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Bovey Castle - This is England
Traviss Willcox

Some places you know you are going to enjoy from the moment you arrive, entering through the wrought iron gates past the gatehouse the drive to Bovey Castle winds between the 13th and 14th holes on the course and then you enter the forecourt, past a trio of vintage Rolls Royces.

The cheerful porters are attired in plus fours, circa 1920's country gentleman style and lead you through the entrance where there must be at least 25 pairs of wellington boots... this is very much a country location.

Bovey Castle is set within the boundaries of the Dartmoor National Park, about 12 miles from Exeter and 150 miles from London. Formerly owned by the WH Smith family it was turned into a hotel in the 1920's. It was more recently though, with the purchase by Peter de Savary of the estate, and the complete refurbishment of the course, accommodation and facilities, that has rejuvenated the location.

The first thing that you notice when arriving is that the hotel has a "style", understated quality and fine workmanship, and with many of the little touches that make the difference between just making a visit somewhere and enjoying an experience. It could be the ornate carvings, the Elemis toiletries in the welcome pack or the hand made fudge left by the bed when the maids do the evening turn down or any one of another hundred tiny small touches.

The staff during our entire stay were excellent, cheery and enthusiastic, nothing was too much trouble and the clientele small enough that within a few hours you were treated rather like a long standing resident than a transient visitor.

Now there are a number of the "manor house & golf courses" type properties dotted around the United Kingdom, and what Peter De Savary has endeavored to create here is something a little bit different. Aside from the first class accommodation, dining, spa and golf (more of which later) what has persuaded the likes of Freddie Flintoff, Greg Norman, Colin Montogmerie, Darren Clarke and Jimmy Tarbuk to purchase memberships?

The difference is location and the activities that are on offer. Dartmoor is England's largest National Park, and its lovely and about as good as the English countryside gets. Rolling hills, moors, narrow country lanes, rivers, wildlife and all rather unspoiled. Add to that there are a team of four "Activity" staff who have a schedule of day to day events, such as falconry displays, archery and pistol shooting, wine tasting and fly fishing. And on request can arrange or look after themselves a whole host of activities from 4wd tours on the moors, equestrian activities, tennis, croquet, badminton, boules, rock climbing, hang climbing, canoeing, cricket, hiking and more beside. Aside from golf, fishing is probably the prime attraction, trout, sea trout and salmon being the main catch (which once caught can be prepared for eating that evening) and the facility owns about 25 miles of prime fishing river on the Bovey, Teign and Taw.

Golf Widows Perspective

It really is no hardship being a golf widow at Bovey Castle.

All the options appealed – pampering in the holistic spa, horse-riding over the wilds of Dartmoor, a leisurely stroll through the parkland with its azaleas in full bloom, reading any one of the many magazines scattered around the Castle's lounges whilst lounging on the sun terrace, a refreshing swim in the elegant pool with its magnificent views over the surrounding countryside, watching the Falconry display on the terrace.

The difficult part of the morning was deciding just what appealed the most! The spa shouted loudest and I indulged in an Elemis Taster Facial, a leisurely dip in the pool and a relaxing lay by the outside plunge pool in the glorious Devonian sunshine.

A morning spent in a relaxed state of bliss…...although in truth the bliss had started pretty much about the time we drove in through the gates of Bovey Castle !

The beauty of this sort of set up is that it allows families to enjoy themselves, doing different activities, either together or separately, whilst one is playing golf, the partner can be enjoying the spa and swimming pool, or maybe a horse ride or a try at archery, having a go at cider brewing or enjoy afternoon tea. Whilst its wrong to pretend that this is a "family" location, children are well catered for, there is the Bovey Rangers, and a dedicated play room (away slightly from the main building), to keep them occupied whilst the parents indulge in other activities, and other games for them to enjoy. What was nice is that these sort of potentially more noisy activities are tucked out of the way a little... so you're not disturbed on the sun terrace by a couple of children enjoying the trampoline.

The grounds have obviously had a lot or work put into them in recent times, four gardeners look after them and I was told that four tree surgeons were employed for two years tidying up and managing the thousands of trees on the estate and golf course. Whilst some of the new planting will require another year or two to develop as intended the result already is quite idyllic. Perhaps our view slightly biased by being totally fortunate with perfect weather, I can imagine winter being a somewhat different experience, those wellington boots are there for a purpose! Its an all seasons resort though, snow is an almost annual visitor and the tennis courts are turned into an artificial skating ring in the winter months. One can almost imagine the welcome sight of Bovey Castle after a brisk walk on the moors, returning to mulled wine and mince pies...

The Course

Despite all the other attractions and activities at Bovey Castle, golf will be the main focus for many of its visitors and members. The likes of Greg Norman, Sam Torrance, Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke are all members so you can be assured that the course isn't your poor municipal nine holer!

Bovey Castle has no less than four golf professionals catering mainly for members and residents, following the extensive renovation of the course the number of rounds were cut from 35000 a year to just 10000. On a beautiful Saturday June morning at 9am the course had the grand total of three other players on it. This really follows the philosophy of the whole facility, relaxed, unrushed and rather idyllic.

The 6303 yard par 70 John Abercromby designed Old Course was rejuvenated, restored and modified by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie and reopened in 2004. The River Bovey meanders through the first 8 holes of the course, causing a host of problems, though one nice touch I liked was a number of ball retrievers thoughtfully dotted around by the water hazards.

A crew of 15 keep the course in an excellent condition, there is quite some evidence of beautification taking place, with a number of rockeries with fresh planting, dotting of granite boulders and the freshly renovated bunkers. You may of course disagree with the latter inclusion if you are flush against the face of one of the deeper ones with water on the other side of the green!

The 1st is a gentle introduction, 309 yards downhill where as long as you can get some kind of club face on the ball you should be able to advance it far enough to have a second shot into the green, perhaps a comforting thought for those of us with 1st Tee nerves as its overlooked by one of the castles terraces which makes for an excellent viewing area. For the brave the hole is drivable, but with trees around the green and the river cutting diagonally across the fairway from about the 200 yard mark and carrying on past the right of the green, its a tough choice. Greg Norman apparently drove into the trees to the left on his first visit to the course and lost his ball.

The 2nd has the river running down the left of the fairway and the right of the green, just waiting for anything slightly wayward. This hole is also one that can be lengthened for serious competition, there is a Euro Pro event taking place this year at the course, taking the 382 yard hole to well over 410.

The 3rd is the hole that appears on all the promotional material, an almost island green par 3 of 208 yards, though the numerous teeing areas take this down as far as 103 for the ladies and faint hearted. A lake to the left and the river to the right. Wonderful views up to Bovey Castle and the flora make the hole very special. The green is large and there is some dead ground to the front and right so its not a guaranteed water visit for a slightly miss hit shot.

Not all the water on the course is the River Bovey, the Bowden comes into play on the 4th, a 582 yard par 5 with the river and thick woodland all down the left and bunkers and trees on the right, a tough test indeed, for good measure an old stone wall runs alongside the green to the left, making for some interesting shot making should the ball end up close to it.

The 5th features a chute drive which really demands a fade off the tee for a good shot into the river protected green, for many I suspect a lay up would be a good option for a less than perfect tee shot. Its a stroke index 3 hole and demands accuracy if a bogey or worse is to be avoided.

The short par 3 6th is the first anonymous hole on the course really, a little downhill and with the river not really in play something of a respite from the earlier challenges.

Sir Henry Cotton described the 7th as the best inland par 4 in the country, and standing on the tee, you'd probably be wondering if he got out that much. Ignorance is bliss of course as its not obvious from the tee that there is water running left and right down the fairway, and meanders twice across it too. Meaning a lay up to an "island" fairway or a braver 200 yard carry to the main landing area... for good measure the river continues past the right of the green. For anything very wayward, there are woods on both sides... you'll be happy with a par here!

The 8th, the last to feature the river, is the stroke index 1 hole, 402 yards, the river running along the left edge of the driving area and then looping around the back of the green too. A demanding tee shot and demanding second.

Restored back to its original design, the 156 yard 9th is something of a respite from the challenges of the last two holes, slightly uphill with quite a contoured green but otherwise fairly straightforward.

Returning home the par 5 10th is new and looks deceiving, as in fact are many aspects of the course, dead ground, bunkers that look to be next to the green 25 yards short and so on, much subtly in evidence, no more so than here. The fairway looks wide and close, but playing over a valley into a saddle the fairway is narrower than it appears. A good tee shot will have you hitting across another valley to a small green, the lay up area though is narrow and well short of the elevated green. A hole of 4s or 6s I suspect!

From the tee the 11th looks nothing too exciting... its all in the second shot though, a sharply elevated green, with a pond in front, anything short will roll back towards it... the groundsmen though thoughtfully have left a collar of rough in front of the pond though so a short shot will likely catch there than get wet. However, you'd still be left with a very tricky short pitch. Mental note, approach shot, take an extra club!

The 208 yard par 3 12th features a very narrow chute, which for the average player would be very daunting and very long from the back tees as the hole is slightly uphill.

The 13th and 14th are both short par 4s running either side of the entrance road and perhaps the most straightforward holes on the course, the 14th especially I suspect most people will have a go at, despite the guarding trees, there is not too much rough under them and the optimistic will be hoping not to be caught behind a tree for the short pitch!

The 15th is a sharp dog leg left, the only such hole on the course and is possibly the largest green on the course also, a little elevated and with an accurate tee shot a straightforward hole, for an inaccurate tee shot, there is a reason its stroke index 4!

A short par 4, the 16th is a tricky one, a narrow landing area and a trio of bunkers means either a very accurate tee shot, or very short one, leaving maybe a 140 yard approach to a small green. For the bigger hitters a 250 yard carry leaves a short pitch.

A blind tee shot awaits you on the 17th, thoughtfully though a marker indicates the target line to a wide landing area. A heavily bunkered green awaits the downhill approach shot.

The 18th, which before the renovation was once a par 3 and then a poor par 4 because of the severe slopes has been stretched out to a par four of 432 yards thanks to copious amounts of earth moving, 18 feet being removed from the left and added to the right side of the fairway. Providing a level fairway and also numerous boulders that are now dotted around the course and also used on the tee boxes. By the time you're finished you are back at the castle and ready for refreshments in the clubhouse!

All in all an excellent course, not the most demanding length wise, but one you could play again and again without getting tired of it, a lot of time and effort has gone into making the course how it is today and it shows. There are thousands of mature trees, severe rough features on just six of the holes, other rough around the course isn't too penal and the whole course is very easy on the eye, and ear, the gentle sounds of the river and birds make it quite an idyllic location.

There is a well maintained putting green under the terraces close to the first tee and a secluded 330 yard long practice area, with a short game area alongside together with a pro shop that stocks all the essentials all in all makes for an excellent golfing facility.

Dining

Refreshments come in the form of two excellent restaurants, breakfast (delicious and on the terrace in the sunshine the best way to enjoy) and dinner (can recommend the mini desserts, a plate full of small versions of the others on offer!) are served in the Palm Court, whilst the less formal Clubhouse offers lunch. The food is simply first class and probably deserves a whole page in itself! Best of all though is the archetypal "English Afternoon Tea" in the Cathedral Room. Comfort yourself that the calories can be burned off again in the gym, swimming pool or sauna! The piano bar features row upon row of beverages to enjoy prior to dinner and the sommelier offers wine tasting daily from the cellars, to be absolutely honest, we simply couldn't manage that, the afternoon teas are too wonderful and too filling!

Conclusion

I've already written too much and yet still haven't touched on the lodges, the spa, the little nooks and crannys of the place, let alone the conference centre, meeting rooms, snooker room or even the accommodations or membership in any great detail. It all kind of blurs into one overall experience of a timeless place, "Devonian Time", as the staff call it. Perhaps the greatest compliment is that on the drive down we were thinking about a couple of local area attractions that we planned to fit into our weekend, and it was only half way up the M5 on the way home we realised we'd not given them another thought since!

We also tried to create a list of negative points about the weekend, after all, this is a review, not an advertorial! We came up with the water pressure in the cold tap in the bathroom sink was a bit low. That's it. Seriously, this isn't an advertorial, we simply had a wonderful weekend there, in perfect weather, enjoying just a sampling of the facilities and activities on offer. Its perfect for a weekend break, but a week could slip by in this peaceful enclave and you'd still be sorry to leave and rue the things you'd missed.

There is something very English about Bovey Castle, you could almost imagine over the entrance, rather like at Anfield, a simple "This is England." Thoroughly recommended without hesitation.

Bovey Castle Website - http://www.boveycastle.com/


 



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