Tony Rowen goes hunting for some birdies in the stunning South Northamptonshire countryside
WHITTLEWOOD Forest is a former medieval hunting forest just east of Silverstone, with modern day hunters seeking birdies, eagles and even an albatross on very rare occasions.
That's because the 21st Century hunters are, in fact, golfers playing the Whittlebury Park golf course, which features hundreds of ancient oak trees and a dozen lakes that were once part of the Royal Whittlewood Forest.
Those medieval hunters would be hard pressed to recognise the forest they once roamed as today the area has been transformed into a superb championship course complete with the stunning Atrium Clubhouse - the largest in Europe and twice winner of the UK Clubhouse of the Year - with the four-star Whittlebury Park hotel just a stone's throw away.
There is absolutely nothing medieval about the facilities on offer at Whittlebury Park, which opened in 1993, with the whole operation being overseen by Head of Golf Leigh Denoven, who has been at the helm since 2012.
Leigh ensures that the 400 members get real value for their £995 annual membership fee, and that everything runs smoothly on corporate days, society visits and special events, as well as for stay-and-play guests and casual visitors. Modern technology is at the forefront of the operation, complete with an electronic booking system for members who can book tee times for up to 30 days in advance.
It was Leigh who welcomed me and my playing partner Martin on our visit to the course last month and he started with a tour of the impressive Atrium Clubhouse which has facilities for hosting wedding receptions, private parties and meetings as well as various dining areas, the biggest of which can seat 350 people, and The Bistro (see separate article).
The night before our visit I went to bed fearing that we would be in for a soaking as the forecast didn't bode well. My fears proved unfounded, however - the morning was overcast but it was not raining, there was no wind and we completed our round in near perfect conditions. Only the sun was missing.
For most of the 20th Century, the estate was a working farm before being transformed into a golf course, designed by Cameron Sinclair. Whittlebury Park consists of three loops of nine holes - Yellow (The 1905), Red (Royal Whittlewood) and Blue (Grand Prix) - all with their own unique character. In addition, there is also the Wedgewood Course, which has testing par three and par four holes and is ideal for bringing on and improving novice players as well as offering a challenge to experienced players, and a driving range.
The 1905 course features magnificent old oak trees and lakes; the Royal Whittlewood course skirts the ancient forest and is home to an abundance of flora and fauna; while the Grand Prix course gets its name from the adjacent Silverstone Circuit and provides some really testing holes with interesting lake features and wildlife sanctuaries. Leigh selected the Blue course for our first nine holes followed by the Red Course for our back nine.
Spread before us as we emerged from the Atrium was the splendid view of the three courses looking absolutely magnificent with fairways defined by meticulous mowing and refreshed by the recent rain.
Our first port of call was the halfway house, which is manned by John Van Denberg who handed us our cards and briefed us on the local rules of the course, then it was the short walk to our first tee for a fairly gentle par four opening hole. The Blue course includes two interesting par three holes of 132 yards and 166 yards - both of which were safely negotiated - and two par fives of 495 yards and 513 yards respectively which proved a little bit more problematic. The first of these, our fourth hole, is stroke index one, making it the hardest hole and so it proved.
The scenery is absolutely stunning and the lakes provide interesting water features with a pair of ducks giving us a warning hiss as we got too close to them and their young ducklings.
We completed our first nine holes back in front of the Atrium where all three courses terminate, and set off for the first hole on the Red course which presents the hardest challenge of the trio.
Again there was a reasonably gentle par four to get us under way, followed the first of two par fives - a 430 yards hole with an stroke index of 16 but still with a sting in its tail, and the closing hole at 510 yards leading back to the Atrium via a very generous fairway, but with some sand traps to negotiate before reaching the green.
The condition of the course was magnificent courtesy of the hardworking greenkeeping team who were much in evidence on both courses. In addition to the smart-looking fairways, the tees and greens were immaculate prompting the comment from Martin that they are some of the best he had seen - and he knows a thing or two about golf courses.
A week or so after our visit, Whittlebury Park was hosting the prestigious televised William Hunt Trilby Trophy tour for the second year running. Thank goodness the cameras were not in position to witness my performance, although I would not have minded them filming my finishing hole as I secured a par - it was so nearly a birdie -with some of my best shots of the round.
There are few better places to play golf than in the beautiful rolling countryside of South Northamptonshire, and Whittlebury Park is a perfect example of this providing a test for novice and more experienced players alike.
Whittlebury Park Golf Course
Whittlebury, Towcester, NN12 8 QH
Tel: 01327 850000