Driving into a small town on England’s eastern coast, my GPS indicates the time is right to turn. But the roadway seems implausibly small. I take the turn anyway and end up coming down a slight paved road half covered in sand. At the end of the road I emerge at some dunes in front of a rambling building that I take as the clubhouse of Royal West Norfolk. I’ve arrived at a club I’ve long wanted to see.
One of England’s most historic clubs, Royal West Norfolk is also known as Brancaster. Built on a low lying strip of land between a coastal marsh and a singular dine that runs along the beach, Brancaster is a throw back in time long before titanium drivers, or even persimmon for that matter.
The course has long intrigued my largely for the fact that the roadway into the club floods about 190 times a year, largely cutting the club off at high tide (which fortunately happens largely at night, but occasionally during the day as well). I was greeted by the club’s secretary, Ian Symington, who sat and chatted about the club.
“We’ve never sacked an employee here in more than 120 years,” he said, laughing, though I don’t think he was joking. The truth is there are few more welcoming, understated clubs than Royal West Norfolk. You can wear jeans in the clubhouse. A bunch of royals play at the club, but there are no special privileges for them. Ian points out there are no reserved parking spaces for the club captain or the like in the small lot. If it is full they park in the beach lot and walk up. I liked the place immediately.
And the golf course measured up to what I imagined. Running nine holes out along the linksland before turning back, I played Brancaster in a howling wind. The opening holes were relatively plain over flat ground, but one doesn’t expect Brancaster to be showy. That’s not what the place is about. By the fourth hole, a cute par three protected by a railway tie bunker, you get a sense of how tight Brancaster is in spot. Only a few paces behind is another green for one of the holes on the returning nine. That was followed by the fifth hole, a long par four played blindly over an oval bunker cut in a hill. At this point the land was more defined by slight rises and dips and well bunkered. By the time you reach the conclusion of the front nine you’re in the coastal marsh region, with large areas that flood at points. The 8th, a short par five, forces golfers to play over the tidal areas twice (it wasn’t flooded when I was there) and the 9th floods in front of the green.
Ian told me the course was created to use the prevailing wind, so that means it is almost 500 yards longer on the front than the back. Thank God, since it seemed impossible to play heading back into the breeze, which kicked up to 40 mph at varying points during my round. Holes on the back largely played along the dune that separates the course from the beach, but the two standouts played in a crosswind, the 12th, protected by a bunker on the corner had a green set in a hillside above a sharp rise in the fairway. The green was almost a punchbowl and was fascinating. The following hole was a short four that might be drivable in some winds. Not on the day I played it though when it was a driver and a pitch downwind.
Royal West Norfolk is the kind of course that likely never plays the same way twice, and in the wind I played it in, 6,500 yards was plenty. Full of pot bunkers, the occasional blind shot, with relatively sedate greens, the course was all I had expected.
As I sat on the upper veranda eating lunch (it is the area of the club where I could use my laptop) I looked down at the beach revelers and golfers preparing to head out, as they have been doing at Brancaster for 120 years. It isn’t shocking they continue to return, and as Ian tells me the club has a significant waiting list. Not surprising at all.
Where to stay: I spent the evening at a hotel about 10 minutes from Sheringham GC called the Links Country Park Hotel. A rambling building on a pretty piece of property with its own golf course, the hotel changed ownership in recent years. It was comfortable and the location was tip top.
Where to eat: A few weeks ago a restaurant called the Red Hart started following me on Twitter. I checked its Tripadvisor rating and found it received top marks. So I jumped in my car and drove a few minutes down some winding roads to the pub. A beef stew and a beer later, I was quite pleased with my choice. Worth investigating.