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whittington heath

How Whittington Heath bit back when HS2 threatened the club’s existence

There are still question marks over the nation’s new high-speed rail line, but the bulldozers are ploughing on at this historic Staffordshire club
 

The rail project that’s dividing the nation might have lots of people wringing their hands but the concerns over HS2 have barely raised an eyebrow at Whittington Heath.

There is no talk of costs here – you can measure the scheme’s impact the moment you arrive in the Staffordshire club’s car park.

The timbers of a huge new clubhouse are rising with every passing day and, a short walk from that burgeoning building, five new holes – already laid out, seeded and bunkered – give more than just the impression of how a radically altered layout is going to look.

The builders and bulldozers bring certainty to Whittington Heath, who feared for their existence after modified HS2 plans saw the line carve a path right through the centre of the course.

The club’s been around since 1887, playing out of a clubhouse that was once an old racecourse stand and around a course that Harry Colt remoulded in the 1920s.

The new railway line threatened all that and only a radical redesign, put together with the help of HS2, prevented Whittington Heath from becoming a casualty of progress.

whittington heath

Architect Jonathan Gaunt was brought in not only to construct the new holes but also align the existing course to fit. The first stage of that was the transformation of every bunker on the current layout.

Now with the countdown to the opening of the new clubhouse and course well under way, there is not the sense of looking back and lamenting what’s lost from those shepherding through the changes. There is optimism about what the future’s going to bring.

“I was a junior member here, just over 20 years ago, and when I heard the train track was coming through it was really devastating for me as a former member,” said recently installed general manager Colin White. “A lot of the members were devastated at the prospect of closing but they’ve turned that round and the atmosphere now is phenomenal.

“Everyone is so excited. They can see the new course, the new building going up, the change and the future of the club.

“It’s development, isn’t it? It’s moving forward. Change is good. It’s sad to lose some of the history but we have to look to the future.

“That’s what our members and golfers want and that’s what we will deliver.”

Rebuilding Whittington Heath has probably been one of Gaunt’s biggest design challenges.

The course’s heathland characteristics have been gradually eroded through the decades and, in places, the prevalence of trees makes the feel far more parkland.

While the land for the new holes was conveniently found right next door to the existing course, integrating what was essentially wide-open farmland into a heavily wooded environment has been far from easy.

“There is very little that we can do about the first five holes, they are on the new land and you’ll be playing out in an open landscape,” he said. “That’s going to be the case for a long time into the future. We’re going to try to create more of an open landscape within the existing golf course.

“Work has been done already and it’s going to be an ongoing regime to create some clearings, vistas and more open areas.

whittington heath

“The fields [on the new land] are free draining sand and we had an opportunity there to recreate heathland.

“When you look at the old historical maps, it was part of Whittington Heath. And by creating the new holes on the new land, we’re going to be integrating mitigation for lost heathland along the railway line.

“We’ve finished construction of the five holes on the new land. It has involved new construction from start to finish – from tee to green.

“The work started on that land back in April and it was completed at the end of October. Prior to that, it was work on the existing golf course, where we remodelled existing bunkers, built new tees and new fairways for some of the remodelled holes and realigned holes.

“After the work on the new land, we went back on the existing land to build the new 8th green and that has been turfed.”

Gaunt went back through the archives, looking at photographs going back to the 1940s to get an idea of bunker shapes and greens complexes before incorporating those into his five new creations.

The new 1st is a particular highlight for him, with an elevated tee and a slight right to left dogleg into a raised green.

He’s hoping the spectacular landscape – you can see as much as 20 miles around you from the panorama – will make that opening stretch a fine addition to Whittington Heath, rather than a necessary adjunct when the revamped layout is fully in play next year.

“It’s been a real pleasure and a challenge,” he said of the project. “With the history associated with Whittington Heath and the work Harry Colt did back in the 1920s and 30s, there are some amazing green and tee complexes, some fabulous landscape that the golf course currently plays through.

“We’ve tried to use that as an influence within the design – not necessarily replicate it but try to create similarities in the characteristics to fairways, approaches to greens and surrounds and make it fun to play.”

What do you think of the redevelopment at Whittington Heath? Have your say in the comments or tweet me.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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