The Golf Course in Surrey’s Historic Landscape – Part 1
In July 2017 the Ordnance Survey released an open dataset comprising the land coverage of green spaces and their uses in Great Britain. In Surrey, golf courses were found to cover 2.65% of the county’s total area. The average for Britain was 0.54%. With this same dataset arranged by Local Authority, Woking Borough took the top spot of the national ranking with 10.74% of its land area comprising golf course (Figure 1), Runnymede came in third place with 6.83%, and Epsom and Ewell in fourth with 6.3%. Second place was taken by the London Borough of Richmond which was also a part of Surrey until 1965. A near clean sweep of the top four for Surrey. Surrey Heath and Elmbridge also made the top 20.
But what does this have to do with Surrey’s historic environment?
We’ve spent centuries apportioning, designing, creating and building upon areas of land for the dedicated purpose of sport, meaning that there is a meaningful story of the county’s landscape history enveloped in these spaces. The earliest accepted reference to cricket involved a game of creckett that took place at the Royal Grammar School (Surrey HER Monument 8672) in Guildford in the mid-16th century. The event involved a dispute over a piece of land upon which schoolboys had claimed to play cricket. On the Epsom Downs, the first horse race is recorded as having taken place in 1661 and a ‘Horse Course’ is outlined on a 1768 map (SHER 23581), to become what is now the world famous Epsom Downs Racecourse, home of The Derby. An oval race track was identified on Epsom Common where foot races were thought to have taken place circa 1700 (SHER 286). Active and abandoned sports grounds, pitches, and courses are spread over the landscape and preserved within them are stories of Surrey’s past waiting to be interpreted. This knowledge has also been preserved in the Surrey Historic Environment Record (HER), the county’s comprehensive archaeological database.
The origins of historic golf courses differ, sometimes as personal creations of estate owners, or the conceptions of golf clubs upon the sale of estate land. All these courses would have often gone through several phases of development, expansion, and in some cases, demise. By exploring the archaeological records of Surrey’s golf courses – that make up 2.65% of the county’s landscape – we are able to better understand an important force in the shaping of Surrey’s historic landscape. In part 1 of this exploration we’ll be looking at the emergence of golf and the subsequent transformation of landscape and land use into spaces designated and adapted exclusively for the game. In part 2, we consider the evolution and subsequent revolution of golf course architecture that took centre stage in the county.
The arrival of golf on the Hurst
On the common meadow of Molesey Hurst, in West Molesey in 1758, transpired what is considered to be the first recorded game of golf in England. Dr Alexander Carlyle describes how he and a group of fellow Scots were invited by the actor William Garrick to his home in Hampton. Garrick’s home, now known as Garrick’s Villa (Grade I Listed), was located directly over the river from Molesey Hurst (in the modern day London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, then part of Surrey (Figure 2).
The group of Scots were told to “bring golf clubs and balls that we might play at that game on Molesly [sic] Hurst. … Immediately after we arrived, we crossed the river [presumably at the Hampton Ferry] to the golfing ground, which was very good”. After their game of golf, Carlyle describes how he played a trick shot hitting the ball from the villa’s garden (Grade II Registered Park & Garden) on the north side of the road, through the tunnel Garrick had built beneath – to access the rest of his garden and Temple folly built in honour of William Shakespeare (Grade I Listed) – and rolling it down into the Thames (Figure 3). From this recorded event, Molesey Hurst is our earliest example of repurposing the English landscape for the game of golf.
The golf course would develop very little through the 18th and early-19th centuries in England. Golfers would continue sharing – or competing for – use of the common land with non-golf-playing people and non-golf-playing animals. With little to nothing in the way of design and landscaping, the short courses would be laid out on top of the land to best make use of natural features available. A playable grass length would be maintained by grazing animals until the invention of the hand mower in the 1870s. Caddies were vital for all players as they guided them around the course, also providing sand to tee up the ball as there were no prepared tees or teeing areas. As there were often no flagsticks, caddies would also stand over the hole location as an indicator to the player of where to aim.
The emergence of the course
The subsequent transformation of areas of common land into exclusive spaces designated as golf courses demonstrates a growth in popularity seen in the late-19th century. Established in 1886 and considered to be Surrey’s oldest existing club, Guildford Golf Club remains located on the chalk downland at Merrow. The original 6-hole course (SHER 23580) was set on the area of common land in the west of the Merrow Downs, also formed part of the Onslow Estate (Figure 4). With the permission of the Earl of Onslow, and at an annual rent of one shilling, the course was quickly expanded eastwards to form an 18-hole course. The original club house (SHER 23575) was built in 1891 and was located to the south-west at One Tree Hill Corner.
The development of new balls and clubs allowed players to hit the ball further, which meant the courses needed to be continually lengthened. In 1901 permission was granted to lengthen the 18-hole course even further eastward, and in doing this they would abandon the site of the original 6-hole course altogether. The current club house to the south of Grove Road would replace the original one at One Tree Hill Corner, which would be converted into a residential property.
The divergence of the course
The types of landscapes designated for golf would be transformed in the late-19th century. Surrey’s heathland offered large, undeveloped spaces on which to develop courses. England’s first heathland golf course (SHER 22595) was established on Hook Heath in Woking in 1893, with the land leased from the Necropolis Company. Surrey is renowned for its heathland courses, visually distinct for how naturally the courses fit into their setting. The undulating sandy terrain of the heath provided natural ground highly suited to the game, initially negating the necessity for drastic alterations. The formation of more heathland courses (Figure 5) would follow Woking at Puttenham (SHER 23613), Reigate Heath (SHER 23584), Walton Heath (SHER 18107), Burhill (SHER 22151), Worplesdon (SHER 22150), West Hill (SHER 23622), St Georges Hill (SHER 23623) and Wentworth (SHER 23624). The cluster of three premier heathland courses Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon are considered to have shared value and are known as ‘the three Ws’.
A photograph from 1913 (Figure 6) shows a group of men and women playing golf (with child caddies!) on the course at Reigate Heath (SHER 23584) with the distinctive mid-18th century windmill, later chapel (SHER 3638) in the background. The 19th-century club house (SHER 15417) remains located adjacent to the mill. You can see the green’s distinctive stripes indicating it was prepared using a mechanical lawn mower, with the flag marking the hole to the left, and what appears to be a linear ditch or possibly bunker acting as a hazard running along the near side of the green. Surrey’s heathland courses are considered to have prospered by retaining much of their unique natural character, whilst also preventing their allocation for development.
The Course of Landscape
Surrey’s golf courses are entwined in its historic landscape. The first courses emerged on areas of common land shared with other non-golfing commons users, as seen on Molesey Hurst in 1758. Possibly for the next century, the landscape of these primitive courses also saw little or no specific adaptation for golf. As the popularity of the sport grew amongst the middle classes, so did a demand for exclusive, specifically adapted spaces to play the game. Clubs would begin leasing areas of land to designate for the game, as seen at Guildford and later Woking. This creation of spaces designated for golf allowed for the purposeful designing and landscaping of courses by specialist architects. Along with the continual development of new courses to eventually comprise 2.65% of the county’s landscape today, the addition of club houses in the late-19th century would further imprint the sport within Surrey’s historic landscape. Although now largely exclusive, privately owned spaces, the endurance of public footpaths cutting across the county’s historic courses serves to highlight their origins in a once shared landscape.
Find out more in Part 2
The creation of these designated, exclusive spaces for the game would allow golf course architects to experiment and evolve the practice of course design. What would follow in Surrey at the turn of the 20th century is considered today a turning point in the philosophy of golf course architecture – the study of how designers utilise and modify the elements of the available landscape to create a course. This revolution would inspire golf’s best known architects, from the 1900s through to the late 1920s – course architecture’s ‘Golden Age’ – to create golf’s most renowned courses, many of which are located in Surrey. Utilising the wealth of knowledge stored in records in the Surrey HER, part 2 continues the pursuit of an archaeological understanding of the golf course in Surrey’s historic environment.
Carlyle, A., Hill Burton, J., (1860). Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle [online]. London: W Blackwood. [Viewed 1/5/20]. Available from: https://archive.org/details/autobiographyre01burtgoog/page/n7/mode/2up
Chapman Davies, H., (2009). Browning’s Down and Guildford Golf Club. Surrey Archaeological Society Bulletin. 418, 11-13.
European Institute of Golf Course Architects, (2017). Golf Courses as Designed Landscapes of Historic Interest. Swindon: Historic England.
Fookes, G., (1987). The History of Manor Park, Whyteleafe. Local History Records (Bourne Society). XXVI.
Low, J. L. (ed.), (1910). Nisbet’s Golf Year Book 1910. London: James Nisbet.
Low, J. L., (2010). Woking and the Modern Golf Architecture. Through the Green (British Golf Collectors’ Society). June. 10-17.
Ravenhill, W., intro., 1974, 250 Years of Map Making in the County of Surrey: A Collection of Reproductions of Printed Maps Published Between the Years 1579-1823 (Lympne: Harry Margery).
Seb Jones, HER Assistant