Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Reay

Chapter 2:  There is a wild beauty to this place which is quite different from the west. After the high uplands of Sutherland, Caithness is a gentler, flatter and a largely treeless landscape, where landmarks stand out like exclamation marks on the horizon. The golf course at Reay (pronounced Ray) owes its existence and survival to the occupants of Sandside House to the west and the Dounreay atomic energy site to the east. Both are visible from various parts of the course.
Thomas Pilkington, the St Helens glass manufacturer, acquired Sandside House and some of the surrounding estates in the late 1800s for use as a shooting and fishing retreat. Like many landed families of the nineteenth century, the Pilkington clan, relatives, friends and accompanying servants would up sticks from smoky Lancashire and spend the summer sporting in the far north. The contrast between industrialised St Helens and the wilds of Reay could not have been more pronounced. When not shooting, contemplating salmon or installing an early version of double glazing, Thomas’s thoughts turned to golf. Looking east from the upper, condensation-free windows of Sandside House, he would see the perfect location for his very own course …

Chapter 2 -Reay

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – The Road East

CHAPTER 1: Elizabeth Sparkes is buried in the small graveyard at Balnakeil, but I cannot find her. Somewhere, she is lying among the old stones, eternally listening to the sea. She is so far from home and days from her sisters: Mary, Anne, Julia and Harriet. She has no hope of escape, eternally at rest in bad company.
In the same graveyard, Donald McMurdo is easier to find; his tomb is immediately visible, built into a niche in the south wall. A serial murderer and henchman for Clan Mackay, his speciality was to throw his victims down the blowhole at nearby Smoo Cave. Such was his reputation, that the local clergy would not countenance his burial at Balnakeil but were persuaded, by a compromise and maybe the greasing of palms, to bury him half in and half out of the sacred ground. The result is that his memory is better preserved than those of the good souls that surround him. He would no doubt have been proud of his epitaph: Donald McMurdo here lies low – Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe.

The Road East – Durness to Reay

Golf in the Wild – Going Home is available to purchase from Amazon and from this website.

Printed versions of the first book, Golf in the Wild, have sold out, but can be read on Kindle.

A different sort of golfer …

…  a different sort of biker.  Durness is the place where Golf in the Wild ends and its sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, begins.  The image of the 8th green shows a ball adjacent to the pin – it will not have arrived in regulation.  The approach has the characteristics of an infinity pool – just fairway and water.  It takes confidence to go for the invisible green, anything long seemingly destined for the briny sea.

The view from the 8th/17th green takes in many highlights of the course: the dunes and the edge of Balnakeil Bay; sturdy Balnakeil House – available for rent to the well-heeled and grubby – it has six bathrooms; the graveyard where lies the Clan MacKay henchman, Donald McMurdo – was ill to his friend and worse to his foe; the 18th tee, which provides such a glorious finish across a rocky inlet and the Clubhouse which resembles a coastguard station, forever keeping watch for those in peril on the course.

The view from the 8th green, looking east

The image does not sparkle, it was not one of those days – hazy sunshine turned dreich, but I was grateful for the benign conditions; when the winds blow strong across the Parph from Cape Wrath, this will be an inhospitable place for golf and much else besides.

It was taken in August 2012 and, sad to relate, I have never played the course since, despite becoming a country member for a couple of years when the club’s finances were stretched. Their secretary, Lucy Mackay, has always been very supportive of Golf in the Wild.  That is not to say I have never returned to Balnakeil and Durness – I have been several times, most recently in 2021 by motorcycle.

The NCA Motorcycle Club at Balnakeil Bay – May 2021

My standard line is that I have yet to fathom how to carry golf clubs on my BMW GS, but as I proved on Barra, dependence on my own clubs is entirely illusory, indeed, my game seemed to benefit from using a mixed set of hire clubs.  With this in mind, I am planning more extreme wild golf by motorcycle – in 2023 the intention is to ride to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and play golf under the midnight sun on Lofoten Links.  I have travelled there by car, sea, ship and aeroplane which only leaves the motorcycle to complete the set.  On my last trip I travelled with my eldest son by train from Oslo to Bodø and then took a short flight to Svolvær.  It was the beginning of March and snow was still thick on the ground – the Lofoten Islands are well within the Arctic Circle such that Lofoten Links will only open from 5th of May until 15th of October in 2023.

The road to Lofoten Links – March 2020

 

Near Lofoten Links – March 2020

Why post this now? It is all part of the process of making it happen – a commitment to myself, and now, to others. It is about not losing face.

Barra

As mentioned in the previous post, this year’s motorcycle adventures have included a trip to the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  The initial incentive was to play wild golf on its one and only golf course, but the travel by motorcycle turned the journey into something special and memorable.  Some many days later, I have finally finished the video of the trip.

The Isle of Barra Golf Club has been built on rough and rocky terrain. It is not suitable for the plough and even less so the mower, instead, the course relies on grazing cattle who lack the necessary close-cutting skills of sheep. Unlike the ovine, the bovine are untidy eaters. They also take relief across the course, forcing the golfer to do similar. At least, when we played, they kept to the high ground where they surveyed our every move from atop Cnoc an Fhithich.

Would I honestly recommend going to Barra to play golf, maybe not. Instead, go to Barra for Barra, it is a wonderful destination with scenery as remarkable as anywhere else in the world … oh, and while you are there, don’t miss the opportunity to have a unique golfing experience.

The full golfing story will be told in the next edition of Golf Quarterly.

Where have I been …

… all over the place. It’s not that I think anyone has missed me, it’s just that my WordPress licence is up for renewal and I have not posted since the end of May.

Ten years ago, when I seriously returned to motorised two wheels, for the first time in decades, I never imagined it would come to this. A year that started with a wet ride down to the Triumph factory has continued with many day trips and some longer ‘adventures’ – Orkney and Shetland in June; Newhaven in August and the Outer Hebrides in September. All told, I have accumulated just short of 10,000 miles, the majority on the BMW R1250 GS, the only bike I, and my backside, could contemplate covering 376 miles in one day trip.(Newhaven to Hexham).

All this goes some way to explaining my lack of posts on WordPress – days in the saddle, hours on the golf course and too little time at home with the Good Wife. So, there are no motorcycle pictures in this post, just a selection from this week’s escape to north Northumberland where we are enjoying a lazy seven days together. We should do this more often:

The Gate at Bamburgh Castle.

Illuminated sheep at Bamburgh Castle, celebrating the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north east.

Beadnell Bay and Newton Links – the estuary is fed by Brunton Burn, Tughall Burn and Long Nanny.

Watery dog walking – Beadnell Bay

The Coastguard look-out hut and Bass Rock, North Berwick.

Monday is washing day – North Berwick

Norham Castle, high above the banks of the Tweed – painted by J. M. W. Turner on many occasions.

Heatherslaw Light Railway – sadly, no steam running today..

And for those who need a motorcycle fix, this is the video of my Orkney and Shetland adventure – you will need patience to see it through to the end:

 

Hunstanworth

Inspired by a tweet from Dan Jackson, earlier this week, I headed south into County Durham on the Scrambler:
County Durham was among the saddest of the ‘sad shires’ of WW1 (with the Durham Light Infantry alone losing 13,000 men killed), but the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Hunstanworth in the North Pennines was lucky, and is the county’s only ‘thankful village’.

According to Wiki: The church, dedicated to St James the Less, was built in 1781 on a medieval site. The village was designed and built around the original parish church. The Reverend Daniel Capper commissioned architect Samuel Sanders Teulon to create the village in 1862-3; as well as rebuilding the church, Teulon delivered a vicarage and stable block, school and school-house and a mix of terraced, semi-detached and detached houses, all constructed of sandstone.

The church is also home to a hand-blown organ by Gray & Davison which was on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

A charming video is also available on the Thankful Villages website.

The church at Hunstanworth

The hand-blown organ by Gray & Davison which was on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The stained glass windows, Hunstanworth Church

Ancient gravestones – one of many

The road home – to the right of my highest mirror is College Farm (near Edmundbyers), abandoned many years ago.

Starting the year …

… the way I intend to continue – on a bike on January 1st. Plenty of rain meant there was no salt on the roads and the temperatures well above 10ºC – almost perfect riding conditions, but for the mucky surfaces.  I am fortunate to live among country roads, not best for a sports bike, but ideal for the Scrambler.  A couple of miles north and I am on the Military Road, which runs from Heddon in the east to Greenhead in the west.  For much of its length, it runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall and north of the old Stanegate Roman road.  There are any number of diversions, south or north, which take you away from this almost arrow-straight tarmac, built by Field Marshal Wade in 1746 to enable easy movement of the troops and equipment necessary to supress the Jacobite uprising.  It is a wild, exposed, glorious landscape.

The arrow-straight Military Road near High Teppermoor.

The road less traveled – between Hound Hill and Melkridge Common.

Towards Gibbs Hill from Hound Hill.

Parked up at the foot of Hound Hill.

Towards Cowburn Rigg from Hound Hill.

Crindledykes.

Crindledykes

Chillingham Castle

The approach road is black shale and pot-holed – you instantly know this is not a prettified National Trust or English Heritage property. Parked at the end of the long drive is a green Austin bus dating from the 1950s – in dark green with gold lettering, it proudly displays the castle emblem. Inevitably it is a bat. Count Orlok would feel at home here but the castle is more Gormenghast than Transylvania. It is haunted by a variety of not entirely benign characters.

This is Border Reiver country, just fifteen miles south of Scotland, lands which have been fought over for hundreds of years. It is a classic Border stronghold which has been occupied for nearly a millennium. The castle was abandoned in the 1930s and Sir Humphry Wakefield has spent over forty years returning it to its former glories. The castle was the ancestral seat of the Gray family, the Earls of the Tankervilles; Sir Humphry is related by marriage.

The Castle guide is not the glossy over-priced brochure so beloved of the National Trust, but forty-two pages of closely printed text, over-flowing with the history of the Castle and stories about it’s occupants and their possessions, written by Sir Humphry. I have never been good at absorbing facts and figures but some things stand out because I can make a connection, usually automotive – not something to be expected from Chillingham. In the Plaque Room Library there is a portrait of Lord Wakefield of Hythe – Lord Mayor of London in his day, his armorial chairs are in the Great Hall and his medals in the showcase below him. He gave a solid gold coin, marked “Well Hit” to any gunner who shot down a German Zeppelin Balloon as they threatened to destroy London. Wakefield gave famous awards for speed trials, aviation and for the war effort as well as inventing Castrol Oil. He sponsored Campbell’s Bluebird land speed record clocking more than 300mph way back in the 1930s. I take delight in knowing that one of Sir Humphry’s predecessors was directly responsible for creating one of the best smells known to man – Castrol R.

A studied tour could take days – there are nineteen separate rooms open to the public, every one of them overflowing with possessions, accumulated from well-lived lives. Nothing is tied down and security is lax because you are watched over by the Spanish Witch in the Still Room – she casts her spell and curses those who steal from the Castle. Wandering the dimly lit corridors and spiral staircases, it feels like a film set. Not surprisingly it has been used for various minor TV series and the 1998 British biographical period drama, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I of England, with Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Fiennes. Some of the props remain – the chimney pieces in the Great Hall are made of that well known medieval material, fibreglass. Tap them and they ring hollow – they cover vast Baroque white marble carvings from the huge Wanstead House, a mighty palace built for the Child banking family by the French King, Louis Philippe. I do not think they are suited to the early look of the castle, but future owners may think differently. The chimney pieces from the film first appear in the video at 2 minutes, 35 seconds.

It is the perfect location for any number of horror films and it is perhaps surprising that Hammer Films never thought to call. The torture chamber contains all the necessary props – the iron rack, thumb screws, a wood-block scaffold, an iron maiden, the scold’s bridle, an impaler’s spike; the list goes on and on. It is fitting to end with more words from Sir Humphry – it is difficult to imagine a National Trust or English Heritage guide containing such observations: There are many ways to hurt. All of them so carefully considered by clever men today and yesterday, and constructed by skilled and educated craftsmen. Guantanamo Bay Prison, in Cuba, illustrates those skills currently in action and presents arguments for and against torture used to this day, maybe for the safety of mankind. Does the occasional saving of mass slaughter justify pain to a few with just some of them innocent? The respected Bayer Aspirin Company supplied gasses for the German Concentration Camps but now saves pain for us all. Civilised minds take such different views on all these things.

Filmed by Robin Down, northumbrian:light – October 12th 2021

Ghost Roads …

I am reading Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, travels on the healing road. Within a short period from August 1997, he lost his daughter to a car accident and, ten months later, his common-law wife of twenty-three years, Jackie Taylor, who succumbed to cancer. Over a period of fourteen months, he rode 55,000 miles in search of a reason to live. Peart was an admirer of Hemingway and thanks to Ken Burns’ documentary, recently aired on the BBC, I pick up on the references.

Immediately before this, I was reading Lois Pryce’s Red Tape and White Knuckles, a solo motorcycle trip through Africa and before that, her Revolutionary Road, a solo ride through Iran. When I returned from Yorkshire last week, there was a surprise package on the doorstep – two books about a pair of dreamers, hell bent on taking part in the Isle of Man TT. The gift, from Simon at Ducati Preston, was prompted by a discussion about motorbikes and literature and my enthusiasm for Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke – Reflections on Motorcycles and Books. Centred on a road trip from Edmonton to Austin, Ted rides a Ducati Monster

It is not difficult to detect a recurring theme/obsession here. It is mid-July 2021 and already I have covered 6000+ miles – not in Peart’s or Pryce’s league but surely indicative of an unhealthy mania. Many of the miles were accumulated on a glorious one week trip to the north of Scotland. The rest of the time I can be found, alone or in the company of a few like-minded souls, anywhere across the length of Northumberland, the Scottish Borders, County Durham and North Yorkshire. This week I was back at Port Carlisle – I keep going back – the road, any road, is an addiction. To quote Lois – Being on a bike throws you out there into the thick of it, whether you want it or not, and makes you more vulnerable as a result. But with that vulnerability comes an intensity; a concentrated high, a sweet nerve-jangling, heart thumping, sugar-rush sensation of the kind that only comes from real down ‘n’ dirty, life-affirming motorcycling.

There is something other-worldly about this stretch of the southern Solway coast. There are traces of conflict, two separate abandoned railways, a demolished mile long bridge across the Firth and the ruins of a sizeable trans-shipment port. All of this has gone – there are scattered communities but, even in these days of staycations, the roads and shoreline remain quiet, ghostly. It is this that keeps drawing me back – like Ted, I was riding a Monster:

The Black on Black Monster between Port Carlisle and Burgh by Sands.
Ghostly and dangerous
Liable to flooding, as I last experienced on a trip through here on the GS.
No direction home.
This arrow was used to direct RAF pilots at floating targets in the Solway Firth – it is clearly visible on Google Earth.
Cattle on the edge
Near Bowness-on-Solway

To quote that well-used adage, you don’t stop riding when you get old, you get old when you stop riding. I imagine myself riding into my eighties – isn’t it pretty to think so.

Anstruther …

… pronounced Anster or maybe Enster, if the man in the golf clubhouse is to be believed. But then, this sounds different again.  Regardless, the brief golf trip into Fife was a great success and just one in a series of adventures that has kept me from WordPress since April.  A week in Swanage was followed by a 1200 mile motorcycle journey to Scotland and the North Coast 500.  A golfing trip was long overdue.

Anstruther Golf Course would have appeared in the sequel to Golf in the Wild but Covid delayed the trip and its inclusion beyond my deadlines.  A shame in many respects as it proved to be everything I had hoped for – a fine course with some challenging holes, not least, the three consecutive par 3s at the southern end of the course. The first of these, the fifth – The Rockies, was deemed the toughest par 3 in Britain in 2007 by Today’s Golfer.  It would be hard to disagree.

Beyond the golf course, the town was vibrant with much going on regardless of any social distancing obligations.  These are a selection of images from a brief one night stay – they paint a better picture than words:

 

The second – Monument
The fifth – The Rockies
A Bigger Splash
The bay and clubhouse
The Lighthouse
The Monument on the golf course, from the harbour wall
The harbour