Architect Tom Mackenzie is building a golf course in one of the most important historic parklands of England. Adam Lawrence paid a site visit.
Landscape design, as practiced by the eighteenth century masters such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton is surely an important precursor to golf architecture. So it shouldn't be a surprise that a number of good golf courses have been laid out within historic parks. But, for a golf designer, working in such a landscape is a double edged sword, for most important parks are protected landscapes (unlike historic golf courses, which can be ravaged without repercussion, a scandal beyond the scope of this article). The incredibly tight restrictions placed on architect Mike Smith while building the golf course at Luton Hoo prove the point. Golf and parkland can work together, but in general the golf must be fitted around the historic park.
At Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire, the situation is slightly different. Although its history is not well understood, one thing about Heythrop is clear: it is among the most important designed landscapes in the world. For, it is believed, it is at Heythrop that the naturalistic English style of landscape design – which was to reach its apogee in the later work of Brown, Repton et al – began to emerge. Heythrop, thus, represents the key bridge between the seventeenth and eighteenth century style that is typified by the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. It was at Heythrop, researchers believe, that gardening ceased to be about man conquering Nature, but instead became about man interacting with his natural environment.
Unfortunately nothing is straightforward. Heythrop may be of the greatest importance historically, but today it is a mess. The sheer age of the park means many of the original trees have reached the end of their lives and a large number of inappropriate species have been planted. The landscape, in short, is massively degraded from its original form. And it is the creation of a golf course that is allowing it to be restored to something like its former glory. Thus, after an extended planning battle, the developer – former Oxford United FC owner Firoz Kassam – won permission to build the course, as part of his grand plan to create a five star resort hotel on the estate, and Mackenzie went to work.
Construction at Heythrop is in its early stages: the course is expected to open in 2010. On such a site, though, the build is inevitably complex. Irrigation reservoir designer Marcus White of Irriplan, for example, says that his work involved much consultation over the challenges of fitting a large body of water into such a sensitive landscape. Not here the big lake alongside the eighteenth hole! "On the northern edge of the field upon which the reservoir was constructed, is a path that was purposely sited to view the hay meadow. Viewing 'peasants' at work in the English landscape was one of the main design purposes for the original Heythrop park. In designing the reservoir, therefore we had to ensure that from this viewpoint the reservoir could not be seen. It is hidden from view by careful landscaping, and by being 'sunk' into the field, even though it is only 70 metres from where one stands on this original path.
"From the other side, the whole field was lifted by just a few hundred millimetres so that the shape of the field does not appear to change, but just out of view is a large body of water which is crucial for the operation of the irrigation system upon which the regeneration of this landscape is dependent."
Restrictions in the size of the reservoir meant the irrigation system had to be extremely efficient, says its designer, White's colleague Giles Wardle. "Since the majority of the fairways are treelined we designed a triple-row sprinkler system for the fairways with part-circle sprinklers on the perimeter of the fairway," he explains. "This avoids overthrow into the rough and results in a uniform, and therefore efficient, application of water to the fairways. Over 1,000 Rain Bird sprinklers were required to achieve this efficient irrigation system."
What, then, of the golf itself? Mackenzie's challenge is to restore the original parkland planting and fit the course around. He has done, I think, a fine job, though inevitably there will be holes – notably the eighteenth, which plays up the Grand Avenue in front of the Hall – that in pure golf terms would be regarded as dull. Here, the setting will have to compensate, because earthmoving to add contour would be unthinkable.
Elsewhere, though, there are holes that will offer excellent golf in anyone's book: the fine short par four fifth, which plays across a dammed river providing a textbook diagonal hazard, is one such, and the following hole, which also makes good use of the river, is another.
On the back nine, the standout holes are the thirteenth and fourteenth. The former is a terrific par three playing from an elevated tee across a stream to a green banked into the other side of the valley.
The same valley makes for a fabulous drive on the next hole, with golfers being faced with a carry to a tilted fairway that doglegs around a copse of trees to a green set well in the distance. Perhaps unfortunately, the yellow tee is not pushed back so far, and will require an uphill tee shot. From down here, the hole will still be interesting, but the thrill of the drive will not be so intense. I can foresee a number of players sneaking onto the back tee pad to play this hole.
From its outset, the development at Heythrop Park has been controversial. Although the historic landscape consultant employed to assess the plans agreed that the golf course was the best way to restore the park to its former glory, there were strong objections from English Heritage, and permission was only granted after many years of trying. Still, my perception is that the developer and especially architect Mackenzie are making every effort to do the job properly. It will take many years before the new tree planting has the park looking as it would have done in the eighteenth century. But surely that is better than it falling further into a sad decline?
This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.