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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

The approach to the seventeenth is but one of many inspiring moments one will find at Royal Ashdown Forest. Of course, for the traveling golf writer, the problem with England (if it is a problem at all) is that if the course is great, the incomparable Bernard Darwin has already been there and penned an epitaph laserlike in its precision. And so it is with the Old course: "It is not quite like any other course of my acquaintance, and I never knew anyone who played on it and was not fond of it."

Not bad. The club's own motto, Per tot discrimina rerum, is a pretty good summing up as well. The Latin translates roughly to "Through so many kinds of difficulty"—perfect for a golf course where one's playing partners will compliment a shot that travels all of ten feet so long as it has moved from the heather back to the fairway.

It takes a great philosopher, however, to find the purest expression of this idea. For this we turn to none other than Winnie the Pooh, who captured the essence of golf in his native Ashdown Forest (not to mention the vexing issue of a jar of honey just out of reach) when he said, "Oh, bother!"

Back to Pooh Corner

If you're traveling with kids, a tour of Winnie the Pooh country is a must. First, stop by the Pooh Corner shop in Hartfield (pooh-country.co.uk) to pick up a free map and visitor's guide; the store also sells "Poohphernalia" of every description, vintage- and Disney-era alike, but the experience isn't overly commercialized. Visitors to the shop can see photos and learn the story of the real-life Winnie, the mascot of a World War I Canadian infantry brigade. The cub was carried by troop transport to England and then donated to the London Zoo, where young Christopher Robin Milne would later play with the tame bear—inside its cage!

But you'll have the most fun on the short hikes to discover the rustic locales that inspired A. A. Milne, like the Five Hundred Acre Wood and the Enchanted Place. They're all off the beaten track and uncrowded. The pleasure is in walking the vaguely marked footpath past a horse farm and through dense forest and finally happening upon the little Poohsticks Bridge just as you're thinking of turning around and heading back. Don't expect entertainment beyond what the imagination provides: They're just pretty places in the unspoiled countryside, perfect for a picnic or a game of hide-and-seek.

England's Heathland Treasures

After the first great English links were established in the late 1800s, architects turned their sights inland to the heathlands south of London. The forested terrain had previously been deemed unsuitable for golf, but the clearance of trees and heather revealed an undulating landscape with sandy soil offering linkslike playing conditions, and a slew of great courses sprang into existence around the turn of the twentieth century.

Ashdown Forest is a good staging ground for visiting the storied clubs of neighboring Surrey and Berkshire. The ultimate heathland experience might be had at Swinley Forest—provided, that is, you know a few members of the House of Lords. (The club is so secluded that even members are rumored to miss the entrance drive.) Among clubs we can reasonably access, the historic championship venues of Sunningdale (sunningdale-golfclub.co.uk), Wentworth (wentworthclub.com) and Walton Heath (whgc.co.uk) are brilliant tests of golf. All three are well-heeled operations with two layouts and steep visitor's fees. Each is about an hour's drive from Forest Row (avoid the M25 ring road during rush hour).

A well-rounded itinerary, though, would mix in a couple of smaller heathlanders like Woking (wokinggolfclub.co.uk), which some consider the first good inland course; Worplesdon (worplesdongc.co.uk); or The Addington (addingtongolf.com). West Sussex Golf Club (westsussexgolf.co.uk), an hour west of Forest Row, also has a sterling reputation. Together these layouts helped to usher in the modern era of strategic design.

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