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Crowborough Beacon Golf Club home to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

By John Vinicombe,

Curiously, there is no mention of golf in the Sherlock Holmes stories although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author, played the game, was captain of his club and even lived on a golf course.

The creator of the great detective - whose legendary exploits have been translated into 50 languages and made into plays, films, radio and TV series, cartoons, even a musical and a ballet - was a golfing nut in what spare time he had.

And the inspiration he drew on for tales of wild moorland England derived from the view outside his study window on Crowborough Beacon golf club and 792 feet above the glorious Sussex countryside.

It was here for a major part of his life that Sir Arthur worked and played. He was not only a keen linksman but good enough before succumbing to rheumatism to captain the Crowborough blue bloods in 1910. The connection was very much a family affair as Lady Conan Doyle captained the ladies' section the following season.

Also their son Kingsland knew what it was to pit his skills against the undulating heather-girt beauty spot. It was Conan Doyle's home for 23 years and at the most fruitful time of his career.

These were happy and productive days before the Great War at Windlesham Manor. The Sherlock Holmes Society thinks so, as they have put up a special trophy in Conan Doyle's name at Crowborough while the ladies' play for a cup in his memory. A further reminder of his close association may be seen among the captains listed on the oak panelled walls of the spacious Edwardian clubhouse lounge.

Sir Arthur died in 1930 at Windlesham of heart disease and his body was first buried in the grounds close to the clubhouse. Then, in 1955, it was exhumed and reinterred at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire.

An acknowledged literary genius, just how good a clubman was Conan Doyle?

During his captaincy there was a 20 percent increase in green fees, a tribute the annual report says, to the increasing popularity of the club. With a membership reading like Burke's Peerage there was never a problem with money at Crowborough.

Evidently not, for Conan Doyle invited H S Colt, the noted golf architect of Sunningdale, to inspect the course and, apparently, some of his suggestions were adopted.

Toward the end of his life Conan Doyle's chauffeur would bring him the few yards up to the club with the best of intentions of playing a round. But his rheumatics often got the best of him after a few holes. Nevertheless, he pulled his weight in other quarters and served on the committee for two years.

Precious little exists at the club by way of memorabilia. A note to the secretary stated somewhat apologetically that he rather objected to having to pay a full subscription for his son who didn't play more than three times a year.

But, not wishing to be thought a tightwad, Conan Doyle asked if it would be in order if he made a contribution to the club of substantially more than the five and a half guineas to cover the fee. He further chipped-in with five guineas for a cup and another five in his wife's name for a ladies' trophy. These offers were taken up shortly before his death at the age of 71.

In 1917 Conan Doyle underwent a profound change following the death of his son Kingsley in the war. Conan Doyle, who had an interest in spiritualism and the occult, arranged to meet the boy on the first anniversary of his death on what is now the fourth green.

Grief did not cause Conan Doyle to lay down his pen. By the early 1920s he was one of the most highly-paid writers in the world and there can be little doubt that The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire was fired by local colour.

By no means did he remain chained to Windlesham and Crowborough. In 1894 he had toured Canada and the United States. He made a special visit to Vermont to share Rudyard Kipling's Thanksgiving Dinner and didn't forget his golf clubs.

"I had brought my clubs and gave him lessons in a field while the New England rustics watched us from afar, wondering what we were at, for golf was unknown in America at the time," he confided in his diary.

While Conan Doyle was a stickler for accuracy he is in error here. The Philadelphia Times of the day records that, in 1892 the game was astir and that Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, New York, already had a spiffing clubhouse designed by Stanford White.

At the time of Conan Doyle's trip there were five clubs in America and the USGA was born.

Is it possible that even such a self-assured man as Conan Doyle was a tad embarrassed to discover on returning to Crowborough that Horace Rawlins, the first assistant at the club, was the first winner of the U.S. Open championship?

Two rounds were played at Newport and Rawlins' 173 aggregate was good enough to relegate Willie Dunn to second place.

A native of the Isle of Wight, Rawlins was 19 when he won in Rhode Island bettering a field of nine other professionals and one amateur.

In the U.S. Open statistics, Rawlings is not credited as being British. That must be put down as a slip of the pen, but Crowborough's records show that he played the great James Braid at The Beacon in 1896 as misty rain enveloped the virgin course.

They played 36 holes over the original nine and Rawlings had an awful time ending the morning round six down to Braid, later to win the Open Championship five times, who shot 88 against 95 by his youthful and, probably, overawed opponent. Play was more even in the afternoon, Braid signing for 83 and Rawlings 85. Braid's 39 for the fourth nine was a record.

There is no mention of Conan Doyle being among the spectators. The Crowborough course had opened only the previous year and it is possible he was still in America with Kipling and his American wife. Soon the great writers were to become near neighbors in Sussex and later united in grief as both lost sons in the Great War.

Windlesham Manor still stands today. It is an old folks home at the far end of the practice ground. In the fading Autumnal light it is a ghostly place as the wind sighs in the trees.

No wonder Conan Doyle breathed life into Holmes and Dr Watson and Moriarty but not to the extent of them playing golf...that was a private preserve of the author once the last chapter was put to bed.

Where to stay

Crowborough lies just eight miles from the historic spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells which is an ideal place to stay as it provides plenty to see and do after 18 holes.

Royal Tunbridge Wells lies at the heart of one of the most scenic stretches of countryside in England, surrounded by the beauty of the Weald. In Georgian times this popular spa town gained a reputation as the place to see and be seen among royalty and fashionable members of the aristocracy.

Retaining much of the charm and elegance of its Georgian heyday, Royal Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding area today remains a favoured destination for those who want to enjoy elegant surroundings in the countryside while just a short distance from the hustle and bustle of London and the other attractions of Kent and Sussex.

Some of the country's best examples of castles, stately homes and gardens - both great and small are to be found in the Tunbridge Wells area. There are more castles and gardens open to the public in this area than any other in the UK.

Many of the places to visit have connections with famous people - Sir Winston Churchill, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Marc Chagall and Vita Sackville-West - or are just famous in their own right, such as Sissinghurst Castle Gardens and Leeds Castle.

Others are less well-known but just as fascinating and beautiful.

The Ramada Jarvis Hotel (ramadajarvis.co.uk) at Pembury just outside Royal Tunbridge Wells provides all the comfort and leisure facilities one has come to expect from the chain, while The Royal Wells Inn (royalwells.co.uk) is a traditional hotel, with an excellent position overlooking the Tunbridge Wells common.

The Royal Wells Hotel owes it regal title to Queen Victoria, who made frequent visits as a young princess in the early 19th century. She later granted the use of her Coat of Arms, which is proudly displayed at the top of the building.

Or for another bit of history, you could try The Spa Hotel (spahotel.co.uk). The family owned hotel was built in 1766 and is set in 14 acres of beautiful gardens. It also has an award-winning restaurant and is just half-an-hour from Gatwick Airport.

Where to eat

A few miles out into the Kent countryside and you may be spoiled for choice.

The Bottle House, near Penshurst, is Egon Ronay recommended, with a considerable range of dishes and a daily-changing menu, all made from locally supplied produce. Menus have included breast of pheasant stuffed with wild boar to the more traditional local fare of Speldhurst sausages and mashed potato.

For any seafood fanatics the Green Cross Inn in Goudhurst is a must. The Hare on Langton Green provides good hearty fare and a classic village pub atmosphere, while The Mount Edgcumbe Brasserie, in Tunbridge Wells itself, can offer you an unusual choice of seating - an authentic 8th century candlelit cave - though there is the more conventional and intimate seating of Club Edgcumbe with views across Tunbridge Wells Common. The cuisine is international.

Crowborough Beacon
Founded: 1895
Length from back trees: 6,273 yards, par 71 standard scratch 70 (handicap certificate required)
Course record: 67
Web site: crowboroughbeacongolfclub.co.uk
Email: cbgc@eastsx.fsnet.co.uk
Club secretary: Mrs. V Harwood. Phone: (0044) 1892 661511

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