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England's hilltop relic -- Church Stretton -- stands test of time

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

SHREWSBURY, England -- The country roads in Shropshire are extremely narrow. Lined with 15-foot hedges, twisting and turning without rhyme or reason, it's a scary proposition when you meet another automobile and need to pass.

Hidden around the bends, tucked in the creases of these glorious midlands, and like treasure chests dropped from the moorland mist, are charming little villages, each with a pulse that beats from a Thomas Hardy novel. Picklescott, Rattling Hope, Pulverbach, and Church Stretton; towns where time - like a sturdy, oil-rich door of a fire-warmed pub - is tough to budge. Cut through the ferns and heather of the Longmynd, The Church Stretton Golf Club (England's highest golf club) is also a place where the tick of time hasn't infiltrated an old-fashioned game.

The Longmynd is an area of weather-beaten moorland covering approximately 100 square miles of some of the highest hills in England. It is a peculiar, captivating, and mysterious place. The hills are treeless, rocky, and, in some places, coated thick with fern and heather. With the pillowy-white sheep grazing in the carpeted valleys, backdropped by the radiant purple of the heather flower and the chocolate-coated hills of Shropshire painted on the distant horizon, the scenery atop the Longmynd is quite spectacular, surreal.

Here the wind howls unrelentingly, biting through your layers, even testing your sense of balance. And here the golf is nostalgic, constant - loyal to an age where James Braid and the rest of The Great Triumverate (Harry Vardon and J.H Taylor being the other two members) ruled the golf world with hand-crafted tools of hickory and iron.

Incidentally, it was James Braid, winner of five British Opens before 1910, who routed the short, quirky layout at Church Stretton. Braid, a man of stubborn, tell-it-like-it-is character (he refused to have anyone alter his designs, many of which were meticulously crafted from topographical maps), designed courses true to his character. And, to play Church Stretton, one is hit with Braid's unique, if not ahead of his time, ideals in design and, of course, the brashness of the Longmynd, which most likely represents the kind of terrain that Braid found rather warming. (Between 1875 and 1906, Braid designed over 200 courses in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. However, due to his fear of long-distance travel Braid never ventured across the sea to work in America. So, sadly, most Americans have never heard of him.)

Church Stretton is, quite possibly, the longest sub-6,000-yard course on Earth. With par totaling 66, and not one par-5 on the card, the typical response (before setting foot on its springy turf) is to place it in the "unconventional, but ripe-for-the picking" category. Unconventional? Hardly a strong enough word. Ripe-for-the-picking? Try again. After ambling through the channels of the golf course, your response might coincide with a local chap who simply, and unerringly, dubs the course "The Pitbull."

The first three holes, all par-3, zigzag up the hill - sorry, no bottled oxygen available - and climb to this mystical place they call the Longmynd. The fourth, the first hole that parades atop the hill, is one of the best at Church Stretton. A bad-tempered par-4 that slides along a deep, fern-filled ravine, the fourth is typical of the unique test that's about to unfold - a test that will require some deft shotmaking into smallish greens guarded by, well, sand pits, sheep, heather, and a relentless wind, which blows with the force of a thousand clanking Roman legions. But more on the Romans later.

If it wasn't for the views; the resplendent canvas of a thousand sheep grazing on nearby hills (or wedged for shelter behind the pushed-up walls of Braids bunkers) and one of the loveliest towns in Shropshire sitting peacefully in the valley below, that slightly over-par score at the fourth might bring some angst.

Of course, the fourth isn't the only difficult hole here. The very next, the stirring fifth, requires a brave strike that will have to battle a fierce side wind. To make matters worse, a ball hit long or right won't likely be found until the next Roman invasion. And, to put the "of yore" perspective on the scene, this shot is played directly overtop of the previous green - one of four such shots you'll face during your round. (Not that this was entirely unique for courses routed at the turn of the century. Back in 1897 there were rarely more than a handful of "fourballs" heading out - or in the case of Church Stretton, heading "up" - on any given day. Therefore, no need to plan the route with excessive traffic in mind.)

The green/tee complex at the sixth and seventh is one of the most interesting spots on the course. The approach to the sixth plays down dale and can either be bumped along the ground or thrown into the lashes of hostile wind. Behind the square, ancient looking green - on a rocky pedestal that hangs against the rusted bracken - sits the seventh tee. A photo-op for sure.

The ninth and 10th holes also epitomize the unruly spirit of Church Stretton's hilltop test. Both short par-fours that should, you'd think, yield an army of birdies with mere chip-shots and lazy pitches to their greens, they are, in fact, anything but attackable and easy. Playing slightly uphill, into the wind, and, and with limited run, they may still require mid-irons to reach their small, slopey, greens.

Now, back to the Romans. Holes 14-16 tumble and roll along the base of Bodbury Hill, which, atop its grassy top, keeps remnants of a Roman camp. From this strategically positioned perch, the Romans could see - as will you - the vast Shropshire plain to the North, and the rich, velvety hills across the valley that stretch from Caer Caradoc to the famed Wrekin, one England's most beloved high points. This epic view, accented by the rich textures and patterns of wheat and rye fields below, is about as savory as they come.

So, if you're the type that gets a wee bit cranky without any pampering (i.e. hot rum toddy with cinnamon stick at the turn, a tight-turning GPS-equipped powercart to scale the hills, etc.) to go along with your up-to-date four-star resort course, the verdict is quite simple: stay away from Church Stretton. "The Pitbull" is a beast to walk (there isn't a powercart available within 30 miles) and the closest thing resembling pampering is a pint of Newcastle awaiting in the guestroom-sized clubhouse. Of course, it's all these things that the conoisseurs of the "vintage" game relish, invite.

After traversing around Bodbury Hill, etched on your brain and inked on your scorecard, one realizes that Church Stretton is - even if, by some miracle you get it on a windless day - one of the most eccentric, most strategic, most unchanged courses that you've ever played. According to the club's 164-page "Centenary book," the cunning green sizes and shapes were built by Braid in 1897 to accommodate and test various approach shots and winds; winds that roar through fern and heather, down one-lane roads, amidst ancient Roman camps, and whistle through the cracks of fire-warmed pubs, where the tick of time carries little weight.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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