The Golf Course in Surrey’s Historic Landscape – Part 2

July 31, 20209:35 amLeave a Comment

Imprinted in the landscape

Part 1 of our examination of archaeological records held in the Surrey Historic Environment Record (HER) established how the county’s golf courses are imprinted in its historic landscape. This can be traced from the recorded emergence of the sport in England – in Surrey to be precise – in the mid-18th century, on common land. This evolved into the purposeful designation and adaptation of spaces exclusively for golf in the later-19th century, to resemble the arena of the sport we recognise today, the golf course.

Part 2 of this story picks up with the creation of these exclusive spaces for the game that allowed for course designers to experiment with the practice of hole layouts, feature design and placement. This canvas for experimentation on the golf courses of Surrey, would give rise to specialist course architects, and the evolution of the philosophies by which they interpreted, utilised and modified the available landscape to shape the experience of players. Alterations to Surrey’s heathland course at Woking at the turn of the 20th century are recognised as the beginning of a revolution in the philosophy of golf course architecture, instigating a ‘Golden Age’ of course design and creation in Britain that lasted through to the late 1920s.

The evolution of the course

Unlike the natural rugged terrains of the coastal ‘links’ courses, the inland courses on meadow, heath or parkland provided little in the way of natural obstacles or hazards, besides trees, ditches and hedges, to give the course a unique challenge. Features such as bunkers were designed into courses to hinder the golfer and their ball on their path from tee to hole.

The way the layout of these features were designed into the landscape of courses changed over time. Prior to the development of new equipment in the mid to late-19th century, the game was mostly played along the ground as it was particularly difficult to get the ball airborne for all but the most proficient golfers. The philosophy of course design at this time took a ‘penal’ approach, where designers aimed simply to penalise poor ground shots by placing obstacles across the direct line of play to block the route to the hole, and rewarding the player capable of playing a lofted shot to clear them. In a photograph (Figure 1) of Bletchingley golf course (SHER 23576), opened in 1901, what appears to be a designed hazard in the form of a linear bank integrated with a bunker running directly across the line of the fairway. A large rectangular terrace, most probably for a green, also appears to have been built into the slope in the background. The 9 hole course was improved with the advice of renowned golf course designer James Braid, and likely closed sometime in the 1940s when it disappears from mapping, and it is now mostly under the path of the M23.

Figure 1: Bletchingley Golf Course, 1909. Image courtesy of the Surrey History Centre ref: 7828/2/18/173.

Similar to that at Bletchingley, course features in the form of linear banks demonstrating the penal approach to design at the time are visible on the 9 hole course at Manor Park (SHER 5975) in Whyteleafe circa 1910 (Figure 2). The course emerged after the selling off of parcels of the Manor Park Estate in 1896, and two years later the Warlingham Golf Club was established. Features also reportedly included a steep chalk cliff that needed to be cleared and slopes obscuring the greens from view as they were approached.

Figure 2: Manor Park Golf Course, Whyteleafe circa 1910. Image courtesy of the Surrey History Centre ref: 1528.

Discernable earthwork features in LiDAR imagery hint at Manor Park’s former life as a golf course (SHER 13738) (Figure 3). Two rectangular platforms appear to correspond with the first and seventh greens according to a sketch of the course’s layout. Two symmetrical linear features look to resemble a pair of ‘wing’ bunkers or banks. Wing hazards were positioned either side of the fairway or green to penalise shots mishit slightly left or right of the target. Caterham Manor (SHER 20968) – an enlargement of Manor Cottage originally built in 1818 – would be repurposed as the club house. The Second World War brought the end of the course at Manor Park, as troops were stationed in the park. Much of the park, including most of the clubhouse, would be destroyed during bombing during the war.

Figure 3: LiDAR 1 metre Hillshade. Overlay data depicts the park boundary, the clubhouse/Caterham Manor (MSE20968) and possible course features (MSE13738). © Environment Agency Lidar DTM 2015 1 Metre.

These designed hazards at Bletchingley and Manor Park, placed across the line of play demonstrate the penal school of golf course design. The penal layout of courses would eventually result in the game’s loss of appeal as it became almost unplayable for those unable to get the ball airborne, that being the majority of players. This school of design also met criticism for its rather unsubtly formulaic appearance in the landscape.

The development of new equipment making it easier for lesser-skilled golfers to get the ball airborne prompted a new approach to the design of courses suitable for all players – strategy. This novel approach, inspired by the original course of the Old Course at St Andrews, offered alternate routes to the green with varying amounts of risk and reward. This would require the player to think about their own ability and consider the best approach.

Changes to the 4th hole on the course at Woking Golf Club (SHER 22595) in 1901 are recognised as signifying the turning point in golf course architecture from the penal to strategic design approach. The pair of bunkers replaced a (penal) geometric cross bunker and were positioned where a good drive would normally finish (SHER 23626; Figure 4). They were modelled on the Principle’s Nose bunker on the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. The placement of these bunkers forced the player to decide whether to risk aiming their drive between the bunker and out of bounds to the right, or to play safely to the open fairway to the left.

Figure 4: The 4th hole at Woking Golf Club with the surviving bunkers that were added in 1901. Aerial photograph 2012-2013 Environment Agency Open Government Licence.

This philosophy, incorporating more variation in features and asymmetry in their placement, also created a more natural appearance in the landscape, despite being more designed. This inclusion of alternate ways of approaching the green also required the widening of holes, which, in turn, increased the amount land required for courses. The heathland courses of Surrey – most notably Woking, Walton Heath, St George’s Hill and Wentworth – offered ample space to sprawl and experiment with different strategic designs and were where ideas were exchanged and developed in the early 20th century.

Courses of historic interest

By the late-19th and early-20th century designated spaces of land for the exclusive use as a golf course emerged. Also introduced in this period were built hazards and features in the course design representing the penal school of design, as seen in Surrey at Bletchingley and Manor Park. In importing the design strategy of the Old Course at St Andrews, ‘the home of golf’, the alterations in the design of Woking’s 4th hole in 1901 are considered key to the revolution in golf course architecture in England at the turn of the 20th century. The country’s most renowned architects would study Woking to create the best-known strategically designed courses across Britain. The archaeology of Surrey’s golf courses not only reveal a story of the development of the county’s historic landscape, but also the evolution of the sport itself.

Seb Jones, HER Assistant


European Institute of Golf Course Architects., (2017). Golf Courses as Designed Landscapes of Historic Interest. Swindon: Historic England.

Low, J. L. (ed.), (1910). Nisbet’s Golf Year Book 1910. London: James Nisbet.

Low, J.L. Woking and the Modern Golf Architecture

Written by HER Assistant

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