Royal West Norfolk Golf Club has a postal address of King's Lynn but is, as the crow flies, closer to Skegness on the other side of the Wash. It is a unique course in many ways, not least that the tide has a huge effect on getting to and from the golf course.
Royal West Norfolk Golf Club was founded in 1892. Little has changed in the last one hundred years both out on the course and in the clubhouse. It was laid out by Horace Hutchinson and Holcombe Ingleby, both notables of their time. Horace was later to become both Mayor and Member of Parliament for King's Lynn whilst Holcombe was a keen sportsman and journalist who became the first golf editor for Country Life.
The course has a traditional links layout and measures 6457 yards, par71. There are two clubs who use the course - The Royal West Norfolk and the Brancaster Village (Artisans). The reason for this is that the land on which the course was laid out belonged to the Lord of the Manor and common rights existed over it, allowing locals grazing rights.
When Royal West Norfolk was first founded it was agreed that there would be a separate club for people living in the village and the neighbouring village of Brancaster Staithe. Brancaster Village is affiliated to the Artisan Golfers Association, which itself is affiliated to the EGU. It is now the only Artisan club left in Norfolk.
The village club has forty-seven members and they have full use of the course, with priority on Sunday's until 9.00am, but cannot use the clubhouse facilities.
Both clubs have a good relationship and there are two annual matches between the mens and ladies sections of each club.
If that's not confusing enough, the Royal West Norfolk is usually referred to, and is better known, as Brancaster Golf Club for no other reason than it is just easier to say or write Brancaster!
Being close to the sea is usually a prerequisite of a links course but, in the case of Brancaster, the sea gets a little too close!
The tide causes a fairly unique problem when the approach road gets covered by the incoming water. This occurs about every two weeks and lasts from between five to seven days. The road is flooded one hour before and between one to three hours after high water depending on the size of the tide.
All staff and visitors live by the local tide tables, where any tide above 8.2 metres measured in Hull's Albert Dock will cover the road. North winds can also hold the tide in longer.
Visitors and staff can only reach the golf club by foot via the beach bank whilst the road is flooded. This is about a twenty minute walk from the village where cars are left.
It can be a real problem when arranging deliveries as companies don't normally give a time, although most of their regular suppliers always check before coming to make sure that they can get to the club okay!
During the late 80s early 90s the course was periodically getting flooded from the marsh on the south side even though there was a floodbank. The tide could get over the floodbank but not back and this ended up killing large areas of grass on the 7th fairway. Reseeding was carried out and, just as it was recovering, the tide came over again!
So, the club gained permission from English Nature, the National Trust, the Parish Council and Common Right Holders to raise the flood banks. This was done and has restricted flooding from the marsh, but Head Greenkeeper, Gavin Playford, says who knows where it will break through next?
Whilst the tide is a golfing quirk of Mother Nature it doesn't really affect play. The 8th and 9th holes are played over a marsh area and, during high tides, these flood, but is classed as 'casual water', so golfers only end up losing more balls than normal!
The 8th fairway still floods at times but the grasses here seem to be more tolerant because the water can get away quickly as the tide drops.
The course is maintained by a staff of five under the leadership of Gavin, who has been at the club for twenty-two years, the last fifteen as Head Greenkeeper. His deputy is Alan Loose, who has been greenkeeping for fourteen years. Prior to that he worked in the clubhouse. Assistant Greenkeepers are Stephen Loose (30 years), Goldwyn Bird (9 years) and Neil Roughton (4 year). Harvey Southerland (13 years) looks after the machinery and also assists out on the course.
During my visit the staff were undertaking their main winter job of refurbishing bunkers. Whilst not unique, the use of railway sleepers to face the bunkers is unusual.
These are an original feature of the course and, in the past, there were many more of them. The course was built at a time when sleepers were both readily available and inexpensive. They were used because turf walls tended to collapse when used in deep bunkers and also offered long-lasting solution to erosion by wind and animals.
Wind erosion is their biggest problem, bunker faces simply erode away. A newly revetted bunker usually lasts about six years. So, Gavin has an ongoing bunker-refurbishing programme that usually sees the rebuilding of six bunkers every year.
Gavin and his team still build bunkers by this method today, but only as a last resort after turf walls have shown to be ineffective. The sleepers also make ideal steps to tees and in bunkers, and blend in well because of all the others already in use on the course.
The rebuilding of a bunker takes about two weeks. The whole bunker is demolished and reconstructed from scratch. A new base is laid, levelled and covered with a geotextile membrane. Turf is laid in layers using turf cut from the practice ground.
They cut their own turf for three main reasons: it is a lot cheaper than buying it in, it is already accustomed to the salty conditions and they can cut the turf as thick as they need it - usually about 50mm for bunkers.
Although surrounded by, and built on, sand Gavin has to buy in for the bunkers. This is because the area is a dedicated site of special scientific interest, and there are stringent controls over what the club can do on the course. The sand comes from Baileys of Norfolk and is the same as used in their topdressing.
It is is a skilled operation and the team has become very proficient at it over the years.
Although there are a relatively small number of bunkers - sixty four in total - their maintenance is time consuming due to the vagaries of the Wash weather. They are raked daily and topped up with imported sand.
The irrigation system requires a lot of maintenance work, mainly because the course is on such an exposed site, and sand is continually being blown over the sprinkler heads. All the sprinklers on the course were originally impact type, but these have been changed on the tees to gear driven sprinklers.
They have performed so well that the team are currently changing the greens irrigation over to gear driven sprinklers. These appear to work better because the sand finds it harder to get into the sprinkler bodies and workings which, in turn, means they require less maintenance and are more efficient.
The irrigation is used sparingly just to keep the grass alive during hot, dry periods, and not to keep the course green. In 2007, forty solenoid valves were replaced because of leaks, meaning water was being wasted and the irrigation pumps were working almost constantly to keep the pressure up. In these days of water shortages and cost of water it was felt that changing the valves was the only option.
Other winter work involves relevelling and extending tees.
General maintenance regimes are fairly typical and have changed little over the years, with the exception of using new products and more efficient machinery.
The greens are cut to 4mm in the summer and 5mm in winter. They are topdressed in March and April and receive a monthly dose of Farmura Porthcawl and Revolution wetting agent throughout the summer. Lawnsand is also applied in early spring and again in midsummer. Fifteen litres of Seaturf Iron Extra is applied in November and December.
Aeration is carried out in the winter months.
Tees are hand mown during the growing period to 10mm and are fed during June and July.
Fairways are mown weekly to 13mm, with fertiliser applied occasionally to help maintain grass cover. During October to December deep slitting is carried out weekly, the greens are then vertidrained in December with the fairways being vertidrained in January and February.
Semi rough areas are kept at between 40-75mm. The main rough areas are never cut or sprayed and are left totally natural.
The course is also stronghold for the, now rare, English Partridge as well as declining numbers of skylarks and hares.
What's in the shed?
Machinery used is mainly John Deere and the club have just completed their first package deal of five years with Norwich dealers, Ben Burgess, with whom they enjoy a good relationship and back up. They are about to take delivery of new machinery as part of a second package as follows:
1 John Deere 2500EB - Greens
1 John Deere 2500EB - Surrounds
1 John Deere 2653B - Approaches
4 John Deere 220C - Tees & Greens
1 John Deere 8700 - Fairways
2 John Deere 4520 Compact Tractors
3 Greentek Utility Trailers - for hand mowers
2 John Deere TE Gators - on course
1 John Deere HPX Gator - course plus ball collection on range
1 John Deere Turbo Wide Area Mower
1 Toro Sidewinder Rotary
1 SISIS Javelin Aeraid 1500
1 SISIS Rotorake
2 3.5 Tonne Trailers
1 Hardi Manx 5m Sprayer - Greens
1 Hardi Manx 10m Sprayer - Fairways
1 JCB 2CX Used
1 Jupiter ATI Grinder
1 1.5m Rotovator
5 Allen Hover Mowers
3 Tanaka Brushcutters
1 John Deere 5415 Tractor
3 John Deere JX75 21" Rotary Mowers
1 Vibrating Rollers for 2500
1 SISIS 4' Deep Slitter
1 SISIS 8' Deep Slitter
1 SISIS Mole Plough
1 Charterhouse 7416 Vertidrain
1 SISIS Veemo Fairway Verticutter
1 SISIS Sweeper
1 PS48 Pro Seed
1 SISIS Tilth 'n' Seed Seeder