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All Nature, No Bunkers

Trevor Ray Hart A different breed: member Simon Radcliffe and his playing partner Leo.

Photo: Trevor Ray Hart

Even better, the area is an excellent family destination. After all, it was here that the writer A. A. Milne, who made his country home in nearby Hartfield village, created one of the most beloved children's characters of all time in Winnie the Pooh. The timeless adventures of his son, Christopher Robin, and the small bear he befriends unfold in the pastoral settings of the forest—including the Enchanted Place, a hilltop clearing where Christopher Robin has commemorated the memory of his father—and they remain largely untouched to this day.

Writing in the eighth century, The great historian Bede described Ashdown Forest as "all but inaccessible... the resort of large herds of deer and wolves and wild boars." Beginning in 1372, the forest functioned as a royal hunting ground—a deer park equipped with a boundary fence that allowed animals to enter but not escape. The land was held by royal commission by generations of earls of Dorset and Bristol, but in the fourteenth century, commoners living on the forest's periphery were granted the right to graze their animals on the land and forage dead timber for firewood. As tenant farmers with small holdings outside the forest, use of the common land was essential to their survival, and their ongoing defense of these ancient rights pitted them against various lords of the manor who sought to manage their environmental impact.

Beginning in the mid-1870s, the forest's owner, the seventh Earl De La Warr (pronounced "Delaware"), became involved in a protracted court case, again focused on the issue of commoners' land-use rights. In 1885 Parliament settled the case by adopting the Ashdown Forest Act, which formally invested a Board of Conservators, established four years earlier, with broad authority over the forest. The board, which still exists today, would consist of twelve elected commoners and a representative of the lord of the manor. By coming together as they did, the people of Ashdown Forest prepared the ground for the creation of one of the most distinct golf courses in the world.

Three years after the Ashdown Forest Act, the earl, noting the golf course building boom taking place in England (forty-three new courses had emerged from 1880 to 1887, and no fewer than 427 layouts would open during the 1890s), provided the initial encouragement for the foundation of a golf club on his family's land. He would eventually become the club's first president.

According to the club history, the British Army came to the forest in May of that year for training maneuvers, and it was then that His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge played his first shot: "Attired in cocked hat with plumes, tight blue coat and a sword, he took a club from John Rowe, the professional, who had made it specially for him, and played off. It was quite a good shot for his first attempt and traveled some sixty yards—the duke was delighted!"

By July, Earl De La Warr's efforts and the club's hospitality culminated in the bestowal of the "Royal" title—a remarkable achievement for such a young club, and one that only sixty-one worldwide hold today. The title confers a great deal of prestige, but it is tempered by the club's connection to the common land, which gave rise to an egalitarian atmosphere that echoes through to today.

The Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club has essentially integrated three societies into one—the eponymous main club; the Ladies Club, formed in 1889; and the Cantelupe Club, established in 1892 to foster goodwill among the local artisans. All can claim legendary figures as their own. Famed writer and amateur champion Horace Hutchinson was a stalwart of the main club. Joyce Wethered and Cecil Leitch squared off on the West course, the second-oldest ladies' course in England. And Abe Mitchell, considered the best player of his era (the 1920s) never to win the Open, learned the game as part of the Cantelupe. Today, the annual match between the blue-blood "toffs" and the artisans—marked by "competitive golf and much alcoholic enjoyment," according to the club history—is a favorite tradition in this friendly association between clubs.


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