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1 mile SE of Forest Row
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William R. Lee, Harry Hunter, Jack Rowe
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.