A friend of mine who teaches at Shrewsbury School recently joined Church Stretton Golf Club positioned on the edge of the South Shropshire hills. We had played there occasionally on and off for about five years. It is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world and costs about £10 a round, which by British standards is very reasonable. When I'm over in Asia in the winter months, and I think of home I always imagine the Chruch Stretton golf course. Up on the top exposed to all weathers, often strong winds and driving rain, it feels like you have entered another world.
Talk in the Club House confirms that it is not only the extraordinary views that are special. You stand over the Shropshire plain looking out along at a row of hills, starting with Caer Caradoc - the fort of Charactacus, the chieftan who fought the invading Romans before they completed their conquest, and ending with the Wrekin - named after Uricon, the garrison City of 60,000 inhabitants which the Romans built nearby, today with only a few ruins visible, mostly under the turf.
The golf club is around a century old, and even though I've played on many beautiful golf courses in Thailand, the Philippinesand the Seychelles on Praslin Island, Church Stretton is in many ways the best. Golf played over hills is always more exciting than on the flat, but usually hillside courses have too many short holes, and don't stretch you. I can tell you now though, Church Stretton is anything but dull.
There are other things that are different about Church Stretton golf club. You will hear as you rest up in the Club House the story of the ghost. The locals say that they don't ever see him or her, but as they drive the hole at the very top of the round, the 13th,they see their ball land on the fairway 250 yards or so away (it is a downhill start to the hole). But as they get a bit closer and look around, they can't find their ball. It is gone. They say there is a ghost who takes away the balls - and that it only ever happens on the 13th.
It seems quite a spooky tale, and to be honest we thought it was a bit of a joke, another Loch Ness monster yarn to boost the takings. That was until yesterday, the 4th July 2007 . Three of us, the usual team set off at around 3.30, taking a risk on the weather, as there was a fair bit of rain around. The flag on the 1st was beating in the gale. We thought we would try the first 3 holes and if it was too terrible, we would stop there.
But as we went up higher up, we found ourselves in the lea of the hill. The wind dropped a bit, and we were only hit by the occasional shower. Umbrellas are useless in these conditions. In a strong wind they become like a sail and pull or push you where you didn't want to go. There was no one else foolish enough to go out, and in this very fresh air, battered and occasionally soaked, we kept going. The wind blew strongly between storms so even though we were getting soaked in the squalls, the wind dried off our clothes.
The golf scores on windy days can get quite ragged, and if you par a hole you feel pretty good. When the wind is behind you, your normal drive of say 200 yards can suddenly become 250 yards, or more if it's downhill. That's the easy bit. To pitch a ball onto the green in a strong wind needs careful allowance to be made for the effect of the wind. A shot which would be pin high and in line can land twenty or more yards away from the target. Even with the wind behind, a par is a good hole in such conditions.
These thoughts were in our minds, and the subject of our happy chatter as we all three drove the 13th. I saw Dick's ball land right in the middle of the fairway a few yards from mine, about 250 yards away, driven across the wind. Tim went the long way round the dog leg, and landed on good ground too. That's where the fun started. We looked everywhere but Dick's ball was nowhere to be seen.
It was a real puzzle. After many years of playing golf in many different parts of the world, in all weathers, I had seen most things - an occasional hole in one, flooky shots, good and bad and funny, but not once had any of us seen a ball just disappear. We looked and looked but it really was nowhere to be seen. There were a few holes nosed out by nesting rabbits, but not properly started. I checked those even though I had seen the ball land past them. There had to be some rational explanation. But Dick was sure. This was the ghost of the 13th hole.
He took another ball from his bag, and decided to accept that his ball was lost, but refused to add the penalty points to his score. He struck the next ball and it landed beyond the green to the right, lifted up by a gust and deposited up the bank. And then we saw it. The ghost which had been talked about by the locals, which had haunted this golf course for the hundred years since it was constructed appeared right before our very eyes.
You would think that an apparition would strike fear into our hearts and we would run, turn grey overnight and vow never to go up Church Stretton again for the rest of our days. But it wasn't like that. I'd heard tales of Roman soldiers appearing in cellars in York marching in line. We'd had pictures flying around my parents' house when we were children. Most people imagine they've seen a ghost, but only a few have really seen one.
This ghost was clothed all in black, walked in a strutting relaxed manner and his head was continually bobbing up and down to look at the ground. He reached down and picked up Dick's second ball as we watched........ then curled up to the rocks carrying it in his brown-red beak. Realising this was more a case for Bill Oddie to investigate, I felt pleased that there really were no restless souls lost between worlds unhappily haunting the most beautiful golf course in the world.