In praise of the old ways...
Minchinchampton Old Course and I met for the first time, on Friday. We’d been destined to share an hour or two for a very long time, and I’d come to know a number of her close cousins of late - Painswick, Cleeve Hill, maybe even Westward Ho!
So I started to write a piece singing her glories, so that others might make that same trek up the hill from Stroud, emerge onto the plateau where she lives, and feel that special freedom that she grants the passing traveller. No longer is there a highwayman atop Minchinhampton Common, though Tom Long’s Post is still there, marking the spot where he kept watch, and adorning the flag silks. Instead, since 1889, Minch Old awaits, sharing the secrets of one of golf’s purest dimensions to the many pilgrims who report in to see her.
But the half-written piece that languishes in drafts a day later feels clumsy, and seems to me to have too much “fluff” in it. For the thing that stuck out most about Minch Old was its wonderful, alluring, precious simplicity. Life is full of embellishment, and uniformity, and endless complications, many of which we seem to choose more from habit than conscious thought. And Minch Old has little in the way of the superfluous, and seems better for it.
So “The Old Ways” will remain where it is, and will perhaps change into something longer one day, when the time is right. But for now, I feel as if anything written about Minch Old should be short and sweet, with no added padding. That style better fits the subject matter.
So, I shall start again…
Minchinhampton Old Course and I met for the first time, on Friday. And I’ve thought of little else since. Life is busy in the twenty-first century, and it is unusual to emerge from a new experience such as this so utterly refreshed. For the appeal of this golfing particular masterpiece is not in anything new or novel, or flash for that matter, but in a marvellous celebration of simplicity.
From the moment I stepped out onto the tee, and peered at a fluttering flag in the distance, I was spellbound. For Minch Old has not been diluted by any of the clutter that we find in golf these days. No ball cleaners, no horrible signage. Neither are there bunkers, though that doesn’t serve to make the golf any easier.
Instead, Minch Old seems to exist as a rare and respectful custodian of the purest version of golf, the version we all fell in love with somewhere along the way, regardless of our location at the time. It celebrates the unadulterated pleasure of being in a dialogue with nature while knocking a ball round on foot. And under a vast sky, with mountains in the distance, this gorgeous plateau of common land is shared in harmony with many walkers and dogs, and we all savour this feeling of great freedom, of spaciousness, while the skylarks provide a heavenly soundtrack from their lofty perch above.
Soon, those already present will be joined by horses and grazing cattle for the summer months, and this sense of a shared respect for the local ecosystem and for each other seems to permeate the air here. The persuasive arguments of fashion or whim have not been permitted to dent Minch Old’s primal appeal, and it is all the more precious for this obstinate wisdom.
As we wind our way through the flow of the course’s routing, regular interactions with small quarries and The Bulwarks - the preserved banks and ditches of an Iron Age hillfort - provide reminders of the ancient nature of this landscape, and of our place in this timeline. We play over, through, and around them, and marvel at the options available. At Minch Old it is hard to lose a ball, as the playing corridors are wide and welcoming, but so easy to see strokes slip away, not that we’re counting. We’re counting our blessings, instead.
Driving home, I mull over why this place took such an instant place in my heart, and I slowly realise it is all about simplicity - that word again. For, as in much of the sparse music and art I love, it is when something is stripped bare that it has the freedom to speak, and the important message is often to be found in the pauses. Perhaps it is not so much that Minch Old has been made barer; more that little has been added since golf became part of the history of this lovely piece of land.
It is hard to imagine how anything of the modern game could improve on this, and in an age where water and other resources are putting pressure on golf’s environmental status, the stark, rugged beauty of this experience seem more sustainable in every sense of the word. It was here long before most of the rest of golf, and perhaps it will be here long after, for the ways of this course preserve something so special in its DNA, while the rest of the world goes looking on for more, of everything.
After a well-earned pot of tea, we step back out towards the car park, and glance at the markers for the first tee, between which no golfer stands just now. What better way to sum up how it feels to golf here as my host for the day asks, only half in jest and with a twinkle in his eye: “Shall we? Shall we go again?”.
Another pilgrimage, and another magical golfing adventure for the memory bank.
Minch Old, they call it.
Wonderfully simple. And simply wonderful.
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