has a regimented aeration programme for his greens. "Every four weeks we will do a solid tine and a light dressing, no matter what. We are fortunate we are on Cotswold brash, so this means we can get a big tractor with either a Verti-drain, brush, topdresser and roller around the course all year round. In January 2018, we hollow cored the greens and applied forty-five tonnes of dressing, which caused a little bit of a stir on social media. Then, this year, I used the Graden at 20mm, followed by the Toro ProCore and fifty tonnes of dressing. A lot of greenkeepers wouldn't do this, but the fact of the matter is we are a very busy golf course and, in January, expectations are lower at that time of year. This means, when the growing season starts, my greens are ready and my renovations are done which keeps our members and our green fee costumers happy."
"I know some greenkeepers may have the same thinking as me, but they are not able to do it because they are on clay and can't get a machine on. Everyone is different and has their own hurdles to face; it's site-specific what we are doing. If I was to move to another course, I couldn't promise I could carry out the same renovation work as I do now."
The club owns all their machinery, but Rob has a preference when it comes to manufacturers. "I tend to go towards John Deere, but I don't think you can go wrong with either John Deere or Toro. We do have a Toro 4500 rough cut mower which, to me, is second to none; it works brilliantly. The reason I use John Deere is the care I get from the local supplier, Tallis Amos Group in Bristol. If I'm honest with you, the whole experience, from the demoing to purchasing and then the aftercare, is excellent. We have been well supported over the last few years upgrading our older fleet of machines. Only last year, we added four new pieces of kit to the fleet. The best purchases I have made have been the Toro ProCore and the Sweep-N-Fill brush, by a long way."
Rob's main project has been to reduce the thatch layer in the greens and, now he has got this to a level he is happy with, he is turning his attention to other projects aimed at improving the course. "We have planted some wildflower areas. We cut the rough down, collect it and take it away; we are now seeing some great wildflowers coming through. Being a local boy, I wanted that back."
"I have also looked at our tee surrounds and asked myself why we cut everything? So we have started to grow certain areas out. The members weren't fans of the idea at the beginning but, now it's grown out, they see the benefits."
"One problem we have always had is our bunkers. They are built directly on top of the brash with no liners, so we get a lot of contamination of the sand as a result. I presented a plan to the managing director to install Blinder bunker liners, which will need some heavy investment. Fortunately, he has fully supported it. I looked at all the options, but I felt the Blinder system offered the best solution for us, plus the guarantee you get with it."
"We did the par 34th last year. We actually remodelled the hole as there was a huge bunker which meandered from tee to green. So we filled that in as maintenance was a nightmare and, in truth, no one ever went in there until the last point of the bunker close to the green. Profusion Environmental, with the help of myself and the lads, have now lined the bunkers around the green, so I can't wait to see how they perform. We have now had the go-ahead to do one of the par four's next, so we have that to look forward to."
"Eighty-five percent of the course is a conservation site - SSSI and ancient woodland - and, therefore, restricts what work we can carry out. For example, I can't go around with a chainsaw and cut down whatever trees I would like; it takes months to have the work approved. I work very closely with the parish council. Although we are on private land, it's always nice to communicate with the local council on the plans we have for the course."
"We also have the Wiltshire wardens who look after the castle remains, the Castle Combe tower is on the golf course under a lot of trees, so we must be careful around that area."
"To help with ecology around the course, we have already started the wildflower project. We've also got bird boxes around the course, and we have also started to build bug hotels from trees we have felled. In the coming years, we will do more, which will only add more beauty to this special site."
I asked Rob what he thought about the state of our industry. "We have had a lot going on recently with the fungicide and chemical situation. A fellow greenkeeper I know once said to me 'this golf course has more microclimates than I have ever seen on any other course'. So, from a disease point of view, it's tough out there, and it's the one thing that kept me awake at night during my first two years; it was horrific. So, with the fungicides and chemicals disappearing, it was a shock initially but, believe you me, we will manage as an industry. I would say, in greenkeeping, we do tend to adapt to what is put in front of us quite well."
History of the Manor House
The Manor House is noteworthy for several reasons. Its land is the site of a Norman castle settlement which once hosted a number of Lords throughout its history; the most famous being Sir John Oldcastle, the figure Shakespeare based his character of Sir John Falstaff upon in his play Henry IV in the late 16th century.
It was also the home of English geologist and political economist George Poulett Scrope throughout the 19th century. He lived at the Manor House from the start of his first marriage until the death of his wife Emma (the great-granddaughter of Sir Robert Long), in 1866; his wife's family had owned the land since the 14th century.
Scrope was responsible for the creation of the ground's Italian, Classical and medieval Gothic styled gardens and summerhouse in the mid-19th century, which can still be seen today.
During World War II, the New Zealand Forestry Officers used the Manor House as their headquarters.
In 1947, the owner of the Castle Combe estate sold the houses of the estate and the Manor House became a country club. After eighteen months, the club left the premises and the house was shortly thereafter sold to Bobbie Allen, an amateur hotelier, and her husband. Over time, they established the Manor House as a premier country hotel, run almost as a club. A quite glamorous clientele ensued.
Certain of the London hotels would refer guests in search of 'authentic England' to the Manor House. Bobbie Allen was a noted horsewoman, and the grounds of the Manor House were known for their suitability for riding. She was from Lancashire and known for her forthrightness. She wrote a book of her experiences, From Claridge's to Castle Combe, which reflects her character and the post World War II era. After many years, the Allens sold the Manor House to Mr and Mrs Oliver Clegg, who sold it to the present owners.
Many people go to Castle Combe for the motorsport. It's one of the longest established circuits in the UK were, in 1950, a young Stirling Moss won the 2.5 L race. Yet, the 13th-century village of Castle Combe is something entirely different and light years away in feel to the race circuit. The village is simply gorgeous and undoubtedly one of the prettiest, most beautiful in England. It was recently voted the most picturesque village by English Heritage magazine.
The village was a location for the 1967 film musical Doctor Dolittle, but its frequently rainy summer climate, plus the residents' irritation at the producers' arbitrary modifications of the area for shooting, was severe enough to incite attempted sabotage to frustrate the production.
What's in the shed
John Deere 2500E greens mower
John Deere 2500B (tees, collars and approaches)
John Deere 8800 (tee and green surrounds)
John Deere 7500 & 3235C (fairway mowersToro 4500 (rough mower)
5x4 HPX815E gator x 2
John Deere Pro Gator 2030A (vehicle used for sprayer and topdresser)
Toro 5040 Sand Pro
John Deere 3045R tractor
Massey Ferguson 362 with front loader