Eyewitness to The Death of a Golf Club
Golfshake Ambassador Andy Picken has been chronicling the rich history behind Allestree Park in Derbyshire, which was originally designed by revered architect Harry Colt. Facing potential closure - while the municipal golf course may yet have a future, the golf club attached to the venue is closing its final chapter. Andy had the opportunity to enjoy a socially distanced visit and appreciate stories of a treasured past.
I recently was allowed to visit the clubhouse of Allestree Park Golf Club. The clubhouse was opened to allow the running of the penultimate competition for its members. They were not allowed inside, but with consummate ingenuity simply handed in completed cards through a ground floor window that was propped open for ventilation and access by a superbly high-tech piece of 2 x4 timber.
This for me sums up Allestree Park Golf Club and its course. Practical, a little rough around the edges, but utterly welcoming to all and having hidden delights and historical significance.
It doesn't have the grandest of entrance vestibules but look what it hides. A thriving junior and ladies sections now all gone. The notice board empty of notices and members. Even the public pay phone has long since been removed. The welcome sign hidden unused and delinquent in a corner.
At the other end of the clubhouse room, a table blocked the door providing a serving area for drinks as the sodden players finished their rounds. The clubhouse is stunning. Exactly as you would expect from a room converted within a grade 2* listed mansion.
As I entered the main area, I blinked at the light flooded room. The eyes of the past looked down from all the cornices as the formally posed images of past captains gazed around the room. It felt like I was about to be interviewed for membership once again although over 40 years had since passed.
The room was bitterly cold. Apparently, the boiler gave up a few years ago and no repairs have been attempted by the landlord. It was a strained atmosphere and I felt like I was a spectator at a wake of person I vaguely knew. I hadn’t played here for decades and rarely entered the hallowed clubhouse during my brief period as a member of the club.
The earlier clubhouse featured an indoor training room with nets and mats. There was a bespoke billiard room with table. The dining room and ballroom provided for weddings and grand events. To attend a New Year Eve Ball organised by the club required a booking made at the previous year's event such was the demand.
I had seen pictures of the interior of the mansion when it was a private residence of the Johnson family. They made a fortune through the development of a global wire manufacturing business. “The wise buyer buys a Johnson's wire” was a slogan heard around the world.
Col Johnson died whilst walking in the park struck by lightning. It was deemed that the lightning strike caused a heart attack as any other verdict would have been seen as an act of God invalidating his insurance. His American widow stayed at the Hall until its sale to a development company who built hundreds of houses on the periphery of the estate.
Most of the current town of Allestree was built upon land initially belonging to Allestree Hall.
The clubhouse has floor to ceiling windows that are protected by original wooden shutters. When they were opened light and views of the first fairway flooded into the room. The bar features the club crest, and many pictures and frames that detail its past personalities and achievements.
This beer pump clip is especially poignant as the Derby Brewing Company recently announced major issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I wish them well in these difficult trading conditions.
The junior club record holder has his card and picture proudly displayed. The text faded, but the proud, slightly awkward smile visible for all to see. This young man who will now hold this record for perpetuity is a current PGA professional golfer who has won Order of Merit events within the professional ranks. Dean Hibbert is an excellent teaching professional with whom I have played many Pro-Am events. (My invites to be his teammate will probably now stop following this article).
At least 12 current PGA qualified golf professionals started their golfing career at Allestree Park. This is what “municipal” golf offers to the game as a whole. It was the initial pathway into the game for so many, myself included.
The trophy cabinet groans with the weight and names of the past winners. One trophy really took my eye. It was the final competitive event held by the club on Boxing Day 2020.
A 9-hole medal called the “Bradbury Baw Bees”. The prize shield displayed in its own wooden display cabinet but around it was a chain of silver discs.
The winner of this event on Boxing Day 2020 was Dave Parsonage.
Intrigued, I discovered that the event was played many years ago and a wager of a shilling was in play between two club members. The loser was annoyed and paid up the wager by providing 40 farthings to his victor as a protest. He in turn responded by having the farthings silver plated made into a chain and draped around the winner’s shield.
My guide for the socially distanced visit was Laura Barker, the current club stewardess. She proudly pointed out the captaincy picture of her father, who was competing that day, together with that of her grandfather during his captaincy year. Three generations of family with Allestree Park Golf Club as its hub of family life. A perfect summary of a traditional golf clubhouse.
I felt privileged to be allowed to review these historical treasures but also a tinge of sadness as I witnessed the last breaths of a once thriving golf club.
The club are now deciding how to handle the return of items to families of long passed members and this will be a logistical challenge. That’s why there are gaps in the lines of photographs as surviving family members have repossessed the images of fathers and grandfathers. Golfing ghosts but nonetheless still very important to those who remain.
The golf course is still alive and the decision by its council owners to mothball it rather than fill in bunkers to make it safe for walkers is a genuine relief as it allows time for interested parties to come forward with a package to allow its continued operation as a golf course.
The application for registration of the course to become a Designated Historic Landscape has been submitted to Historic England.
This is an Unashamed Advertisement
If you want to buy an original Harry S Colt designed golf course, Allestree Park needs consideration. With 14 of the 18 original holes still in daily play this is an ideal investment opportunity. A 90-year Harry S Colt heritage available to be acquired off the shelf. I can also throw in pictures and postcards of the other four missing holes so it could be brought back to its original 1930 design and layout with a little investment.
The lack of investment by its owners, of all political persuasions since 1948, could actually be a benefit as the original layout has not been altered or changed since it was conceived, planned and constructed by one of the greatest golf architects ever known.
I hate the phrase “Hidden Gem” in a golfing context but it is so apt for this venue.
The faded captains pictures are joined by equally faded images presented by past stewards detailing the club history as it was known to them.
I found a dusty, faded picture frame that featured a posed, pretend picture of men playing in plus fours etc with the Hall in the background. Viewing it first from a distance I was excited wondering who could be the players involved? Those featured were in fact members who produced this spoof image to display designed as a gift for an outgoing steward of the club in 2008.
Intriguingly it contained some historical nuggets. Some of personal significance.
I am the current secretary of the Derbyshire Police Golf Society that was formed in 1947. Our original documents of association are missing but our earliest trophy called the Erewash Cup was first competed for in 1948. The society was formed by Chief Constable of the Derby Borough Police. Colonel Horatio Rawlings.
Contained in the frame was the following information.
“The Corporation approved the formation of a nine-hole course, the clubroom and other facilities were made available from within Allestree Hall. The inaugural meeting of Allestree Park golf club took place at the Police Station in Derby on Thursday the 24th of June 1948.”
The police station was chosen as the venue as the previous golf clubhouse had been destroyed by fire in 1945.
The Derby Borough Chief Constable Horatio Rawlings was appointed Chairman and an executive committee of seven was elected. The first order of business? It was resolved to buy a liquor licence prior to the formal opening date of the 5th of August 1948. Priorities! On a personal level this was an amazing circle of new knowledge.
Allestree Park Golf Club has hosted famous golfers and its first professional qualified for selection for the 1931 Ryder Cup. Tom Barber was required to practice using the different sized golf ball, the US one being slightly larger than its British cousin. He also came 5th in The Open.
How many other unheralded municipal golf clubs have professionals of such ability on their resume?
Tom Barber was clearly an excellent mentor to his assistant professional John Fallon as he was also selected as a Ryder Cup qualifier for the event to be played at Ganton in 1949.
Allestree Park Golf Club has no official archivist, so I have offered to help in the process going forward. Simply photographing any archive material to ensure its availability for future generations.
Also, if you want to ensure that this wonderfully intriguing and beguiling golf course remains open for future generations to enjoy. The golf club attached to this lovely course is unlikely to be saved but the course itself can be kept as a going concern. Please sign the petition against its closure.
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