Royal Ashdown Forest (Old) - Sussex - England

Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club,
Chapel Lane,
Forest Row,
East Sussex,
RH18 5LR,
England


  • +44 (0) 1342 822018

  • Neil Darnell

  • William R. Lee, Harry Hunter, Jack Rowe

  • Tim Cowley


Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin had many adventures here in the dark and mysterious Ashdown Forest. Winnie invented “Poohsticks” on the edge of the woods, a game we reckon is even more popular than golf! Oh, and by the way, watch out for bouncing Tigger.

The Ashdown Forest & Tunbridge Wells Golf Club (as it was originally called) was founded in 1888 by four men; brothers William R. and Francis A. Lee, (who selected the site), the first Secretary, Robert Birch and Reverand A.T. Scott – the course opened for play the following year.

According to the club’s history, W.R. Lee designed the original layout. Harry Hunter made changes in 1892 before he and Jack Rowe (Ashdown’s professional) made additional modifications in 1897 – Jack Rowe made further changes in 1922. Queen Victoria bestowed royal patronage in 1893 and “Tunbridge Wells” was dropped from its name in 1901 when the club became known simply as Royal Ashdown Forest.

It was originally a short course, measuring only 4,900 yards. Between 1910 and 1920, it was gradually lengthened to its present 6,400 plus yards. Little has changed since. The tremendous golfer, Abe Mitchell, was a member of the Cantelupe Club, Royal Ashdown Forest’s Artisan section. Mitchell had the 1920 Open at Royal Cinque Ports in his grasp, but he lost to his greatest rival, George Duncan.

In his book, Golf Courses of the British Isles, Bernard Darwin wrote: “It is only at the end of a round that we realise with pleasurable shock that there is not a single hideous rampart or so much as a pot bunker”. The only bunkers here are natural grassy pits. In fact, the whole course is natural. The challenge comes from the undulating land, streams, heather, bracken and, of course, the many trees.

The Ashdown Forest is protected by Acts of Parliament – no alterations are allowed to the terrain without the conservators’ approval. It is doubtful that the course would have remained so naturally beautiful without having these restrictions in place.

The 6th, the “Island Hole”, is one of the best short holes anywhere. It’s only 125 yards long from the medal tees, but it’s fraught with danger, surrounded by a deep stream and a gully. If you hit the green, well done, but two-putting is not easy. There is a ridge running right across the middle of the green. The 17th is a captivating downhill par four, measuring 480 yards from the back tees. A decent drive, with a bit of draw (for the right-hander), will leave a long second that needs to carry across gorse, bracken and a path.

The club installed new drainage on fourteen of the greens in 2016, as part of a process to improve course presentation. An investment was also made in new machinery to cut back invasive grasses and allow heather to regenerate, along with starting out on a 10-year tree clearing program, the early results of which are really encouraging on holes 3 to 6.

Make no mistake, the setting is gorgeous, affording long views from the high parts of the course across the forest and the rolling Sussex countryside. The resident professionals obviously like it here too. In Royal Ashdown Forest’s long history there have been only five head pros.

Martyn Landsborough (former Head Professional at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club) wrote the following article for us, which was published in our Top 100 Golf Courses of England book:

“If you go down to the woods today at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club the only surprise you will get is that after over 100 years of play very little has changed. The fact that the course has no sand bunkers at first seems to detract from the difficulty of the course but nothing could be further from the truth. The sloping fairways, well-protected greens and the heather infested rough immediately respect your attention.

Each hole is different, each memorable, each with its own challenge and each surrounded by the quiet magnificence of Ashdown Forest.”

Needless to say, A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin were both Ashdown Forest members, the latter playing mainly on the West.

Footnote: In March 2021, historian Colin Strachan, author of Fair Ways in Ashdown Forest, contacted us to state that Archdeacon Scott did not originally design the Old course. Our accreditation and commentary has subsequently been altered. Colin also mentioned that on the 100-year anniversary of Christopher Robin’s birth he tried to get Disney, who hold all the rights, to run an under 10 competition on the course which sadly failed to get off the ground.

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Reviews for Royal Ashdown Forest (Old)

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Description: Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club is set stunningly, affording fantastic views from the high parts of the course across the forest and the rolling Sussex countryside. Rating: 7.5 out of 10 Reviews: 47
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Mike Brooks

I think it’s fair to say I didn’t fully appreciate RAF on my first visit. This was probably because it was the hottest day of the year, I played terribly and it’s a course that needs a second visit. I am therefore thankful that I got the chance to play it again and this time with a member who could provide more colour on some of the holes and the club.

The first few holes provide a relatively gentle opening, albeit with scope to rack up some higher scores. The course really gets going on the 5th, a downhill 500 yard par 5. Normally this length of hole would represent a great birdie opportunity but a ford/stream in front of the green makes it a classic risk/reward challenge.

The 125 yard par 3 6th is a great example of how a par 3 doesn’t need to be long to be difficult. A long narrow green is protected by a stream in front and to the left and a gully to the right and back. My host told me of a Spanish pro playing in Open qualifying who was 3 under on the tee and 7 over as he walked off the green!

The 7th is a very strong par 4, especially off the whites. On my first outing a good drive and rescue to the green meant I didn’t fully appreciate the challenge. This time both my host and I pushed our shots into the thick heather on the right and were then left trying to work out how best to get back to the fairway.

The remaining par 5s are all good 3-shotters requiring accuracy to avoid the heather and all with small, sloping greens. The par 3s are also all strong. On some courses all of the par 3s are between 150 and 200 yards, whereas here they are 125, 143, 249 and 202, providing four very different tests. The 16th and 17th are very strong par 4s, balanced by shorter par 4s in 15 and 18.

The aesthetics of the course are good, with the holes weaving their way through the forest and with a number of changes in elevation. The highlight is the “4 counties” view from the 11th tee.

The heather is the main challenge on this course and, in my somewhat limited experience, seems longer and more tangly than on most of the notable Surrey/Berkshire heathland courses. Once in it the priority needs to be on getting out as safely as possible, which is easier said than done. Those who struggle with bunkers may delight in the absence of them. However the abundance of heather makes it a far more challenging test.

The strength of the course left me scratching my head as to why it is not higher up the rankings. It could be because it is viewed as too difficult. Related to this is that a good shot can sometimes take a bad bounce and end up in the penal heather which some might view as unfair (but that’s golf!) At least the greenkeepers have removed a large amount of bracken over the winter which removes one hazard, albeit I think that only punished particularly wayward shots.

In summary I think this is a fantastic course with a good variety of holes presenting a terrific challenge. Play it if you get the chance but remember to bring your “A game” and good luck avoiding the heather!

(Ed, is there anyway I can delete the previous review?)

May 05, 2021
7 / 10
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Mike Brooks

I played here on an unbearably hot day in August and having not lost a ball in my previous 6 rounds I managed to lose 7 here (having no bunkers removes one type of hazard but this is more than made up for by plenty of heather and bracken!) Given the conditions and how badly I played my memories of the course are not as favourable as they could be and I really need to play it again.

It is a wonderful setting with some great views. There are some interesting par 3s including the 120-yard 6th, a classic example that a hole doesn’t need to be long to be challenging. Apart from that I unfortunately just remember the heather and bracken!

January 10, 2021
6 / 10
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Phil Cottington
February 05, 2021

Hi Mike, as a member I'm so sorry to hear you don't remember the course as you would like! The heather truly magnetizes the ball it seems on a bad day, but I'd certainly say is not unfair or overly penal on a good shot. I see you live far away where there is no shortage of sensational golf but if you ever plan to be back in the area, please 'hit me up' somehow and I'll happily take you round again!

Mike Brooks
February 12, 2021

Thanks Phil, that’s a kind offer and I may well take you up on that at some point. Likewise if you are ever in the Edinburgh area and fancy a game at North Berwick or Archerfield then let me know. I’ve found you on Facebook so will send you a DM so you have my contact details. (Check in Messenger, message requests, spam if you can’t see it.)

Alex

I have been trying to scratch my memory which course I actually played, the Old or the West. But I have been informed by my playing partner from the day that we played the Old on Day 1 and the West on Day 2. A night’s stay is what I had forgotten.

Winnie the Pooh country is truly beautiful and Royal Ashdown Forest is delightful. The clubhouse is small and unassuming, but you are fully aware of the forested splendour embracing you. The setting is stunning, affording magnificent views from the elevated parts of the course across the forest and the rolling Sussex countryside.

I would say that the West course is maybe prettier and Sunningdale/West Sussex-esque but the Old is the true test. There is difference in length – 5606 yards the West and 6537 yards the old. Both courses host a 240-yard par 3. And it is Hole 11 on the Old Course where I nearly made my second Hole-in-One. An elevated tee towers over the wide green in the distance. A 3-irion was struct pure and out to the right with a generous draw to extract every last bit of distance. The ball landed to the right of the green and rolled, what appeared to be over the hole to 2 feet.

It was now 7 years ago when I played this course. My stomach just somersaulted at the thought of that. Gulp. I was young, and whilst golf was a passion, my enthusiasm for golf architecture was not what it is today. I didn’t appreciate the course I was playing and the history I was close to. This unfortunately, is a reoccurring regret of mine. I played so many of England’s Top 100 courses when I was young and inexperienced in the subject of golf, let a lone golf architecture. More pictures should have been taken.

Alas, I may still be able to return to Royal Ashdown Forest once again as my playing partner on the day is my best friend and 5th generation Royal Ashdown Forest member. I think a playing request needs sending.

October 22, 2020
8 / 10
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Neil White

"Hold on a minute, it's going in!". My playing partner was as shocked as he was excited that I had unfurled a drive which was threatening the cup on Royal Ashdown Forest's 249-yard, par-three 11th hole.

After a promising start, the heavens opened and I had been on a run of just two Stableford points in five holes.

Fortunately, by the time we had arrived at the longest par three I have ever played, the sun was re-emerging as was my golf game. Inevitably, however, I missed the six-foot putt which would have yielded a birdie.

Thankfully, I put that right by taking a two on the par-three 14 which was a 175-yard carry over heather.

The h-word is uttered dozens of times during a round at Royal Ashdown Forest. The thick purple shrubbery provides the course's major defence, given that there are no bunkers,

The short ninth, is actually called Heather, so my ball thought it would be appropriate to dive into its pretty but ruinous hazard,

Recently having been in bunkers as big as houses at Woodhall Spa and visited many of the 99 at Little Aston, I thought it would be a refreshing change to play 18 holes without any.

However, I had been warned that few of us in the Press Golf Society would score well around the Old Course and so it proved - 36 points was the winning tally.

Yes, this is a tough course- it includes a 472-yard par four which is its stroke index eight!

It demands accuracy but it is also beautiful. There are magnificent views and every hole has very different challenges but looks stunning from the tee.

Among my favourites was the par-five 12th (called Dogs' Graveyard), even though picking a line through the heather takes a greater player than me.

Meanwhile, almost all had greens whose lines and pace were so subtle that they remained unconquered.

Nevertheless, this is a superb heathland course and deserving of the praise it receives.

August 17, 2020
8 / 10
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Phil Ree

Ashdown Forest's an ideal mix of tough holes, short holes, hero shots and options. The course starts a little slowly but once through the 5th it becomes as adventurous and as dramatic as just about any heathland.

It shares more in common with Walton Heath and nearby Piltdown that its West Surrey & Berkshire cousins. The back part is particularly natural and wild looking, with the lack of trees providing great vistas. The highest point is the tee of the 249 yard par 3 11th, called "Four Counties" for its view.

It played very fast and firm but the greens were still receptive and allowed spin. The weekend green fee's definitely worth it for the conditioning and variety of holes on offer. It's a hilly, difficult walk on hot days so someone selling drunks from a buggy was well appreciated.

A friend remarked on the 15th that he hadn't thought about the lack of bunkers until then, which I think's a big compliment of the golf on offer. The ranking on this site is about right, so I’d say it’s worth an overnight stay, especially when combined with Sussex's other heathlands.

August 11, 2020
8 / 10
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Simon Bale

What a great golf course! The Old course at Royal Ashdown is simply irresistible. One has a sense of being at one with nature, whilst being treated to some of the most exciting and dramatic golf holes around (most of them designed 140 years ago). It’s quite breath-taking that this course has been in existence since the 1800’s. I’m sure there has been some lengthening of holes and moving of land to get the course to what they have now, but, in saying that, the way the course meanders its way through the forest suggests there cannot have been major adjustments since the original layout. The land is similar to Surrey heathland. Humid heathland which promotes purple moor-grass and long rooted grasses. You’ll get good drainage in the winter and tight lies in the summer. Given there are no bunkers the green complexes are far from dull. Run offs and swales are here in abundance, meaning there is a premium on hitting greens. None more so than the par 3, 5th. There are many occasions when you wish you were a club member living in one of the many beautiful cottages that surround the course, with a couple of balls and pencil bag, having a chance to chip and putt around the greens in some of the most idyllic settings England has to offer. What I loved was the use of the land to encourage visualisation of the shots required. Whether it’s the 7th hole, 450 yard uphill dog leg right par 4 , to the 245 yard downhill par 3 on the 11th, this course is designed to favour the brave, whilst respecting the conservative golfers, with different options off the tee and for the approach. The par 5’s are all awesome… totally different and all inviting an attempt to reach in 2. The 17th is my favourite, a blind downhill drive leaving a mid-iron approach to a well-protected green. The best is saved till last, as the course presents an amazing crescendo from the par 3, 14th in. This is really a jewel in the English golfing crown and if you ever want to see inland golf at its purist I think a trip to Royal Ashdown is as close as many will get.

July 04, 2020
9 / 10
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David

The Old Course at Royal Ashdown gets rave reviews and is consistently rated amongst the top courses in England. The first time I played the course I didn’t really see how this could be the case - to be honest I found it a bit of an uphill slog with a few good holes but too many average ones. The second time I played it this was confirmed! The 4th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 16th and 18th are all uphill or the approach is played to an uphill green. There are some good holes - the 5th and 6th are great , as is the 11th - and the condition of the course is good too but I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. This is a good course but it’s not a great one.

June 20, 2020
6 / 10
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Phil Cottington
February 05, 2021

Hi David

Whilst an opinion on the course overall is yours to freely hold and be respected, for the benefit of any readers who have not played the course I would question your account on a couple of points.

Namely on the 11th and the 14th - which most certainly do not play uphill! They are both downhill and are two of the four par 3s, each being wildly different.

The 10th also. If you are going for it from a long way out then you will be partially blind, but playing a full shot from up to about 160 yards you will most likely be playing from above the green.

I would agree with you that 13 and 18 are sharply uphill and in my opinion are the least enjoyable of the 18. The 4th and 16th are gentle inclines at most, while the 7th at SI 1 is a hole to command respect after a scorecard flattering opening stretch!

I'll be happy to sign you on if you ever want to give it another chance!

Phil

David
February 05, 2021

Phil, I’d love to play it with you again. I’ve probably got the hole numbers wrong. My bad.

Josh P

This place is a bunker-less masterpiece, and the course asks tough questions consistently. It’s extremely fun and strategic, and that is not all that it has in common with its namesake in St. Andrews, with the 1st & 18th fairways having a shared portion.

The second shines a light in how the course defends itself, with a riveted face short of the green. Heather is used as a cross hazard often, such as on the short 3rd, and also the 13th, this makes holes play longer than they are. There are a great set of par 3s here, starting with the 6th. This is a short hole, with a generous green, but if you miss it you are in a lot of trouble. The 7th has a ‘cape’ tee shot where players can choose as much as they want to cut off, and a subtly breaking green, another feature often seen here.

A favourite hole was definitely the 8th, a shortish par 5 with a brilliant green, very similar to the ‘bathtub’ green at Cruden Bay. The greens throughout are outstanding, I enjoyed the 15th, which slopes away from the player, an often-unused design feature.

I don’t often enjoy a long walk from a green to the next tee, but I will make an exception here, the walk from the 13th to 14th tee is a beauty, providing respite from the challenge of the course, as you walk through the forest.

The ground game is very much in play here, particularly the approach shots into the par 5 10th and long par 3 11th. All in all, Royal Ashdown is worth a visit, not for the novelty of no bunkers but for the course being a properly fun and interesting layout.

June 11, 2020
7 / 10
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Joe Sheldrake

This is a real treat of a course. It’s exciting, interesting and beautiful and whilst there are some slightly weaker holes, overall, this place fits together wonderfully and I would fully recommend a visit here.

The 1st and 18th holes are very similar and share the same fairway but despite the relatively simple drive, both have their own difficulties which make them interesting. On 1, it is the tricky two tiered green with steep run offs to the right.

2 is a tricky dogleg right with a blind drive over the heather and a hard approach over a burn.

6 is a great short par 3 which is surrounded by trouble and 7 is a very tough but enjoyable hole. A severe dogleg right with an elevated green that slopes severely. Two very accurate shots are needed here!

8 is a great par 5 with heather on either side of the fairway and 9 is a semi blind par 3 with a green surrounded by heather.

Holes 10-12 are the pick for me. 10 is a great par 5 requiring a straight drive. 11 is a wonderful par 3. Comfortably over 200 yards - this hole requires a well struck wood (Or long iron if you’re a big hitter) to a green that sits in the distance down the hill. The elevated tee offers unparalleled views across the Sussex countryside.12 is another great par 5 with the ground sloping to the left, lots of heather to contend with and a burn or two.

14 is a lovely par 3 with a green surrounded by heather-covered humps and hollows and 15 is a great par 5 requiring a blind approach over the heather to a shallow green.

16 and 17 are both long and brilliant par 4s - 16 going up the hill and 17 coming back down spectacularly with a blind drive that sets your heart racing.

18 is the easiest tee shot on the course but the approach is severely uphill and is difficult to judge the distance because of that.

This course is a real gem and highly recommended to any serious golfer.

May 02, 2020
9 / 10
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Peter Handcock

Royal Ashdown Forest (RAD) is quirky, fun, hilly, and not your ordinary course. To enjoy it you need to have an open mind, enjoy blind shots, and not be phased by the number of bunkers on the course - zero.

The course has a great mix of soup bowl Ross style greens, and punchbowl greens. The hole also vary from short to long and uphill to downhill. A stream that weaves its way through the front nine is the courses main hazard, along with the heather. If you weren't aware before you teed off, you would probably walk off the course not realising there are no bunkers. That's how well designed it is.

April 28, 2020
6 / 10
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