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Travel At a pair of England’s most historic golf links, the threat of wind, waves and climate change is palpable

Royal North Devon, which lies on a rumpled moonscape outside the southwestern beach town of Westward Ho!, was established in 1864, making it England's oldest golf course.

Guy Nicholson

You might mistake Royal West Norfolk Golf Club for just another seaside golf links, until the tide comes in.

When it does, the surrounding salt marsh fills and laps at the course’s edge, changing the nature of several holes and effectively turning Royal West Norfolk and its protective dunes into an island, cut off from the adjacent village of Brancaster. It’s not unheard of for members who have lingered too long to find themselves marooned for hours in the musty clubhouse while their parked cars marinate in the waters of the North Sea.

These are the terms of play at one of the oldest and most unique courses in England, a relic of the days when Victoria was Queen, golfers used hickory shafts and the game was played on natural scrapes carved from seaside hummocks by wind and waves, cropped by sheep and buttressed by wooden slats. Golf has moved on, but this remains a quirky reminder of how it was played in its cradle, the British Isles, before the modern game arrived.

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The threat of flooding remains palpable at holes like Royal West Norfolk's par-five 8th, which crosses the tidal marsh two times, wet or dry, and is held up as an early example of heroic golf design.

Guy Nicholson

Royal West Norfolk and another ancient links, Royal North Devon, are not on most golfers’ bucket lists. But they are two of the best places in England to see how golf evolved – and two of the starkest examples of how easily its heritage could be lost to climate change.

Both courses are at risk of being swallowed by rising seas or chipped away in pieces by erosion. They’re not the only coastal courses under threat; The Climate Coalition charity warned last year that many of Britain’s championship links could eventually find themselves under water. But these two Victorian gems are among the most historically significant.

Royal West Norfolk has always been at the mercy of the elements. It survived the ruinous North Sea flood of 1953 and an extreme tidal surge in 2013, but the wind and waves have also played the long game, steadily eroding the Brancaster beach and dunes while surging through sea defences elsewhere along the Norfolk coast. The club has raised its flood banks and embarked on an innovative program of sand-capturing mesh to rebuild the dunes, but it’s not clear whether it will be enough as sea levels rise.

In 2013, the water came so high that it crept under Royal West Norfolk's clubhouse. The water could be seen welling under the ground-floor lounge, where members sip post-round drinks among vintage trophy cases, commemorative paintings, match record books and painted wooden lists of club champions and captains that date back to the club’s founding.

Guy Nicholson/Handout

In 2013, the water came so high that it crept under the clubhouse, which is on a relative high point at the base of the dunes. Secretary Tim Stephens said the water could be seen welling under the ground-floor lounge, where members sip postround drinks among vintage trophy cases, commemorative paintings, match record books and painted wooden lists of club champions and captains – princes, dukes and war commanders among them – that date back to the club’s founding. This spring was warm and dry but, on the day I visited, the entire building reeked of must, which permeates the carpets and walls and can only undermine the integrity of the artifacts and records.

The course itself, no less a heritage piece, was covered with brackish water for two weeks after the tidal surge. It reopened intact, but the threat remains palpable at holes such as the par-five eighth, which crosses the tidal marsh two times, wet or dry, and is held up as an early example of golf’s heroic school of design. I will remember the birdie I made there not as a rare flash of competence, but as a cherished souvenir extracted from a landmark of the game.

On the other side of England, Royal West Norfolk’s spiritual cousin is in full retreat.

Royal North Devon is protected from the full power of the Atlantic by little more than a low ridge and dunes, and its shoreline is crumbling away as the erosion and flooding accelerate.

Guy Nicholson

Royal North Devon, which lies on a rumpled moonscape outside the southwestern beach town of Westward Ho!, was established in 1864, making it England’s oldest golf course. Vast numbers of sheep roam this most natural of links, keeping the grass short and leaving steaming brown deposits everywhere, even in the sleepered bunkers. The course is pockmarked by clumps of great sea rushes, spiky grass skewers that grab wayward shots and make a dangerous fool’s errand of ball retrieval.

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The club maintains an engaging museum, complete with a guidebook that explains how the course, membership and land have evolved on a tip of land by the estuary of the Taw and Torridge rivers. Once versed in the lore, visitors can peer out at the historic links through an old Nazi submarine telescope mounted in the veranda room.

Royal North Devon is protected from the full power of the Atlantic by little more than a low ridge and dunes. But now, its shoreline is crumbling away as the erosion and flooding accelerate – the club lost several metres of dune beside the seventh green in the winter of 2017-18. Rolling ground that used to slope naturally toward the beach now ends abruptly at a jagged washout.

The volatile climate is a tough enough adversary for a remote village club with limited resources. But Royal North Devon has also been unable to bridge a philosophical gap with a governmental agency, Natural England, that has decided the country’s oldest golf course isn’t worth defending. While Royal West Norfolk tries to rebuild its foreshore, Royal North Devon is forced to watch its heritage get swallowed by the sea.

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A clubhouse view of Royal West Norfolk Golf Club and Brancaster beach. The dunes at centre are the ones that have eroded. The marsh at far right fills up with the tide.

Guy Nicholson/Handout

As a result, the club finds itself forced to remodel two holes at the tip of the links and abandon a third completely, replacing it with an inland hole on a flattish knoll covering a former landfill capped in the 1990s. The holes and land being taken out of play were first staked out in the 1860s by Old Tom Morris, then refined in 1908 by Herbert Fowler. Both are highly significant figures in the history of the game and its courses.

Royal North Devon’s management and membership are largely resigned to the changes, and they may well be the right outcome given the circumstances. General manager Mark Evans said simply that the new holes are “the best that can be done.”

Still, for anyone invested in the game’s history, the situation at Royal North Devon is a bitter pill. American golf-course architect Tom Doak, a stalwart admirer of the links, offered to survey the historically significant ninth-green site and recreate it elsewhere for posterity.

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But any golfer should lament the loss of this rumpled, historic links land. As my group left the eighth green, a playing partner waved his hand dismissively at the new site.

“Would you rather be playing here, or there?” he asked, leaving no doubt about his own preference. “You’re lucky you’ve come today, instead of a couple of years from now.”

If you go

  • Royal West Norfolk Golf Club is located just outside the village of Brancaster, Norfolk, about 200 kilometres northeast of London and 20 km from the royal estate at Sandringham. Requests to play at Royal West Norfolk should be directed to the club secretary. All play is two-ball formats: either singles or foursomes.
  • A more standard links experience can be had just 10 km up the road at Hunstanton Golf Club, which allows both two- and four-ball groups.
  • The Ship Hotel in Brancaster has comfortable modern rooms, excellent dining and a bright pub with local ales. Contact the inn for rates.
  • The Royal North Devon Golf Club is located on the Northam Burrows outside the village of Westward Ho!, North Devon, named for an 1855 novel written by Charles Kingsley, set in the area.
  • North Devon is approximately 300 km southwest of London but packed with beaches, walking trails and character-filled coastal towns. Paired with adjacent Cornwall, it also makes an underrated links-golf destination: Well-regarded links such as Saunton, St. Enodoc and Trevose are all within 100 km of Royal North Devon.
  • Devon and Cornwall fill up with English families in the summer, so it’s well served by beach towns – luxuriously so in shoulder season. One atmospheric option is The Thatch, a traditional thatched-roof inn and pub in the surfing town of Croyde.
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