The Dartmoor National Park is the largest, wildest and most beautiful area of open countryside in southern England. With its ancient moorland, granite tors, wild ponies, cream teas, chocolate box villages and even Sherlock Holmes. There is no doubt that Devon is quintessential England. If you’ve never sampled the magic, we recommend an immediate jaunt to Devonshire.
Bovey Castle is located within the Dartmoor National Park and the magnificent house was built in 1906 for Lord Hambledon. “The Great Western Railway Company bought it and turned it into an hotel,” wrote Bernard Darwin in an article for Country Life which was later reprinted in his 1934 book, Playing the Like, “and then, with Mr Abercromby to show them how, made this most charming of golf courses at its garden gate. I had never before seen the hem of Dartmoor’s garment of red and brown bracken. My knowledge of it was confined to that immortal work, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ So when I first saw it, after a steady climb out of Exeter through narrow, winding Devonshire lanes, a delicious shiver ran down my spine, and I felt like Sir Henry Baskerville coming for the first time to the home of his ancestors.”
John F. ‘Aber’ Abercromby, the master English architect who fashioned the brilliant Worplesdon and Addington laid out the course at the Manor House Hotel and it opened for play in the Roaring Twenties. The hotel enjoyed prosperity for many decades however, slowly but surely it fell into disrepair. The course was also in need of a serious tonic, with inadequate drainage and irrigation and putting surfaces that had been reduced to a fraction of their former selves. Know anyone with a couple of million pounds to spend?
Step in millionaire Peter de Savary or “PDS” to his friends. The British entrepreneur, founder and former owner of the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, was in the market for buying another castle, but this time in the land of his birth. With vision and drive from PDS and a little help from Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie, the new Bovey Castle course was re-born and the revamped beauty opened for play in the summer of 2004.
From the exhibition tips, the newly fashioned Bovey Castle course can stretch out to an impressive 6,600 yards and the course record of 65, which was held by local Bovey Castle pro Stuart Wells, was beaten by Christopher Hanson during the 2006 PGA Euro-Pro Tournament which was hosted here at Bovey Castle. Hanson recorded an impressive 2nd round 64 which helped him on his way to tournament victory.
We could mention all of the many modifications to the course layout, but one of the most significant and impressive changes must be the excavation of a section of a huge hill, which once belonged to the 18th fairway. The hole is now much improved. The drive landing area on this par four has been softened and the blindness of the approach shot (if your drive is long enough) has been removed, bringing the stunning Abercromby green site into view.
“In short,” wrote Darwin, “this is the ideal course to have at the end of the garden. There never was one better suited to a cheerful foursome, for there is plenty of scope for strategy in deciding who is to drive against who, and at which of the river holes.”
I played Bovey Castle in early July 2018, much of the course is set in a remote picturesque valley below the hotel with the back 9 climbing back up the hill onto more exposed moorland type surroundings. The whole area had seen hardly any rain for a month or so (very rare for Dartmoor!) which meant conditions were firm and fast with the fairways full of bounce and tight lies. It’s not a long a long course but with trees lining many of the holes it’s all about position to attack the small greens, all too easy to boom what appears to be a great drive only to find a shot that needs to shaped around or flown over the trees. To my mind the front 9 is the best of the part of the course, the brook which meanders through the valley touches most of the holes somewhere adds some fun to approach shots. It reminded me a lot of St Mellion albeit the conditioning wasn’t quite as good, the greens had a decent amount of pace in them but disappointed to find them being aerated and sanded which mean gave random bobbles, no warning of this fact in the pro shop or when booking. Reasonable value for money at £59 as a visitor, worth having lunch in the hotel Brasserie after, great location on the balcony to contemplate the birdies made and putts missed. IRC
Stood on the fourth tee at Bovey Castle I’m already three golf balls down, having not found any of my tee-shots, and am hobbling like an old man thanks to a pain in my foot. I should be ready for quitting this godforsaken game and heading to the luxuries on offer at the accompanying 5-star country house hotel… yet I’m fascinated by these opening holes and am keen to see the rest.
The layout has a very intimate feel for the majority of the front nine before gradually climbing on to higher ground with just a hint of moorland flavour to it. The first eight holes are truly lovely and whilst from this point on the course undoubtedly fizzles out there are still plenty of good holes during the remainder of the round. In fact only the short ninth is an uncharacteristic blip during the first two-thirds of the course and bar a few awkward shots towards the end of the round there is very little to dislike.
Errant approach shots at the first three holes could easily lead to a watery grave as a brook wanders through the valley which the holes are played through, as it does on most of the holes on the superior front nine. The greens tie into their surrounds nicely and everything is set out clearly in front of you. There are some interesting recovery shots too should you miss the modestly sized greens.
Whilst the experience on the course doesn’t quite match the 5-star one off it, this is still one of the best courses in the area, benefits from a magical location, and I imagine would make for an excellent golf break where you can mix the good life away from the course with some pretty darn stuff on it.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Most people quite rightly say that the front nine at Bovey is the best. However, there are some great holes on the back nine, let’s take a look at the 11th. This is one of the best par fours in the region, it measures 451 yards from the back tees and you’ll need your best drive and some serious bottle to take the green on in two. The second (or third for most) needs to carry across a deep chasm where there’s a pond below. The green is set almost island like, surrounded by deep fall offs to the front and left and out of bounds lies to the back. It’s a great hole. The 12th is the gate house hole and it’s a cracking par three that measures more than 200 yards from the back tees. The greensite is expertly bunkered and a par here is one to savour.
The next two holes are the weakest on the course, two short par fours that run up and down the main driveway and these are where you can pick up a birdie or two before you tee it up on the dogleg left 15th where you need to be accurate off the tee or you’ll have to shape your approach around the trees. The next hole is a straightforward moorland hole but the 17th has a cracking approach to a sunken green. The 18th is a hard hole as the approach is invariably blind, which is a shame as the green is set in the most magical position in the trees. For my money this is the hardest hole on the course.
I honestly can’t see how anyone could be disappointed by Bovey Castle, it’s simply a beautiful place to stay and play. I recommend it. Nigel.
Bovey is one of the prettiest courses with an interesting front nine with the river in play for a good number of holes. The back nine isn’t as good but the 10th is a fantastic par five across a valley to a green benched in the hillside. It’s not recommended to wayward golfers as there’s lots of trouble if you’re offline. The P3 12th is tough and the 18th even more so. I recommended it.