Europe might not be as wedded to the UK as it once was, but it remains packed with golfing attractions. Paul Trow revisits gems that are very close to home.
Forget Brexit, ladies. What has happened cannot alter the fact there will always be some corner of a foreign field, in this case barely 40 miles from Vera Lynn’s ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, that is forever English.
Dunkirk witnessed Winston Churchill’s ‘miracle of deliverance’ for hundreds of thousands of British troops in 1940. A short distance west, Calais played an equally significant yet much earlier role in our history - Queen Mary I on her deathbed in 1558 dolefully declaring its loss to be engraved on her heart.
To this very day, Pas-de-Calais, France’s most northerly department, is still treasured by Les Rosbifs, especially the Côte d́Opale resort towns of Neufchâtel-Hardelot and Le Touquet, a few miles south of the quaint ferry port of Boulogne where four 18-hole courses, pinched by dense pine forests and giant dunes, represent the quintessence of Home Counties’ golf.
Bequeathed to these enchanting coastal colonies by ground-breaking architects Tom Simpson and the Harry Colt-Charles Alison axis, golf on this stretch of the Normandy sand belt dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. And inspired by old photographs and aerial views, they have recently reverted to type following a facelift overseen by nostalgic Paris-based designer Patrice Boissonnas.
Les Pins (Pines) at Hardelot began life in 1906 as a 9-hole amuse-bouche from Tom Vardon, brother of six-time Open champion Harry. Having just about recovered from World War I, Les Pins was converted by Simpson in 1931 into a full-blooded table d’hôte. Believing that “a golf hole should never play as it looks”, Simpson’s à la carte legacy includes masterpieces like Chantilly, Fontainebleu and Morfontaine. Nowhere does his admirable stricture apply more pertinently than at Hardelot.
Les Pins, renovated in the 1950s by Simpson’s protégé Philip MacKenzie Ross, is not overly long but has well-placed bunkers and tough, sloping greens. Lined predominantly by pines, it has long been popular with motoring British golfers, not least because it can be played in full (followed by a clubhouse lunch and supermarket swoop) during a day trip via ferry or Le Shuttle.
Since Boissonnas’ overhaul, Les Pins is undeniably more open and pleasing to the eye without any obvious diminution in difficulty. “Trees were pruned to improve growth and help develop finer grasses such as bents and fescues,” Boissonnas explained. “My mission was to restore Simpson’s style and preferences. The course was progressively dying from shrinking greens, narrowing fairways and vanishing bunkers - typical parkland agronomy!” It is now also quicker to play as the time spent searching for balls is greatly reduced thanks to the clear-out of decades of undergrowth.
The other 18-hole course at Hardelot is Les Dunes, which was built in 1991 and has a separate (in my view superior) clubhouse to Les Pins.
Les Dunes is much shorter. It has six par-3s and a number of fiddly dog-leg par- 4s; but it nevertheless features four par-5s and several fiendish greenside bunkers and run-off areas that eat voraciously into the putting surfaces and play havoc with distance calculations, especially when the pins are tucked away.
To clarify the paradox of the two Hardelot clubhouses - the classical course has an open-plan bar area that specialises in beer, burgers and chips while the parvenu offers far more sophisticated catering.
Golf began at Le Touquet in 1904 with the 18-hole La Forêt course. This was followed in 1910 by a 9-hole academy layout, Le Manoir, but the 800-acre resort’s elevation to the golfing stratosphere came in 1931 when the Colt-Alison classic, La Mer, opened. Within eight years it had twice staged the men’s French Open.
By then, the town of Le Touquet, teeming with casino facilities, boutique shopping, fine dining and shoreline images of elegant ladies with parasols, was well-established as one of the continent’s most fashionable resorts. But German fortifications and Allied bombardments during World War II resulted in extensive overall damage and the destruction of at least four holes on La Mer, not to mention the clubhouse.
Le Touquet’s 45 holes were not fully reopened until 1963, but despite its modified routing La Mer still staged the French Open in 1976 and 1977; on the latter occasion the winner was Seve Ballesteros.
Colt and Alison’s original design, along with the four lost holes, which were unremarkably reinstated in 1992, was not restored to its 1930s glory until the engagement of the assiduous Boissonnas, whose brief was to provide La Mer with a similar makeover to Les Pins.
Of the La Mer project, which is still ongoing, Boissonnas said: “The biggest part was reviving the missing four holes - the 13th to the 16th. Most importantly, we were able to restore the original dog-leg right par-5 15th, described by Simpson as one of the best he’d ever seen, and the downhill par-3 16th.”
Meanwhile, the arrival of a new clubhouse in 2016, with a friendly open-plan interior and a thoroughly modern dunescape-style exterior, completed the picture and enabled the on-site hotel, Le Manoir, which was built in 1911, to undergo its own renovation from a traditional English manor house to a contemporary boutique establishment.
Dark wood-panelled walls and rustic furniture have been replaced with an open-plan bar and lounge area, drenched in light, with bold colours accentuating exposed beams and original manor-house features. The bar and restaurant at Le Manoir cannot be faulted, either in terms of service or the cuisine/refreshments on offer.
The opportunity to stock up with wine and cheese is another key to the popularity of Pas-de-Calais with visitors from across the English Channel. Not only are prices highly competitive, despite the depressed value of the pound against the Euro, but the range and quality on offer is superb. Ironically, the region produces little indigenous wine - in fact, it’s better known for beer - but it remains a key outlet for products emanating from the (not so far away) Burgundy, Chardonnay and Champagne vineyards.
With several other courses in the vicinity worth visiting if time permits, including Belle Dune, south of Le Touquet, Wimereux, north of Boulogne, and Aa Saint-Omer, a few miles inland, British golfers are truly spoiled for choice in Pas-de-Calais.
Visit: Letouquetgolfresort.com Hardelotgolfclub.com