Despite considerable shoving and squeezing, the buckle on one of the bicycle panniers won’t close – something has to go. I empty both for a third time and spread the contents over the hall carpet. Seven shirts, seven pairs of socks and pants, golf trousers, a map of Cornwall and another of Devon and Somerset West, inner tube, pump, toilet bag, laptop, mobile phone, a dozen golf balls and assorted tee pegs. No shoes, you notice. That’s because I’m wearing a pair of legitimate golf shoes that multitask as allpurpose shoes and can be worn around the house and in hotels, restaurants, etc. Reluctantly, I jettison six of the golf balls and the buckle grudgingly snaps shut.
How on earth can I play the five tough courses that comprise the Atlantic Links with just half-a-dozen balls?
I could buy more as I go but, thanks to my unimaginative friends and family for whom golf balls are my default birthday/Christmas present, I have hundreds and purchasing yet more would really hurt.
Perceptive readers will have noticed the glaring omission – golf clubs. Don’t worry, I’ve arranged with all five courses – Trevose, St Enodoc, Royal North Devon, Saunton and Burnham and Berrow – to borrow a set from each.
With my wife’s cautionary reminder that I’m nearly 65 and a promise from me to get off and walk if too tired, I wave goodbye and pedal the seven miles to Etchingham station in deepest East Sussex to catch a train to Charing Cross.
The next leg of the journey to Paddington is both the shortest and most hazardous as I have to negotiate both Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. Apart from a few recent training runs, this is the first time I’ve sat in a saddle for at least 20 years but, unlike golf, cycling is a skill that, once acquired, doesn’t appear to desert you.
Since my bike travels for free on the speedy First Great Western train, I’ve decided to luxuriate in first class. It’s not so much an indulgence as a necessity since I need the extra space to study my map of Cornwall and plot a path from Bodmin Parkway to my first stop, Trevose.
Perhaps I didn’t study the map sufficiently carefully because I’m uncertain as I exit the station as to whether to turn left or right on to the A38. This is embarrassing, 250 yards into my global adventure and I’m lost! To add to my woes, it’s raining and ‘left’, which is looking favourite, is steeply uphill. It’s an unpleasant, busy, single- lane carriageway and only holding up a caravan cheers me up.
At the top of a long hill I turn off, head for Bodmin and eventually find a delightful cycle path on a disused railway line. My initial theory that it’s called the ‘Camel Trail’ because of two large humps at the beginning proves wide of the mark when I discover the pretty stretch of water running alongside is the River Camel.
It has stopped raining and the next 15 or so miles are extremely enjoyable. By the time I reach pretty Padstow I’ve become a huge fan of Lord Beeching and his delightful axe which closed so many railway lines in the 1960s.
Trevose Golf and Country Club is only a handful of miles to the west of Padstow and after glimpsing the surf at Harlyn Bay I’m soon pedalling up a hill, into the sunset and towards the clubhouse. Dozens of smartlooking women are lined up by the flagpoles. Possibly slightly delirious from the day’s exertions, I wonder if this is the Cornish Ladies Choir booked to serenade me into the club. But they’re giggling not singing and it turns out they’re not choristers but competitors in the South West Counties Women’s Championship having a group photo taken. Never mind. Although nice, a choral welcome might have been a tad embarrassing.
Most of the many apartments, lodges, bungalows and assorted self-catering accommodation here are full of female competitors but one cosy flat overlooking the 18th green has been saved for me. After a bath, dinner and a few pints, I sleep soundly.
Not only have the nice people at Trevose kept a room for me, they have also squeezed me on to the championship course in among the six counties competing this week – Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset. Alex, a work experience lad from Bournemouth University helping out in the office, has kindly agreed to accompany me and we tee off at 10.40. “Cornwall’s the best-looking team,” he informs me as we walk down the first.
What a pleasure it is not to be cycling and what a beautiful course this is. With fast greens, deep bunkers and stunning sea views, it provides a glorious introduction to the Atlantic Links. The only disappointment here is that more holes do not take you right to the ocean’s edge, a memorable highlight of the round coming at the 4th, where the green is just yards from the sand and the surf at the wonderfully monikored Booby’s Bay. An eight-handicapper who belts the ball much too far, Alex goes round in five over par and would have won our match comfortably had I not prudently decided after studying his practise swing to opt for a non-competitve ‘warm-up’ round.
Although I have the afternoon off and am therefore not obliged to do anything, I voluntarily go for a very gentle cycle south along the north Cornish coast and marvel at its beauty.
After another night at Trevose, I pedal into Padstow the following morning, catch a cute little ferry over the bay and cycle the few hundred yards on the far side to St Enodoc. Nick Williams, who has been the pro here for more than 30 years, fixes me up with some great clubs.
“How are you off for balls?” he asks. To my horror, I have none as I’ve left my ball pouch at Trevose. Damn!
He shoves at least a dozen into the bag. Thanks, Nick.
Having heard so much about St Enodoc, I’m rather disappointed by the first few holes. After the opening short par-four, there’s a rather dull par-three followed by another rather ordinary par-four. The 4th is an unexceptional par-three followed by yet another straightforward par-three. Hang on, this can’t be right. I consult the card. The first is supposed to be a 500 yard plus par five. What the hell’s going on? I shout across to an adjacent fairway that there would appear to be a discrepancy between the course I’m playing and the card I’m studying. “You’re on the Holywell Course,” explains a nice old man. “You probably want the Church Course.” He points down the hill and suggests I avoid crossing the driving range.
The opening hole on the Church Course runs between two sets of dunes and is breathtakingly beautiful. Spectacular hole follows spectacular hole. The 6th looks a little bewildering as you can’t see anything of the fairway only an enormous bunker facing you head on. It’s the start of the famous ‘Himalayas Complex’ where the dunes grow mightier and mightier. Even a slow fourball who hold me up for nine holes before eventually waiving me through on the 16th can’t spoil my fun on this truly magnificent course.
After taking the ferry back to Padstow, I check in at the imposing Metropole Hotel. There’s a notice in the lift explaining that the Prince of Wales used to stay here frequently when golfing at St Enodoc. If I had been him, I would have chosen the Church Course over Wallis Simpson every time but I’m neither an incurable romantic nor next in line to the throne. If I make it all the way to Burnham and Berrow, I wonder if they’ll put another notice in the lift commemorating my achievement. Probably not.
I have a marvellous fish and chip dinner in Padstow without feeling in the least bit guilty. Far from eating unhealthily, I’m carbo loading before my marathon cycle in the morning to Westward Ho! Various estimates put the distance at somewhere between 80 and 100 miles. Studying the map next morning in the elegant dining room, I opt for kippers and the quiet, crosscountry, cycle routes in preference to miserable main roads. After the ferry, I head north-east on a ‘B’ road and pick up cycle route ‘3’ just past Camelford.
Everything is going pretty well until rain starts falling in the late morning. To add to my woes, I get horribly lost. I know I’m lost when I somehow manage to cycle through the small town of Week St Mary twice. Then, to my absolute horror, through the pouring rain I can just about make out the Atlantic Ocean, which is on my right! How can that be when it’s supposed to be on my left all the way up the coastline? This can’t be happening to me, I’ve got ‘A’ level Geography! I consult my soggy map, which isn’t any help because I’m now in Devon, I think.
Thoroughly soaked and fairly demoralised, I turn round and head back the way I’ve just come. To be honest, I have a couple of issues with these minor roads: 1) they aren’t very clearly signposted so you can’t be too sure where you’re going. This problem is compounded if the wet maps you’re carrying aren’t of a sufficiently large scale to include the names of the tiny villages you’re passing through. And 2), they are too narrow and steep thereby making it hard for cyclists to take maximum advantage of the height they have gruellingly attained. In my case, pedalling up steep hills is even tougher than it should be because the gears are misbehaving.
Instead of long, gentle descents, there are short, steep, downhill stretches that oblige me to brake all the way and waste hard-earned height.
Ever flexible, in the late afternoon I change tactics and abandon the country lanes for the more reliable, if less romantic, main roads. Eventually find myself on the A386 heading, I hope, northwards towards Great Torrington. Those of you with either a rudimentary knowledge of the southwest of England or the Ordnance Survey ‘Devon and Somerset West’ map stretched out in front of you, will doubtless be scratching your heads with incredulity. How, you will be wondering, can a man with ‘A’ level Geography find himself so much further east than he wanted or needed to be?
I’m too weary to answer that now as I have a metaphorical and literal mountain to climb if I’m to make it to my B&B in Westward Ho! before nightfall.
Does the name ‘Torrington’ translate to ‘mighty steep hill’, I wonder, my lungs near to bursting. Hearing myself panting loudly at least reassures me that I’ve not died of a heart attack… yet. Eventually I reach the top of what I suspect is the highest point in the whole of southwest England and pop into a garage for a ridiculously late lunch of Yorkie bar and lemonade.
Despite diminishing daylight, I locate the Tarka Trail at the foot of whatever mountain I was on. A blissfully flat cycle route over another former railway line, it takes me northwest towards Bideford.
So ecstatic am I to be away from both hills and traffic, and so anxious to try and reach my destination in daylight, I somehow find the energy to (sort of) sprint. Labouring under the misapprehension that Westward Ho! is on the same side of whatever river it is I’m cycling alongside, I overshoot by a couple of miles and have to backtrack to Bideford to cross a bridge onto the right side. God, I could have done without this extra exercise!
As it’s practically dark now and I have no lights, I’m cycling along the pavement. At last, Westward Ho! It’s 10.20pm and a worried looking woman is waiting for me outside Culloden House B&B. After taking off my soaking wet socks and all-purpose shoes in the hall, I crawl upstairs to my room, restore some feeling into my limbs by stepping into a hot shower before devouring a tagliatelli carbonara kindly brought to my room by the worried looking lady and then sleep for nine hours. Relieved in the morning to discover that, apart from my legs, back, shoulders and arms, there’s very little stiffness in my body, I hear more good news when told that the Royal North Devon Golf Club is little more than a mile away. And all of it downhill!
As a silent protest against the failure to provide a cycle rack, I park my bike in the space reserved for past presidents. This is the oldest golf course in England and, despite quite a few aches and pains, I’m really looking forward to playing it. First I have to visit the pro shop to pick up a set of clubs. And then a black moment that made yesterday’s trials and tribulations pale into insignificance by comparison – I have to buy three golf balls. Aaarggghh!
If they built Royal North Devon today there would be howls of protest. What, no big lakes, island greens, flower beds or punishing rough? But for those with a feel for golf’s great heritage and traditions, this is a huge and joyous treat. With almost endlessly wide fairways, you might naively imagine it’s a bit of a pushover.
But the deep bunkers and ball-gobbling clumps of Giant Sea Rushes defend its integrity with zeal. Sounding like something out of a sci-fi movie, the latter are impenetrable to anything other than a golf ball and two of my brand new ones somehow find a way in and are never seen again. It’s such a natural course that it’s a genuine pleasure to share it with the many sheep and horses grazing on it.
Don’t leave without a good look round the brilliant old-fashioned clubhouse. With its sepia prints of the pioneering days of the mid-19th century, cabinets full of seriously old balls, racks of hickory shafted clubs, fine oil painting of local hero and five-time Open champion J. H. Taylor and trophies that date back to the dawn of time, it’s worth the green fee on its own. Sadly, I can’t afford to dwell too long as I’ve a significant cycle ride to Saunton. Having said that, after yesterday’s gruelling trek anything less than 75 miles will seem like a gentle pedal in the park. It’s back over the bridge and along the Tarka Trail again. The first bit is familiar as I ‘researched’ it last night. Like walking the course before a big round, it helps to know what line to take at the junctions, the hazards to avoid, etc.
Having such a pleasant run alongside the River Taw is helping restore my faith in cycling after yesterday’s trauma. It starts to rain again as I cross over the river at Barnstaple and follow another cycle trail through Braunton that eventually leads me to the lovely Saunton Sands Hotel. The friendly porter kindly plonks my bike in a store room that’s normally reserved for surfboards and I go to check in.
Hiding my horror, I pretend to listen attentively as the receptionist praises the virtues of the hotel’s gymnasium.
“Sounds lovely,” I lie. Rather than working out, I gobble down the six chocolates and four biscuits in my room before even hanging my wet clothes on the heated towel rail. The view from my window over the wide sandy beach raises my spirits and I’m feeling cheerful by the time I sit down for dinner in the smart restaurant of this classy hotel. Another delicious meal is followed by a solid night’s sleep.
Since I’m playing with the chairman and a committee member at Saunton this morning, I put on my most sober shirt and least spectacular socks. Something of a milestone is reached when my dirty washing fills one of the panniers and everything else squeezes into the other. Because I went past it the night before, for once I know where the club is and cheerfully freewheel all the way down the hill and into the car park.
A smiling fellow called Stuart greets me with a welcome bag of balls and tees and then introduces me to Chairman Richard, who asks which course – East or West – I’d like to play? Although apparently there’s very little to choose between them, the East is the championship course which, since I parred the last at Royal North Devon, I feel ready to take on. We agree to play the Perch Game (win a hole to get on the perch then win another to score a point) but have to wait on the first because there’s a bloke in front about to drive off from the ladies’ tee. “I suspect he’s practising,” comments Richard. What for, I wonder, the Trans-Gender Trophy? “It’s Captain’s Day tomorrow,” explains Richard, “and to demonstrate our patriotism we’re playing off six red tees, six whites and six blues.” I go first, hit a weak pull into the thick rough and wonder if the 15 balls Stuart has given me are going to be enough around what is evidently a tough challenge.
This is precisely the sort of course I adore. Majestic dunes, testing without being ridiculous, super views and never dull. At the 11th, a tame fox strolls on to the tee to be fed banana. Doubtless inspired, I record my first (and probably last) birdie of the trip. There are no more foxes and no more birdies but we all par the last and the match finishes as a friendly score draw.
My next stop is Porlock Weir and in the bar afterwards the three of us discuss the best route and pore over the map. Stuart and Richard persuade me to take the A361 from Braunton rather than the A39 out of Barnstaple. “It’s not so steep,” is the clincher. The literal downside to the next leg of my journey is the incredibly steep hill into, and out of, Lynton. Richard and Stuart throw anxious glances at one another whenever Lynton is mentioned and I almost expect to hear an accompanying clap of thunder. Although I would like nothing more than to stay here and enjoy the warm afterglow of a terrific game of golf, I politely decline Richard’s invitation to lunch, change back into my shorts, hop onto my bike and am away before you can say, ‘Beware Lynton’.
The recommended route is a good one. I skirt the northern edge of Exmoor and have soon made significant inroads into the anticipated 40+ miles. Eventually I reach the dreaded Lynton, which turns out to be not quite as bad as the advance warnings might have suggested. Having said that, the ridiculously steep hill out makes the North Wall of the Eiger look fairly gentle by comparison and I’m soon out of the saddle and pushing my bike as my wife would have wanted.
Although the final descent into Porlock Weir is more thrilling than any golf hole, it’s also considerably more hazardous. There’s a toll road at the bottom and an honesty box. Motorbikes are 50p but, since they’re not mentioned, I not unreasonably assume bicycles are free. Porlock Weir is an extraordinarily picturesque village right on the sea. As my arrival coincides with yet another downpour, I reluctantly cancel a proposed walk along the beach to look at the marina in favour of checking in at ‘Millers at the Anchor’.
Delightfully quirky and wonderfully comfortable, the hotel is right next to Porlock Harbour and is stuffed with fascinating clutter that gives it the feel of a country house crossed with an antique shop. Because it has become something of a superstitious ritual, I once again eat all the biscuits in my room before unpacking my bags. Dressing for dinner I discover to my considerable horror that I have somehow managed to leave my proper trousers behind at Saunton Golf Club. Because I'm so forgetful these days, I always look round my hotel room several times before checking out. Must I now do the same in locker rooms?
Hoping not to be mistaken for a German tourist ‘Vonting to let zer kneeze breeze' I go downstairs to dinner feeling rather self-conscious in shorts. However, this is such a gloriously eccentric establishment that I don’t think anyone has even noticed, let alone minded.
Nevertheless, I do my best to keep my knees well under the table throughout yet another splendid meal. Another wonderful golf-free day is in prospect as I shall be heading northwest to Burnham and Berrow.
The weather forecast is grisly and it’s pouring when I finally summon up the courage to leave the warmth and comfort of ‘Millers at the Anchor’. Even the unrelenting rain doesn’t diminish the beauty of the superb scenery. But the realisation that the huge hills to my right are going to have to be surmounted sooner or later provides a different sort of dampener.
My morale receives a boost when I cross the county boundary into Somerset. Burnham-on-Sea is at the extreme top right-hand corner of my soggy ‘Devon and West Somerset’ map, which makes it a little difficult to plot the route precisely but I’m confident that it’ll be clearly signposted on the A38. But it isn’t and I’m soon pretty certain that I’ve gone too far. It has to be somewhere over to my left and so that giant church spire way over there must surely be it.
Half-an-hour later I arrive, not in Burnham-on-Sea but Glastonbury. I’ve overshot again but this time by the considerable margin of about 20 miles, according to the lady in the corner shop where I buy my daily fix of Yorkie bar. Because it’s delightfully flat and the rain has finally stopped, I don’t mind yet another directional malfunction and late evening sprint finish.
The Woodlands Country House Hotel lies three-quarters of the way up an extinct volcano called Brent Knoll on the edge of Burnham-on-Sea. It’s great and, best of all, my bathroom has a jacuzzi. However, as you might have guessed, I eat the biscuits before plunging in. The bubbles inspire a brainwave. I'll give my old friend Brendan a ring. He lives nearby, is a member of Burnham and Berrow, is roughly the same size as me and doubtless has plenty of trousers. But his wife informs me he’s away on a golf trip and so neither he nor his trousers is available to join me.
Although the owners are extremely relaxed, as is the dress code in the dining-room, I nevertheless would feel uncomfortable wearing my cycling shorts to dinner and so they kindly serve me a wonderful meal in the bar. Despite being given precise directions, I somehow manage to get lost on what should have been a short cycle ride to Burnham and Berrow the next morning thereby transforming a gentle 15-minute pedal into something more closely resembling a time trial.
The nice young assistant pro listens sympathetically as I explain how it came to pass that my trousers are in Saunton and he gives me the green light to play in my non-tailored shorts and non-regulation socks. Before teeing off, I arrange for a taxi to pick me and the bike up at 3.45 and whisk us to Bristol Temple Meads to catch the train home.
With a number of fourballs in front, play is pretty slow and so I generously invite the two guys behind – Tony and Sean – to join my ‘game’. Originally from Detroit, the latter is a member and is very helpful in giving the right line and alerting me to hazards.
Although the rough is very punishing, it’s such a pleasure to walk up a hill without having to push a bike that I don’t mind it at all.
As well as delightful views over the Bristol Channel and back up to the Quantock Hills, there are rivetted bunkers and more water hazards than you might expect. There's also the occasional unmown area in the middle of the fairway left to protect the orchids and various other delightful wild flowers. With flawless greens, I now perfectly understand why my friend Brendan raves about Burnham and Berrow and Sean absolutely loves it.
In something of a rush because of the waiting cab, I have to skip the last four holes. But, since I played five more than I needed to at St Enodoc, I’m still in credit.
I grab my bike out of the greenkeeper’s shed, my stuff out of the clubhouse, sit back in the taxi and enjoy the feeling of moving forward without having to pedal.
On the First Great Western train to Paddington, I try to ring Rose to tell her I’ve survived and to arrange for her to pick me up at Etchingham but discover my mobile isn’t in my panniers. Damn, I’ve left it at Burnham and Berrow. My penalty for this final piece of forgetfulness is having to cycle home from the station.
Still, when you’ve cycled halfway around the world, another seven miles doesn’t really matter.
WHAT CLIVE LOST
• Nine golf balls
First Great Western trains from Paddington serve the south west of England; for Trevose/St Enodoc go to Newquay or for Burnham and Berrow go to Bristol International (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk/).
The south-west corner of Britain enjoys a particularly temperate climate that allows golf to be played throughout the year. Whilst rainfall is slightly higher than it is in central and south-east England, the courses benefit and are generally greener.
Where to Stay
• Trevose Golf & Country Club has a variety of accommodations
Where to Play
Trevose Golf & Country Club, Padstow, Cornwall
Where to Eat
In addition to the famous restaurant, Rick Stein has opened a café in Middle Street, Padstow. It’s thankfully not as expensive as you might fear and there’s a three course set menu for £22. 01841 532700.
Country Cousins on Westbourne Terrace in Westward Ho! has a great carvery, enjoys an enviable reputation and is exceptionally reasonable. 01237 476989.
Not only is Saunton Sands Hotel just a couple of hundred yards from the golf club, it’s also rather smart and very comfortable. It has a superb restaurant in which you can enjoy both outstanding food and stunning views over the gorgeous beach and Atlantic Ocean. 01271 890212
Even if you don’t stay at the lovely Woodlands Country House Hotel near Burnham and Berrow GC (below), you should dine in its delightful restaurant. With attentive hands-on owners, it specialises in locally-sourced produce and is simply superb. 01278 760232.