One of the region’s top golf clubs is marking a milestone; the column raises a glass at the 19th

High Plains drift

One-hundred-and-twenty-five years to the day since a group of business and professional folk met to form Bishop Auckland Golf Club, the column sat down there last Sunday for a most convivial lunch.

Then as now they play on the High Plains, set gloriously above the town, though it didn’t become an 18-hole course until 1914. Much else has changed.

No longer must they share the course with grazing sheep and ponies, no longer fetch water from a spring near the 18th hole, no longer invite prospective members to join a lengthy waiting list.

Club secretary Dave Perriss, a retired senior manager with Black and Decker, recalled having to form a three-and-a-half year queue – “I was 115th” – when first he applied in the 1990s. These days, he thinks, Castle Eden is the only Co Durham club with a waiting list.

“It’s the economy,” says Dave, “that and the fact that there are so many other things competing for people’s time.”

Golf is also much less elitist, of course. Four of that eight-member committee back in 1894 were doctors, as were the first three captains – playing under assumed names because it was thought “unseemly” for medical men to take part in sporting activity.

“In the first half of the 20th century, golf did not encompass the ordinary working man,” wrote Dick Longstaff in his wonderful centenary history. “They would have found it impossible to gain membership of a private members’ club.”

By 1960, however, club captain John Tuer was able to tell the Northern Despatch of miners playing alongside merchants, shop workers alongside solicitors. Membership was eight guineas – “less than a packet of cigarettes a week.”

Some clubs may have been a little slower to embrace egalitarianism. The lady of this house, also in attendance, recalled that when her parents joined the Cleveland (Redcar) club in the 1960s there were still “artisan” members – and an artisan members’ hut which, of course, knew its place.

In 1994, Bishop Auckland had 800 members, a £200,000 annual turnover and that waiting list. Now, says the secretary, there are still 800 members in all sections, a £575,000 turnover and all manner of perks.

There’s even free insurance, should any member inadvertently clock another with the ball. Full membership is £720 annually

Its course long leased from the Church Commissioners, the Bishop of Durham always president, the club was denied permission to play on Sundays until 1953, when Bishop Michael Ramsey allowed Sabbath afternoon golf with strict conditions.

In 1969 Bishop Ian Ramsey, unrelated and still in episcopal gaiters, opened the £24,500 new clubhouse which has since been substantially and impressively extended.

The course is now leased from the Auckland Project, spearheaded by Jonathan Ruffer. The presidency’s vacant; the bishops, they joke, have been excommunicated.

This year’s captain is Tony Davis, barrister and successful author of legal thrillers – “translated into 35 languages” – who the previous evening had hosted a black tie dinner which overflowed (shall we say) into the early morning of the anniversary.

First thing Sunday morning – “knackered,” said Tony, which may be the legal term – he’d joined a Texas scramble. Another followed in the afternoon.

Among others in the clubhouse was 83-year-old former shoe shop owner George Robinson, a member since 1945. “Changed completely, busier and very much for the better,” he said.

Bedale and Saltburn golf clubs also mark their 125gth anniversaries this year, the Bishop men expecting further to celebrate by winning the Teesside Union league this week. Not just on high days and heady days, they also do a very good Sunday lunch.