You don’t need a weatherman …

… to know which way the wind blows – Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan, recorded on January 14, 1965.  According to english.stackexchange.com, the lyric was the inspiration for the name of the American radical left group the Weathermen, a breakaway from the Students for a Democratic Society. In a 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs that found Bob Dylan was quoted by judges and lawyer more than any other songwriter, “you don’t need a weatherman…” was distinguished as the line most often cited.

I mention this apropos of nothing other than I was at Traigh for their Open over the weekend and, as always, from the high points on the course, you don’t need a weatherman, you can see the weather coming for miles and there was plenty of it.

The view from the 3rd tee

The Clubhouse – the umbrella accurately indicates that the sun was only a passing fancy

Threatening weather

Not immediately apparent, but my bottom half is drenched 😦

The view from the 2nd tee

Looking back to the 2nd tee – Traigh Open 2018 – the essence of Golf in the Wild

While I am going off at tangents, I will make this not particularly original observation – to fully appreciate any music you must hear it in the context of its own time. This track and everything else on Bringing It All Back Home was a shining beacon of originality which inevitably fades with time and the production of more than 50 years worth of subsequent music. Nevertheless, I can still remember the excitement felt by that introverted 14 year-old as this album first emerged from the single speaker of the family Dansette. All the words are still inside my head.

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The Volunteers …

Cullen Links is one of the more remarkable golf courses in Scotland.  Squeezed between the sea and the high ground above the bay where the Great North of Scotland Railway once steamed, the limited acreage demanded an imaginative course design.  At first nine holes, it was extended to eighteen in 1905 and opened by “Sheriff Reid from Banff, in the presence of a large and representative company”.

Extension was achieved by use of high ground above Round Craig and Boar Craig.  You can get some idea of the height achieved by standing at the foot of the town’s railway viaduct as it towers above.  Then consider this – by the time you reach the upper level of the course, the railway has disappeared into a cutting beneath the level of the 5th fairway.  At the seventh, with one glorious drive into the unknown, you descend in a single shot to sea-level.  Forget the Pacific Highway, this is the best drive in the world.

Golf in the Wild at Cullen. The view of the 12th green from the 7th tee – the 13th tee is adjacent to the green and plays between the rocks on the right.

Golf in the Wild at Cullen. The view from the 4th tee.

Despite the course skirting the beach, there are not many opportunities for even the wildest of hitters to reach the briney sea.  Only at the ninth do you aim towards the bay and it would be a monstrous misjudgement to reach the shore.  However, that is not to say that there are no balls in the bay, indeed, there could be thousands.

On the original course map, at a position roughly in line with the current 16th tee, there is marked a “Battery” and on the wall of the clubhouse, an image of a row of cannons.

The exact purpose of the battery is unclear, but presumably there was some thought to coastal defence. However, while possibly never fired in anger, they were certainly exercised regularly for “Volunteers Big Gun Practice”, a sport which bears some resemblance to foursomes golf. A press cutting from the time indicates that the match was halved:

On Friday last, this Company, under the command of Capt. Ross and Lieut. Peterkin, fired off the remaining allowance of shot and shell for year 1865.  The day fixed on was anything but favourable for practice – the wind blowing a regular gale off the land – yet the detachments mustered at the stated time nothing daunted, and it was a general remark of the on-lookers at the battery, that seldom if ever had such fine practice been made in like weather.  At the conclusion of the practice, Adjutant Crabbe, who was present inspecting, complimented the several detachments in the highest terms, both as to their efficiency at drill, and their precision in the laying of guns.  In the course of the evening, the recruits of the company competed for the prize of one thousand rounds of carbine cartridge, given by Alex. Wilson, Esq., Tochineal, a thorough supporter of Volunteer matters.  The prizes were to have been awarded to those showing the greatest proficiency in big gun drill.  The contest was judged by Adjutant Crabbe, and in presence of Captain Ross, and other officers, along with Mr Wilson, and a goodly number of the company, when it was agreed that distinction or any individual superiority could not well be pronounced, the whole having done their part so well, so that the prize came to be equally divided among the ten young recruits of the detachment, giving satisfaction to all.  As a finish, three hearty cheers were heartily accorded to Mr Wilson by all present.

With thanks to Cullen Past and Present and Cullen Links for unearthing the information relating to the Battery.

Golf in the Wild – Going Home is a work in progress – the sequel to www.golfinthewild.co.uk

The Light Railway

The Wick to Lybster Railway conformed to the Light Railway Act of 1896 which did not demand specific legislation to construct.   Reducing legal costs and enabling new railways to be built quickly, it was intended to encourage the building of new ‘light railways’ in areas of low population.  Using the powers of this Act, the Wick to Lybster Light Railway finally opened 1st July 1903 but with the new legislation came certain restrictions: the weight of the rolling stock could not exceed 12 tons on any one axle; the maximum speed was 25 mph, reducing to 10 mph on curves which had a radius of less than 9 chains; level crossings had to be approached at no more than 10 mph.

The decline of the fishing industry at Lybster and the construction of a road between Wick and Helmsdale in the 1930s signalled the end for the Light Railway which closed on 1st April 1944.  John Skene who was the driver of the first train on the opening day of the railway in 1903 steamed up the engine for the last trip in 1944.

Perhaps because of the harsh terrain and climate, perhaps because of its ‘light’ construction, little remains visible – the occasional embankment seen from the A9, the hint of a cutting through an empty field and maybe the odd stationmaster’s house, largely indeterminate from other Caithness architecture.  The wonderful exceptions are the station buildings at Thrumster and Lybster.  Following the line’s closure, Thrumster Station continued life as a Post Office, a caravan site office and finally a garage store before being acquired by the Yarrows Trust in 2003.  It is now perfectly preserved internally and externally, defiantly sited just a few feet from the busy A99, heading north to Wick.

Thrumster Station

The station at Lybster survives through simple vested interest – it is now the clubhouse for the Lybster Golf Club where the cutting heads north west through the course and the 7th whites tee box sits in the middle of the line – it is a pity that there is no longer any evidence of the platform:

Lybster Station

The Far North

Wick has been on my agenda for some time, almost five years to be precise, ever since my Highland Railways post from February 2013.  The ScotRail Club 55 discounted price has expired but with enough forward planning, you can still go a very long distance for not very much – in this instance, from Hexham to Wick and back for £66, a journey not too far shy of 1000 miles.

I set off with some trepidation – Wick and I have form.  Back in the summer of 1987 I flew there from Edinburgh on a business trip.  It is one of those airports that is disconcertingly close to the sea.  For the last half mile approach, there is the distinct impression that the plane is about to do a Captain Sully on the Hudson.  As it turned out, it wasn’t the landing that was the problem but the take-off a few days later.  Around 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, Loganair unceremoniously cancelled the return flight and left me stranded.

Taking to the railways was also full of uncertainties – the Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick, has a well documented poor reliability record.  Aging rolling stock and a single track with insufficient passing loops means that disruption to one service snowballs across the rest.  The occasional thump of shrubbery against windows also testifies to poor trackside maintenance.  I need not have worried.  All seven of the connecting services over four days ran exactly to time, the Inverness to Wick sections included.

The problem with the Far North Line runs much deeper than reliability.  Travel by car from Wick to Inverness and under normal circumstances it will take about two and half hours.  Travel by rail and it takes over four.  It is all down to geography.  The line takes the long route around three firths: Beauly, Cromarty and Dornie such that the distance by rail is roughly twice that of a well trained crow on a still day.  All three firths are crossed by road bridges with no accommodation for rail.

At least these rail routes to the heads of the firths take in modest areas of population.  This is not the case north of Helmsdale where the line wanders inland to avoid the major civil engineering challenge and associated cost of constructing a line over the Ord of Caithness.  The consequence of this 19th century decision is that the line travels remarkable distances to go to the very epicentre of the middle of nowhere.  For the idle rail enthusiast with no desire other than to observe the empty majesty of the Flow Country, this is heaven.  For the good people of Wick and Thurso and a commercial enterprise dependent on attracting passenger traffic, it is not what the doctor ordered.  To have survived post Beeching is a minor miracle.  I am just grateful it has and with the support of the Friends of the Far North Line, I trust it always will.

Kildonan Railway Station

An overnight stay provided the opportunity for only the briefest impressions of Wick.  Seen in a dull, clouded January light, it is a monochrome austere town.  There is no graffiti, no primary colours and no evidence of the too-familiar chain stores.  This creates an air of independence and self-reliance.  Grey stone and grey pebble-dash is contrasted by brown woodwork; individuality is expressed by the shade of brown wood stain. Everywhere there is solid 19th century architecture which will outlive its original purpose; the place has a curious magnificence.

It also seems prosperous – there is major construction work down by the harbour whilst oil rig support vessels are moored to the quayside alongside modern fishing boats, although nothing like the herring fleet numbers that crowded these waters in the 1800s.  In the busy harbourside cafe, Wickers World, the preferred choice of dress is hi-viz and hard hat.  If ownership of German SUVs is a reliable indicator of general prosperity, then the people of Wick are doing just fine.  This is a collection of images taken on the evening of my arrival and the morning of my departure.  Before too long I will return – by car and with golf clubs.  The links course, three miles north of the town, is just too tempting.

Cutting Edge Barbers

Ronnies Restaurant

The Camps Bar.

In 1651 Cromwell’s Army formed an encampment before moving on to invade Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles.  This area of the town is called The Camps.  Temperance (Scotland) Act closed all licenced premises in Wick for 25 years from 28th of May 1922 until 28th May 1947, with the Camps Bar being the first to open its doors.

Birons Ironmongers

The Post Office – Pulteney Town, Wick

The harbour, Wick

The lifeboat – Wick harbour, late afternoon.

The lifeboat station – Salmon Rock – no longer in use.

Fishermen’s huts Wick Harbour

Catherine, out of the water, Wick Harbour

Wickers [sic] World Cafe – Wick harbour.

Across the road from Wickers World.

Farewell to Wick – the train back south

… No sooner has the sun,
Swung clear above the earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live as gleaners of its vestiges.

Damon’s Lament for His Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654
Geoffrey Hill – 1978

Sunrise over Wick harbour.

Travelling by train, particularly on the near-empty carriages of the Far North Line, is one of the most relaxing modes of transport devised by man, with or without the clickety-clack of sleep-inducing rail expansion gaps. However, there is mild frustration for the photographer – a fine landscape is only visible through mucky windows which reflect the carriage lights. This is the near-best moving image I could manage – a video of the Inverness to Edinburgh line heading south on the final day:

(dig around on this site and you may find various tweeted phone images from the same journey).

When I was small …

and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things.  Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines.  Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside.  The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near.  In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it.  In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.

Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window.  And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.

Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a  more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.

At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the  British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack.  As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay.  However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development.  Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it.  Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.

The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid.  Just fifteen years later it was switched off.  Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere.  Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.

I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR.  This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without.  Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years.  Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.

This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington.  Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:


An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).

Fairway and tarmac …

There are no signs.  The implication is that if you don’t know where to go then you shouldn’t be here.  It will be different when the Open arrives along these shores but at all other times, Muirfield is discreet, understated, almost forbidding.

It starts in the car park.  Should I really be here.  Is this row of covered stalls really intended for guests.  The pewter grey Elise looks perfectly at home, more at ease in its surroundings than me.  The walk to the course and clubhouse is no less a pilgrimage than first steps along Magnolia Drive.  Still there are no signs but the imposing P Johnson & Co Iron Gates is the obvious direction – if Bates Motel had boasted a golf course, this is how the entrance might have looked.  To the right is the pedestrian gate and this alone solemnly announces that you have arrived at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Inside the clubhouse my generous host for the day gives me a tour of the inner sanctum: the wood panelling and changing room reminiscent of a boys grammar; the polished trophies, some of the earliest ever played for; the tall red-coated portraits; the maps portraying the evolution of the course; the dark bust of the 1950s Captain, C J Y Dallmeyer; the scorecards from past Opens and a replica of the Claret Jug, complete with up-to-date engravings – 2017 Open Winner, Jordan Spieth.  Quiet as a library, this place is special.  In the hall I meet the Recorder, various members and later the Captain – all welcoming, polite, men of standing.  This is not the stuffy, jurassic establishment portrayed by the social and print media, this is the polar opposite.

The seventh, Muirfield

We play foursomes, the traditional Muirfield game – my playing partner takes the odd tees and I take the evens such that I will take the final drive up the eighteenth. I had no preconceived agenda about setting a score so assistance and a joint responsibility suits me fine.  More than that, it is a thoroughly enjoyable team game and we rise to the occasion, hitting fairways and sinking putts – a birdie at the par 5 ninth puts us five up.  At the turn, we head to the clubhouse for lunch. This is how all golf should be played. ‘And, if it be retorted that a player plays twice as many shots in a fourball game as in a Foursome, the Muirfield man would reply – “Play 36 holes in 4 ½ hours and you will get the same number of shots, twice the exercise, far more fun, and you won’t have to wait between shots.  Furthermore you will learn to play better golf.” ‘ – Foreward to G Pottinger’s Muirfield and the Honourable Company.

The thirteenth – unlucky for some, we made par 😉

Lunch is taken in the lounge, jacket and tie being mandatory.  I have brought a tie from the funerals drawer for the occasion – I am a guest and I must honour club traditions, no matter that such attire is at complete odds with my late hippy demeanour.  A generous tray of sandwiches is accompanied by a gunner (ginger beer, ginger ale, dash of lime and a measure of angostura bitters), followed by coffee and the traditional Muirfield and Prestwick liqueur – kümmel, a sweet, colourless drink flavoured with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel.  First impressions are mixed but I warm to it as the glass empties. I am unsure of the effect it may have on the back nine.

Sure enough, post lunch, our partners make a comeback.  We are playing to Colonel Dallmeyer’s rules.  Individual handicaps are ignored – each team plays level until one pair goes three-up and your opponents receive strokes until the leading pair are back to one-up.  After the sixteenth we are playing level again – we lead by one with two holes to play.  All of the Muirfield holes have witnessed high drama and historic occasions, none more so than the 17th at the 1972 Open.  Trevino has hacked his way into rough at the back of the green in four, Jacklin is sitting comfortably on the green in three:

On the same hole we are lying three in the semi-rough to the right of the green having avoided some monstrous bunkers – our opponents have been in several:

… Hew extracting himself from a bunker on the 17th – not for the first time.

I chip within a distance short enough to be given the hole – we have won 2&1 – what Jacklin would have given for five at the 17th in 1972.  That year I was oblivious to the high drama being acted out at Muirfield.  On the same day and around the same time I know exactly where I was – at Brands Hatch for the 1972 British Grand Prix, watching Emerson Fittipaldi take the flag for Lotus.  In those far-off days, major sporting events were concluded on Saturdays, not Sundays.  The modern migration to the Sabbath has less to do with the slackening of religious observance and more to do with maximising TV exposure.  This fuzzy clip from Brands was filmed by BBC Eurovison and the commentary is in Austrian:

This youthful obsession explains the Lotus in the Muirfield car park – it is not about prestige or one-upmanship, it is about history, teenage dreams and the joy of driving – as Andrew Frankel recently observed in Motor Sport – ‘The secret is not to go lobbing it around – the pleasure comes not from power and slides but feel and finesse’ – it has ‘a level of feel that makes all other sports cars seem like you’re driving them wearing oven mitts … the car is simply fabulous’.

However, I confess, given the choice now, I would be at the Open – modern day F1 is a pale shadow of its former self.  It has been a convoluted journey from Kentish tarmac to the fairways of East Lothian.

The eighteenth – as a consolation, our opponents win the hole with par.

With sincerest thanks to David S-S for organising my visit and to Hew and Mark for their excellent company. A very memorable day.

St Enodoc

In previous years I have approached St Enodoc Church from Daymer Bay but this time we parked at Rock and ended up walking down the tenth in the company of a local four-ball.  At stroke index 1 (i.e. ranked the hardest hole on the course), it looks a real stinker with thick trees and bushes all the way down the left, steeply banked rough to the right and the narrowest of fairways in between.  The pin remains out of sight to the last.

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman  was buried in St Enodoc churchyard in 1984.  His coffin was carried down the tenth in the heaviest of weather, perfect conditions for a bleak Cornish funeral.  As a middling golfer I doubt he looked forward to playing this hole.  His poem, Seaside Golf, was inspired by the 13th:

I played an iron sure and strong
And clipp’d it out of sight,
And spite of grassy banks between
I knew I’d find it on the green.

And so I did. It lay content
Two paces from the pin;
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most securely in.
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.

The parody, written by fellow member Sir Robin Butler, must surely have been inspired by the tenth:

I played an iron sure and strong,
A fraction to the right
I knew that when I reached my ball
I’d find it underneath the wall.

And so I did. I chipped it low
And thinned it past the pin
And to and fro, and to and fro
I tried to get it in;
Until, intoning oaths obscene
I holed it out in seventeen

This well known view from the St Enodoc churchyard captures all that Sir John loved about this place – the ancient church rooted to the landscape, the wild Atlantic Cornish coast and the links course in between:

We caught up with the same four-ball as we crossed the fairway to Daymer Bay:
Golfer: ‘Been to seek forgiveness?’
Me: ‘Nope, to pray for a better a golf swing’
Golfer: ‘I’ve tried that – it doesn’t work’.

Despite the prospect of the tenth, St Enodoc remains on my golfing bucket list – the game is fundamentally a masochistic endeavour.

The background to St Enodoc on Wiki is so good, I thought it worth repeating here:

The church is situated in sand dunes east of Daymer Bay and Brea Hill on the River Camel estuary. Wind-driven sand has formed banks that are almost level with the roof on two sides. From the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century, the church was virtually buried by the dunes and was known locally as “Sinking Neddy” or “Sinkininny Church”. To maintain the tithes required by the church, it had to host services at least once a year, so the vicar and parishioners descended into the sanctuary through a hole in the roof. By 1864 it was unearthed and the dunes were stabilised. The church is surrounded by the course of the St Enodoc Golf Club.