by Henry Bodkin, The Telegraph, January 24, 2018
It is the harsh and unpredictable seaside conditions that has traditionally made links golf such an enticing endeavour.
But for England’s oldest course, at least, they are proving too much of a challenge.
The Royal North Devon Golf Club has accused the Government of “abandoning us to the ocean” after Storm Eleanor prompted the collapse of part of its eighth tee and high tides expected next week threaten the demise of the seventh.
Designed by the famous Victorian golfer “Old” Tom Morris, the course at the mouth of the Taw-Torridge Estuary is renown as the “St Andrew’s of the South” and one of the UK’s toughest.
The historic lay-out now faces permanent disfigurement, however, due to the brutal coastal erosion.
More than 50 yards of the championship course has been lost as a result of the “preventable” collapse, with boulders strewn across one of the fairways.
The disruption places in jeopardy two major upcoming amateur competitions.
Yet Natural England, the body responsible for the stretch of coast near Westward Ho!, appears content to let the sea reclaim the land, according to the club.
The agency last night insisted no suggestions were ruled out, but a statement explaining that “the dunes and shingle ridge are naturally dynamic coastal features and subject to constant change” have been seized on by local golfers as evidence civil servants are determined to let “mother nature take its course”.
Mark Evans, the club’s general manager, said: “By allowing this collapse we are tampering with history.
“There’s no plan at the moment - it’s a disgrace.”
Founded in 1864, the club quickly gained national status thanks to the patronage of the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who bestowed the royal title two years later.
Believed to be substantively unchanged since the original Tom Morris design, the course is the oldest in continuous use in England.
While other land is available which would allow the club to reconfigure the course away from the coastal collapse, this would make the golf “not anything like as interesting”, according to Mr Evans.
Natural England said it would permit the club to build two new greens, providing it relinquished the two existing ones threatened by erosion.
The collapse and subsequent flooding have also provoked fears over the security of a nearby landfill site containing hospital waste and other toxic material such as asbestos.
The club says wrangling between the local Torridge District Council and Devon County Council has so far held back action to address the problem, although last night Torridge said the two authorities were “working well”.
It is understood that to adequately protect the golf course, and by extension the landfill site, from the sea erosion would require a costly project of installing “rock amour” along the coast.
“They’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” said Mr Evans
“Yes they might be saving England’s oldest golf course but they’re saving an environmental disaster that’s just waiting to happen.”
He said both Natural England and local council officers were “burying their heads in the sand”.
However, a meeting has been scheduled for January 29 to discuss the landfill site.
“Natural England is working with Devon County Council, Torridge District Council, the Environment Agency and the golf club to consider options and agree the longer term management of coastal change at Northam Burrows,” a spokesman for the agency told The Daily Telegraph.
“The dunes and shingle ridge are naturally dynamic coastal features and subject to constant change, a characteristic that makes this stretch of coast so special for wildlife and its wonderful wild landscape.
“As a Site of Special Scientific Interest any works would need the consent of Natural England and having an agreed longer term approach to coastal management in place will enable the golf club to plan for the future.”
Jane Whittaker, leader of Torridge District Council, said: “Following recent storms and their impact we have already had initial meetings to discuss both the old Devon County Landfill site and how the Golf Club can be supported into the future.”