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A Most Unpalatable Sandwich

Royal St George’s will next host the Open championship in a couple of years’ time. Just as well it’s not in the next couple of months. As you can see from the photographs of the course reproduced here, the famous old links at Sandwich has lately looked a little like Florida without the sun. The exceptionally heavy rainfall in Kent last autumn means the county is presently not so much the Garden of England as the Swamp by the Sea. But that’s not the only issue at stake here. In August 1998, a governmental body, the Environment Agency, published a report: Sandwich Bay and Hardinge Marshes Water Level Management Plan. It doesn’t sound like scintillating reading but it has put a serious dampener on the spirits of local people involved in golf.

During the course of its survey, the Agency gathered the opinions of over 70 local bodies and individuals to see if they would prefer their water tables to be maintained as they were, raised or lowered. The golf clubs of Royal St George’s and Prince’s at Sandwich, and Royal Cinque Ports at Deal, were not asked for their views. All but six of the respondents wanted the water levels to
be left alone or lowered, but four particularly influential bodies – English Nature, the Kent Wildlife Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory – wanted them raised. And that’s what has happened.

Says Andrew Pearce of the Environment Agency: "Royal St George’s is outside the area under the remit of our plan. That’s why the club was not consulted. Our contention is that what we have done with regard to the water levels has not had any impact on the golf course. Water levels in the area have risen generally because of all the rain it has had."

Gerald Watts is the secretary at Royal St George’s. "The recent flooding has exacerbated the problems," he agrees, "but we feel disappointed that we were not consulted when other individuals in the same area as ourselves were. The impact on the course has been enormous."

Andrew Pearce adds: "What we need to do is look at water levels on the golf course as a separate issue, and we will be meeting with the club very soon. The club and ourselves need to marry up our objectives. We acknowledge that this is a historic golf course, but this has also been designated by the European Union as a special preservation area, and unfortunately that probably takes priority over the golf course."

That in itself sounds like at least a semi-admission that what the Environment Agency is doing has affected the course, and that latter sentiment worries Gerald Watts. "There is a clause in the report that says the Agency will not promote recreation where this is detrimental to conservation interests." He adds: "We are definitely bothered about this."

All considered, it is not as if this is an unfeeling attempt on behalf of some would-be, get-rich-quick property developer to build a new golf course over an environmentally sensitive tract of land. Royal St George’s first hosted the Open in 1894. There are more important things in life than golf, but it would be a truly dreadful day if birdies at Sandwich should ever become an endangered species.


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