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England's Woburn Abbey an unknown gem, but now the secret's out

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

WOBURN - About this time last fall my photographer and I had the good fortune to win the Grand Prize in a Society of American Travel Writers golf tournament. This past May we collected our bounty - a trip to Great Britain courtesy of Visit Britain, British Airways, BritRail and sponsoring resorts.

While most of the East Coast of the United States was being deluged with rain, England presented us with balmy, perfect golf weather - a delightful turnabout. We kept our rain jackets close at hand, but seldom needed them.

We approached Woburn Abbey estate, an hour north of London in Bedfordshire, with great curiosity. It's not a golf destination that is highly touted in the States, even though its three parkland golf courses - the Duke's, Duchess, and Marquess - are ranked in the top 75 courses in the British Isles by Golf World. My research had also shown me that Woburn Golf and Country Club has hosted many fine championships and has been the home of the British Masters since 1979.

Sure enough, Woburn turned out to be a gem in every way. I almost hesitate to spread the word for fear it will be overrun!

The great house that is the centerpiece of the estate is quite stunning - a regal stone edifice of pearl gray facing a large lake. Wrapped around it is a 3,000-acre park where herds of rare deer graze among centuries-old oaks.

Woburn Abbey ceased to be a working abbey in 1538, when the resident abbot was hanged for treason from one of the estate's big oaks. Soon after that, Sir John Russell received his reward for service to Henry VIII - a gift of the Abbey buildings and land. It has been in the Russell family home since 1619 - almost 400 years.

Golf became a part of the estate in the 1970s, thanks to the foresight of the late 14th Duke of Bedford (Lord Tavistock). Following the success of the Duke's (6,940-yard par-72) and Duchess (6,651-yard, par-72) courses, the Marquess Course (7213 yards, par 72) debuted in 2000.

The Duke's Course

The Duke's, a Charles Lawrie design that opened in 1976, has hosted many prestigious tournaments, including the Women's British Open and, of course, the annual Dunhill British Masters.

One of the most televised holes in British golf is the par-3 third at the Duke's, listed among the top 500 holes in the world. From a high hillside tee, it is 130 yards across a wall of rhododendrons and a ditch to a medium-sized green flanked by bunkers. Behind the green is a thicket of purple rhododendron, bracken, and pine.

The Duke's back nine is 500 yards longer than the front, and spiced with tall trees and other impediments. Many holes offering severe penalties for anything less than precise shots. On the 13th hole the drive must stay under 295 yards to avoid a huge downhill, right-sloping area filled with deep grass. The approach is a long one over a narrow sliver of fairway to a green that falls off to the right and feeds balls into a bunker.

It's a tough track, especially for women who play the forward tees at 6,060 yards!

The Duchess Course

Also a Lawrie design, the Duchess opened for play in 1979. It is shorter than the other two tracks but its tight, tree-lined fairways deal harshly with wayward hits.

Hole 15, a 485-yard dogleg par 5, is typical of what makes the Duchess a delight for avid shot-makers. Any drive not arrow-straight ends up in the trees, and a short drive sets up a blind second shot. The left-sloping fairway runs downhill, then rises sharply to a two-tiered green.

Three of the par-3 holes are quite long and demand very straight shots. The 203-yard seventh hole, for instance, has a huge bunker on the right front and danger to the left. An historic ridge - remnant of an ancient Danish settlement - runs diagonally across the fairway and will kick any short, leftish shots into the woods.

The second handicap hole is the par-4 ninth, which begins with a long, narrow chute off the tee. Halfway down, everything begins to kick left. The green, a stingy little thing, is close to the trees on the right and fronted by a nasty bunker on the left.

The Marquess Course

Oaks, beech and chestnut trees dominate the club's newest track, which follows a plateau with superb views of the countryside. It is wider than either of other two layouts, but contains plenty of perils. The greens are large and sculpted, with bunkering often set far enough back to demand long, difficult approach shots. Despite some gullies and ravines, it is a comfortable course to walk.

Among the most memorable holes is the seventh, a par-5 hole where you must choose a shorter, difficult route or the long, safe way around. Pine trees divide the fairway. The left side is a safe three-shotter, while the right side dangles the prize of reaching the green in two - via a 220-yard carry across a valley of dense underbrush.

A long, but usually downwind par-4 hole (473 yards), the ninth hole has one of the most challenging approach shots the Marquess has to offer. It plunges downhill and across a valley, twisting to feed balls toward two bunkers on the right front of the small green. It's wise to bank your shot in from the left, but a bunker is positioned there just to keep that strategy from being a slam-dunk.

Off course

Golf is just one of the pleasures of a stay at Woburn. One could easily spend a week exploring the place - and many guests do. Though it is still the home of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, Woburn Abbey is open to visitors from March until the end of October. The house contains one of England's finest collections of art, furniture, silver, gold and porcelain. A stroll through the beautifully preserved rooms is an enjoyable and memorable lesson in English history and world art. The gold and silver collections are particularly stunning. So are the paintings of Venice by Canaletto, which are highly detailed and seem to radiate light.

Ten species of deer inhabit the 3,000-acre Deer Park, including the Pere David deer, which was saved from extinction at Woburn. The Pere David has been reintroduced to its native China, where it is now breeding successfully.

The Abbey also has 22 acres of gardens with many rare plants and trees and a 300-acre Safari Park where lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes and other wildlife roam freely.

Shoppers will find delight in the estate gift shops and the Antiques Center, where 65 dealers display their finest pieces.

Five miles from Woburn is the Leighton Buzzard Railway, an historic train ride with sharp curves and steep gradients that take you back to another age of travel.

For those who need a bit more nightlife than a small village can offer, London is only an hour away by train.

Where to stay

The estate's Inn at Woburn (011-44-1525 290 666) is THE place to stay. Built in 1724 to serve Royal Mail coaches, the Inn was elegantly refurbished in 2002. It has 51 well-appointed guest rooms and seven linked cottages.

The 24-room Bell Hotel and Inn in Woburn is a 17th century inn with a mixture of Tudor, Georgian and Victorian décor.

The Moore Place Hotel is a Georgian hotel in the village of Aspley Guise, two miles from Woburn.

For information and online booking in these and other area accommodations, go to www.aboutbritain.com or call 011-44-1904 689 6333.

Where to Dine

Olivier's, the restaurant in the Inn at Woburn, serves an exciting menu of continental and British dishes, including estate and local specialties such as salmon, venison and guinea fowl with fresh fois gras. A warm fire crackles in one room of the restaurant, and the windows look out on the quaint streets of Woburn Village. Adjacent is a homey bar with a big fireplace, deep chairs and a charismatic bartender.

The Knife & Cleaver (011-44-1234 740387) in the nearby village of Houghton Conquest specializes in fish and shellfish as well as local favorites such as lambs' kidneys and salmon. The 17th-century inn (which has rooms in a converted 18th-century stable block) is across the street from the All Saints Church, the largest in Bedfordshire.

The Woburn Golf and Country Club overlooking the practice green is a good place for a drink or afternoon tea.


Woburn Abbey is in England's county of Bedfordshire, one hour north east of London.

Getting there and around

Americans flying to London should consider traveling in British Airways' Club World Business Class, where the seats convert to comfortable flat beds that allow you get a good sleep and arrive ready for golf. On your return, chances are you'll be awake to enjoy the first-run movies, fine food and wines, and exceptional comfort and service in Club World. British Airways spoiled us for crossing the Pond any other way!

Web: www.British-airways.com

Rental cars are reasonably priced but petrol is expensive. The solution is to buy a BritRail first-class pass, relax, and enjoy the countryside as it flashes by your window. You can also enjoy traditional British cuisine this way, because first class passengers on main lines may order kippers, haggis, steak and kidney pudding, smoked Scottish salmon, chicken, bangers and mash - or sandwiches - with various puddings for dessert.

Web: www.BritRail.com

Fast fact

Woburn's name comes from the Saxon "wo," meaning crooked, and "burn," meaning a stream. Though it was settled by the Saxons, the area's greatest influence came from the Normans, specifically Hugh de Bolebec, who founded Woburn Abbey in 1145.

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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