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After five years of consultation the future of Whittington Heath Golf Club is now looking much rosier despite the proposed new high-speed railway line
When the threat of HS2 – the proposed new high-speed railway between London and Birmingham initially, then on further north - first reared its ugly head at Whittington Heath Golf Club, I travelled up in 2011 to find out more from then captain, John Tipper…
Five years ago… When the Labour government announced in 2009 that it was examining the case for a new high-speed railway (HS2) from London to first the Midlands, then eventually on to Scotland, there were always going to be winners and losers along the proposed route. Until December 2009, Whittington Heath, a long-established star of Staffordshire golf, found itself somewhere between the two - unlikely to escape unscathed, but facing a seemingly manageable impact on its beautiful heathland course.
Then on December 20, 2010 the coalition government delivered a festive downer that would have delighted Scrooge himself - where the original route had clipped the edges of the course, the revised route ploughed through the clubhouse, hurtled on down the 9th fairway, and exited by the 7th green, effectively cutting this Harry Colt classic in half - decades of history potentially wiped out for a mere 20 seconds of travel time.
As Tipper, the man with the dubious honour of the 2011 captaincy, quipped before our more serious conversation, “They saw me coming, didn’t they! We knew it was scheduled to come through and we knew it would clip the corner off the course, but we didn’t have a problem with that because we own more land, which isn’t currently part of the course. It would have affected the 15th hole, and probably the 16th tee, and we thought with a bit of redesign we could shore things up without any major problems.”
That all changed when the revised route burst straight through the clubhouse doors. While it may be sad that a building that has also served as a racecourse grandstand and soldiers’ home looks set to end up as railway rubble, Tipper’s focus really lay outside. “What’s upsetting is that it’s a very old, long-established club, which a lot of people are very…” “…emotionally attached to?” I interjected when he struggled for the right words. “Yes,” he nodded.
“But not only that – there are a lot of people who very much applaud the club for what it is, the quality of the course and so on. It’s not the clubhouse we’re most concerned about,” he continued, waving his arms in the direction of the course. “That’s our prize asset; that’s what people appreciate.”
Autumn 2016… Thankfully, on September 20 this year, Whittington Heath was able to announce a resolution satisfactory to all parties with the approval of plans to preserve the future of its 130 year-old club and course following extensive consultation over the last five years with HS2 – a consultation believed to be the first of its kind relating to the HS2 project.
HS2 is currently slated to cut through eight acres of the course resulting in the loss of five holes, the historic clubhouse and the greenkeeper's compound. The Government has now agreed to pay for major redevelopment on adjoining land that will pave the way to a replacement clubhouse, five new holes, a practice range, a reworking of five existing holes and a new car park. Highly regarded course architect, Jonathan Gaunt, is the man enlisted with creating the new holes and effecting the other changes to the golf course.
The work affecting Whittington Heath will be carried out as part of HS2 phase one. Club captain Pete Espin commented following the announcement: "After consultation with members about the course of action we should take, we made a conscious decision to work with HS2 and preserve 130 years of golf and a much longer history for the overall site. We could simply have accepted the HS2 route as a signal for the course's closure but we've worked closely with them and we're delighted with the outcome under the circumstances."
A HS2 spokesperson said: "We are delighted that the members of Whittington Heath Golf Club have been able to secure new land that will enable its long golfing traditions to continue into the future."
So all’s well that ends well. Of course, no golf club would really want a major railway line cutting through its tranquil pride and joy, but this has been all about finding the best possible solution for all parties given that the proposed route for the line had edged towards immovable status.
It is good news indeed that the club’s future has been secured and that all seem happy with the outcome, notwithstanding the considerable disruption that all the work will bring over the coming years.
Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and even instruction despite his own somewhat iffy swing (he knows how to do it, but just can't do it himself). He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 89 of the Next 100. He has played well over 900 courses worldwide in 35 countries, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content. On his first trip to Abu Dhabi a decade ago he foolishly asked Paul Casey what sort of a record he had around the course there. "Well, I've won it twice if that's what you mean!" came the reply...
Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf
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