Fair Ways in Ashdown Forest

While on lockdown I have enjoyed reading two books both of which are based on incredibly well researched investigations and numerous interviews giving the authors an authority that we can rely on as they both approach their subjects in an objective and almost scientific manner.

Front covers. Click to enlarge

That is not to say they do not give us a point of view and it would be extremely boring if they didn’t but the depth of facts expressed in both books make them a definitive historical record of their subjects.

The first book is Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, the three volumes of which took him over two decades to write and the second is the 125 year anniversary book of Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club written by Colin Strachan which took him four years to put together.

Colin Strachan

Colin Strachan is a highly respected surgeon who practised in Sussex, who has represented Scotland in the Home Internationals. He won the Centenary RAFGC Gold Medal with a gross 73, using a god-like one-iron off all the non-par-three tees, having played very little ‘card-and-pencil’ golf since he had been in the Scottish six-man team in 1967 at the European Championships. He joined RAFGC in 1979 and is a member of Royal St George’s, Hollinwell (Notts GC) and a past committee member of the Royal and Ancient.

Watercolour by Harrington around 1850 shows the barreness of ‘the forest’

With regard to this book perhaps the most important aspect is that his surgeon boss was David Hamilton who invited him to become a member of the British Golf Collectors Society ‘Literati’ group of golf history writers, who have had clearly a large and helpful influence on him for this book.

Member, dog and caddy watch wife(?) with tremendous swing and who carries her own bag!

Indeed, I found the most interesting chapters to be those that described the earlier history which was alive with fascinating information, new to me, covering both individuals and social history, whereas the more modern later chapters, though I am sure highly accurate, lacked the sparkle as they seemed to duck discussing the present key differing perspectives within this Club that plays its golf across ancient common ground.

9th Earl De La Warr, the 3rd Club President quietly superceded when he decided to be the first hereditary Peer to sit on the Labour benches.

The book, comprising 290 large pages in small font, uses a discursive method of writing that is highly effective in allowing Strachan to deliver enormous amounts of information on people which connects the chapters and does so with a minimum of repeated introductions.

Abe Mitchell,

There is a structure of eighteen chapters and Strachan talks rather than lectures, and particularly for a man Sussex born and bred, I enjoyed coming across certain references, such as nearby Fonthill whose preparatory school hosted my one and only cricket century!

The book is laced with wonderful old photos often three or four to a page. The chapters cover some key personalities and topics; Horace Hutchinson (golf’s first amateur champion and professional journalist, who had an up and down relationship with the Club while a member), Abe Mitchell (the champion artisan amateur forced to turn professional), the tale of how the Club’s early membership was led by the new moneyed engineers of railway and sanitary works fame, Jack Rowe (their professional from 1892 to 1947, who designed a few courses including Lewes and was a close friend with James Braid).

Diana Fiswick, Wanda Morgan, Joyce Wetered, Cecil Leitch open the new Ladies course in 1932

Jack Smith at the top of his powerful ‘modern’ swing.

Three chapters on the Ladies Club and second course (when the Ladies Golf Union was formed in 1893, Ashdown was listed third in importance after only Wimbledon and St Andrews. The Old course at Minchinhampton was also a founder member). All of these chapters are exceptional.

There are also enjoyable pen-portraits of other members: Frank Pennink (whose ‘Golfers Companion’ became FineGolf’s lifetime golf course bible); Freddie Tait (mentioned in Luffness New’s review and the Victorians’ amateur golfing hero); Open Champion Hugh Kirkcaldy (whose putter is competed for at Rye every January); Jack Smith, the 1920s world long-driving champion who had a ‘modern’ swing; Nick Champness, the world one-arm champion in the 2000s; John Eakin the 2011 British blind champion. Finally, we do not want to miss that the book covers ‘the enchanted places’ of Ashdown Forest where A.A. Milne discovered the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.

The 11th in the 1890s

Paula Carver holing the 11th in one

Like Sherwood Forest across which Hollinwell(Notts GC) is played, Ashdown Forest is an ancient, original forest where extensive areas were open heathland. Here, birds and wildlife live on the edges of the tree-lines, feeding over the open spaces, unlike the thick regimented pine/larch forests of the modern era that shut out the sun and inhibit wildlife diversity.

Frank Pennink, whose ‘Golfer’s Companion’ 1962 was the forerunner to FineGolf.

There is little discussion of the degeneration over time of the heathland’s open character, though there are plenty of iconic photos that show the change.

Horace Hutchinson at Royal North Devon.

Strangely there are only passing references to the Cantelupe, the UK’s second oldest artisan club after Northern Burrows of Royal North Devon, and to the role played by both the Board of conservators responsible for the Forest and the commoners who retain ancient rights to brakes and litter cutting who were so often in early conflict with the Club.

Alluding to this perhaps, this book is titled: “Fair Ways in Ashdown Forest” and is described by Strachan as “The History of an Elite Golf Club Playing on Common Land for 125 years”.

The Club’s prestige is captured well along with all the many well-known families and notable members (including the distinguished golf administrator Richard Palmer) but like so many golf historians the author seems to have little knowledge of, or indeed interest in, the maintenance of the Club’s prime asset, its course.

Yew Tree Cottage, the abode of the Mitchells near the fourteenth hole.

Richard Palmer

In greenkeeper terms, generations of Mitchells have been course managers from early days and there is a magnificent two-page appendix explaining the complicated family tree but the chapter on the Mitchells is almost entirely about Abe the golfer. Chris Mitchell, who died in 2019, had worked as the course manager for over 40 years and took over from his father, whose father also was greenkeeper! Chris’s cousin David continues the family connection being the greenkeeping mechanic.

This quite outstanding family service to the Club, which may well be a unique phenomenon in GB&I golf club history is largely overlooked.

Roundtree’s 1901 watercolour across the 15th green. Clubhouse on right.

In greenkeeeping terms, there are only a few sporadic mentions, for example of Chris Mitchell clearing the ’weed of the forest‘ i.e. the self-seeding silver birches, to regenerate heather and fescues. One feels this is to undervalue the importance of the heathland agronomy and it comes over with an element of pride that Pat Matthews, one of their secretaries and a triple Cambridge blue, was noted as being the only ever Ashdown secretary to attend a STRI (Scientific Turf Research Institute) training course.

Jim Arthur, the world renown greenkeeping advisor.

The text covering the 1987 hurricane that tragically knocked over so many Sussex oaks, instead of being seen as offering an opportunity to get round some of the restrictions imposed by the Board of Conservators to open up some of the original heathland areas, merely notes that new chainsaws were needed and routine maintenance suffered. It also passes Strachan by that Jim Arthur was the Club’s agronomist.

FineGolf campaigns tirelessly for greenkeepers’ work to be all about giving golfers more enjoyment, ideally by producing firm, tight running-turf. If golfers and their historians, course architects, journalists and TV commentators just take this for granted not only do they show a lack of respect for the greenkeeping profession but they miss out on a fundamental part of golf. This topic can offer many interesting stories and narratives around the battles that are being waged between Conservation Greenkeeping and Chemical Greenkeeping and it deserves more than sniping comment.

RAF ‘ Our Environment ‘ page.

Nevertheless, some in the Club recognise the importance of communicating the correct conservation greenkeeping approach in a modern era where the slogans of “Saving the Planet” are so prominent. The ” Our Environment” page on the Club’ s website, gives clarity to the Club’s objective in creating a ‘running-golf’ course with low inputs.

Since the millennium the Club has hosted R&A Open Championship regional qualifying, an amateur International match, the McGregor Trophy and the Ladies British Open Amateur. Although the early course had many sandy areas, today it is, alongside nearby Piltdown (that I don’t recall was ever mentioned), one of the very few golf courses without a single sand bunker.

Royal Ashdown Forest has always been one of my favourite places to play two-ball golf, preferably accompanied by well-behaved dogs who are allowed on the course even during non-qualifying competitions. Colin Strachan’s enormous coffee-table book is a magnificent tribute to a very fine Club.

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