Woodford Golf Course: a walk through time

Woodford Golf Course by Nigel Reynolds

For our journey through time we need to travel to the outer reaches of our space. In other words the edge of Highams Park that falls within the area dealt with by Highams Park Planning Group, land that lies beyond Chingford Lane. That is the area of Woodford Golf Course about a couple of hundred yards of it that runs alongside Chingford Lane.

We in Highams Park do not need a Tardis for our time travel as Dr. Who does. It is the shape of  the land, the topography can guide us back through time. The land tells us a story that goes back 250 years and more.

Woodford Golf Club was founded in 1890. So we know that golf has been played on this area of Highams Park for 130 years and I am sure golf was played on the land before the Club was founded.

We can see how golf has affected the land, we see teeing areas that are currently in use and those that are no longer. We see drainage ditches and areas where trees and bushes have been allowed to grow. And of course there are fairways and greens. So when we walk around “our bit” of Woodford Golf Course we can see that the land bears the results of 130 years of golf.

If we want to travel back beyond that time, beyond 130 years, we should ignore the shaping of the land by golfers and focus on the regular undulations of the land – regular and parallel undulations that are always orientated downhill. It is these undulations that can take us back to the 1700’s.

These undulations can be seen on the course and in the rough around the fairways. I will tell you of a short walk that will take you back, back in time.

I suggest a journey that starts by crossing Chingford Lane where the tarmac is red, from our bit  of forest which lies around the north of Highams Park Lake and is called Great Sale Wood. Once across the road carry on walking in a straight line. The bushes have recently been cleared from either side of this path so now a thirty yard strip of cleared land can be seen. As you walk, you  can see undulations that stretch across the cleared land, the further you walk the more  discernible the undulations become and the more mud and puddles fill the dips. These   undulations are even easier to see on the fairways. Having passed the puddles you will see ahead one of the new signposts, but before you get to it turn right and walk uphill parallel with  Chingford Lane.

You will soon be walking over undulations which are just over a metre apart and run in the direction towards Wheelwrights roundabout! A block of flats now stands where the Wheelwrights Pub used to be. In former incarnations the pub was known  as The Dun Cow, then the Manor  Hotel and then The Horseless Carriage. As the Horseless Carriage it sported a veteran car in the front and a Pullman carriage in the garden served as a restaurant. The pub is now part of history, along with the Prince of Wales Pub that once stood on the other side of Hatch Lane. Sadly both now are gone!

That pattern of undulations continues up to the ditch. You will have walked up the 7th hole. If you cross the ditch the 7th green, a sunken green will be to your right and the 8th tee to your left.

Let me give a word of warning, please when you are walking the course give priority to golfers. The Epping Forest Act and the Corporation of London’s bye laws require us walkers not to hinder the playing of golf. Besides that being hit by a 21st century golf ball is painful – I know I was hit by golf balls twice last year! Though not on Woodford Golf Course.

Golfers on the 8th

But back to our trip through time. We went back 130 years with the playing of golf. Let us focus on the walk already taken and the undulations on the 7th fairway. Prior to 130 years ago the land that forms the course would have been farmed. The undulations were created by farming practices used in those days. The land forming the course would have been under the plough, arable farming was practised not the raising of livestock. It is the characteristics of the plough we need to consider as the means of shaping the land.

We need a time check though. The golf club was formed in 1890. It is likely that sometime after 1877 and before 1890 that farming of this land ceased. This is because corn prices fell steadily after 1877 so farming became uneconomic. So the start of the preservation of the undulations dates from the gap between these years. But when were they formed is the question.

The significance of 1877 relates to the Corn Laws and the development of efficient shipping. The Corn Laws were enacted back in 1815. This law imposed tariffs on imported corn. Domestic production of corn was effectively subsidised, insulated from cheaper overseas corn. The law was repealed in 1846 but it was not until 1877 that improved transport of goods by sail and steam meant that imported corn had an impact on the UK economy and in particular the price of corn.

We need now to focus on the plough. The ploughs used on our land are described as single- bladed, they turned the soil one way only, to the right. These days we see tractors pulling  ploughs with multiple blades each of which turns the soil both ways, to the left and to the right. The result of that modern ploughing practise is arable fields are flat. We don’t get flat land in our bit of the course just beyond Chingford Lane. I must stop using “undulations” as this type of land shape is called ridge and furrow landscape. It is quite common in England and can be seen on Chingford Golf course.

The ploughmen pre-golf club would plough a furrow up or downhill. The ploughmen would reach the end of the first furrow then turn his animals and then plough a furrow, near and parallel to the first in the opposite direction forming a long rectangle.

Wooden plough

The next bit of ploughing was just to the right of the first two furrows, so this second pair of furrow were nearer to each other than the first two furrows. This was repeated uphill and downhill until the ploughing reached the middle of the rectangle. This method of using a single sided plough blade meant soil was moved the middle of the rectangle and thus a ridge was created and of course the furrows.

The ploughmen then moved along the field, ploughed another similar size rectangle. Then again ploughed up and down within that rectangle until he go the middle when the ridge was formed. Each year the ploughman would plough in the same furrows and build up further the existing ridges.

More recent wooden plough

We need another time check. The width of the ridge and furrows indicates the time they were formed. The ploughs, back in time, were pulled by draught animals, by oxen and in the late  1800’s heavy horses. The distance between the ridges is a function of the strength and number   of oxen pulling the plough. The bigger and stronger the animal, the fewer the animals. The fewer the animals then the smaller their turning circle. Throughout the 1700’s oxen increased in size  and strength. The Agricultural Revolution produced more and better fodder which meant livestock was better fed and they grew larger. Also selective breeding increased the size of livestock. The ridges and furrows on the 7th fairway are narrow. This indicates they were first formed sometime after 1825 by ploughmen using two oxen.

You may not be wholly convinced that the turning circle of an animal is relevant. We usually talk about turning circles for London taxis. But let the walk continue uphill. Past the 7th green and the 8th tee where golfing has shaped the land and soon you will find the ridge and furrows of the 8th fairway. You will see they are perpendicular to Chingford Lane, in other words they are at right angles to it. Also the width of them is a little over three metres, a great deal wider than those on the 7th. So a different direction and a different width. Folks our time check has taken us back from the 1800’s on the 7th to the mid – 1700’s on the 8th, maybe earlier The spacing of these ridges and furrows shows the turning circle of the animals was large, made using 4 or maybe 6 oxen when they were first ploughed.

You may need further convincing in which case I say look on Google Earth. You will see the ridges and furrows of the 8th line up with the two parallel fairways that lie further from Chingford Lane. This underlines the fact that the golfers have separated their fairways with trees and shrubs. It is clear this top part of the course was one field ploughed back and forth towards Chingford lane.

That field would have extended to the Lane itself, the trees and bushes alongside Chingford Lane would have stopped golf balls landing on the road. The ploughman was here long before the golfers and they ploughed the whole width of the field. This reminds me that the word furlong is derived from the expression ”furrow-long”.

To see the outer limits of the Highams Park Planning Group’s area turn left just after the pond to the left of the 8th fairway and walk 100 yards or so and you will see a pond that lies behind the 1stgreen. It is that pond that is the half and half pond, half is in the Planning Group’s area and half is not, because the old boundary of Walthamstow runs through the pond and the Highams Park Planning Group’s area uses that same boundary.

half-and-half pond by Nigel Reynolds

To finish your walk head across the practice area for the  pedestrian crossing in Chingford Lane at the top of Montalt Road. You will see the angle of the ridge and furrows of the practice  area are narrower than those on the 8th and align more towards the Wheelwrights roundabout. They are more recent in origin that the ridges on the 8th. Walk across the crossing and head home to  a 21st century cup of tea and a biscuit. Your walk has taken you back to the 1700’s.

As you drink your tea you may reflect that you understand how the ridges and furrows came to   be and yet wonder whether they gave the farmer any benefit. The answer is they did, firstly the alignment of the furrows helped drainage. Secondly the farmers grew beans, peas and oats in the furrows where the soil was damper and grew corn on the ridges where the soil was drier. The   peas and beans enriched the soil with nitrogen which would be ploughed onto the ridge to enrich the soil where the corn was grown. This was a sort of soil “migration” before crop rotation was developed. So the ridge and furrow system produced larger crops and better crops, it gave a better financial return to farmers. So you see there was a benefit to farmers, it was not just   about turning circles!

Thankfully for us changing the land’s use to golf has preserved the evidence of the ridge and furrow system to this day. So walk the course. Travel back in time. See before you – history. Feel beneath your feet – history. As I said at the beginning we, in Highams Park, do not need the  Tardis to travel back in time!

Nigel Reynolds, November 2020