Teed off on Horsenden Hill

When is a golf course not a golf course? When it’s a Christmas tree farm/leisure facility. The residents of North Greenford ward who live in the vicinity of Horsenden Hill Golf Course have been alerted to changes that could make life in their quiet streets difficult, if not intolerable.

Ealing Council has decided that, as a result of pressure on services, drastic cuts have to be made and that it can’t continue to subsidise what it considers to be the most underused public course in the borough. The land must be made to pay for itself. Dessicated reminders of the festive season may clutter pavements in the New Year but they start life somewhere and if the plans outlined in the leaked report that found its way into many inboxes late in 2014 are approved some of the millions that are sold every Christmas will make that start on Horsenden Hill. The lack of trust felt by campaigners towards councillors regarding this matter has been exacerbated by the way the matter was brought to their attention. Acccording to Alice Mun, who runs the Horsenden Hill Action Group, “It was around mid December 2014 when I heard of the impending closure of Horsenden Hill Golf Course. The information was passed to me by a neighbour who had heard it from an allotment buddy who is a member of the local resident association.”

There has been some back peddling with regard to the tree farm proposal following challenges from those who would have to put up with the nuisance that would be caused if the venture went forward. To begin with, the ground would have to be prepared for planting and the sort of large vehicles that are associated with forestry activity would find the narrow streets that surround the entrance to the course a challenge, even if they weren’t lined with parked cars. I spent a year living across the road from a building site and recall cracked paving slabs, turned up kerb stones and noise from about 7am. It won’t do anything for the value of homes there and will probably make their sale difficult. According to Alice Mun “With regards to property value, the possibility of adverse impact is there but will depend on how the traffic will be routed, whether buildings will be erected close to existing properties and loss or increased visibility to greenery etc.” That’s even before lots of people turn up in their cars to buy the trees. The area is well served by public transport but I can’t imagine that many will consider dragging their netted conifer to the bus stop or station so an increase in traffic (as well as in noise and emissions) in December would be inevitable.

There appears to be a very weak business case for it. After five years the trees would be sold for barely more than they would fetch at a wholesale price. The suggestion that a “Winter Wonderland” event could take place there has been dismissed by those aware that similar ventures have failed when the wonders on offer haven’t met expectations. Why would anyone trail all the way to a small suburban street in north west London when they can rub shoulders with celebrities at an established event in Hyde Park? There are also serious concerns about the environmental impact of the proposal, in particular of run off on homes further down the hill. Will a plantation be compatible with the drainage system that exists to draw off rainfall and prevent flooding? Those who argue that golf course maintenance requires the use of pesticides, herbicides and a lot of irrigation could say the same about plantations.

The tree farm proposal seems so absurd, doomed to failure, that it’s hardly surprising that those opposing the closure of the course fear it’s the first step to the development of the site for housing. In the opinion of Alice Mun, “When this happens, there is no guarantee that the council will not be hard pressed to sell the land off with grant building permission. In this present climate of housing shortage, what else would the buyer do other than building flats, flats and more flats? The consequences will be increased traffic, noise and pollution, and we would have lost the last ‘lung’ in NW London to concrete jungle. Is this the Horsenden Hill we want to leave to the future generation? It is a depressing thought.”

The view from the course towards central London is spectacular and it occurred to me that the demolition and development of Allen Court, social housing close by in Ridding Lane which commands similar views, might have led councillors to consider making available other sites in North Greenford with the same appeal. The first step in this direction would see the undulating greens of the course, with its copses of mature trees, covered with seedlings which would take about five years to reach head height or more, an unnatural prospect for land neighbouring the area’s most important natural asset. The council’s own website describes Horsenden Hill as “the largest single nature conservation site within the borough at 100 hectares.” With the prospect that the costs of maintaining such a landscape might escalate beyond the means of the council there are fears that what is at present a functional open space might eventually be sold off and built on. It is Metropolitan Open Land and any development would require permission from the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government but the push to build homes might encourage it. There is a sense that preventing the loss of the course might prevent the loss of the rest.

To be fair Ealing Council do have an enormous responsibility and must be seen to display common sense where funding is concerned. The Horsenden Hill course has been competing for financial support with services such as the Solace Centre, which provides a safe place for those experiencing mental health problems to meet and enjoy activities. Its users regard it as a lifesaver and the prospect of its loss as a consequence of cuts may have driven one of them to suicide. Members of the Solace campaign have been a shining example to anyone raising awareness of an issue, willing to stand outside Ealing town hall week after week, whatever the weather. They have put other local activists to shame. While they have exploited social media in the way that every campaign does these days they also, quite literally, made a noise by telling passersby, to their faces, what they are in danger of losing. Their impassioned plea has reached councillors, as well as celebrities and MPs, and has probably embarrassed them into rethinking the proposals to close the centre.

In the meantime, in the more sedate environment of North Greenford, there is an air of uncertainty. It seems to me that the one way to prevent the closure of the course, and the associated members’ club, is for its users to take it on and run it themselves. When I asked Alice Mun about this possibility she said “I have asked a few people what they think about taking it on as community asset. Most people said they don’t know how it works. A few said the council won’t let us. My guess is any capital requirement would be a deterrence to pursue this option.” This is disheartening to hear as advice and grants are available through a range of organisations, not least Locality, to support this kind of venture. This is another of those occasions where I wonder why the many intelligent, capable people who live in Greenford seem unable to come together in the way that others do in the rest of the borough. Take the example of West Ealing Neighbours, who were faced with a range of problems that threatened to make their area undesirable and unpleasant to live in and came together to effect positive changes and challenge inappropriate planning decisions. They now run an annual music and food event in Dean Gardens, which had a poor reputation as an open space, and have encouraged ventures such as the farmers’ market in Leeland Road, the vintage market near the Drayton Court and OPEN Ealing, an arts project.

Taking on Horsenden Hill Golf Course could be the first step to developing a similar positive “can do” mindset but any plans to do so have to be drafted quickly. It is clear that those in favour of transforming the course into a profitable enterprise have had a long time to think about it. The fact that they came up with such lacklustre and feeble ideas during that time won’t come as a great surprise to those who have observed the actions of the latest administration. Those expected to visit the proposed facilities have been referred to as “tourists”, presumably Londoners, while the many foreign tourists staying in hotels newly built in central and West Ealing are left to spend their money in central London rather than locally, at Pitzhanger Manor or the London Motorcycle Museum. It seemed to come as a surprise to Ealing councillors, when I mentioned it, that there are any foreign tourists staying in the borough. Consequently, they have not developed any effective policy aimed at drawing more in, such as preserving and promoting the wealth of music heritage that exists in the area. The Starlite Ballroom and the Ealing Club, both potential sources of significant tourist revenue, are to be lost to development, with no real benefit to the borough. Perhaps a visitor from Milan or Barcelona would enjoy an afternoon on an English golf course.

I don’t believe the fear that this part of Horsenden Hill is at risk of development is unfounded. It is obvious from what I have seen and been told that this course has been allowed to fade quite deliberately for some time, compared to the other ones subsidised by the council. Suggestions from those who run it have been ignored and it is evident from online reviews of the course left by visiting players that, while they enjoyed using the course, they found it poorly maintained which doesn’t encourage return visits. It has a core of local and devoted users but that would never be enough to guarantee an income adequate to its needs. In the twenty plus years that I’ve lived in Greenford I have not been aware of any attempts to attract more local residents to it. There probably have been but they certainly didn’t reach me, so is it any surprise that it hasn’t reached golfers from further afield?.

Something I find particularly sad and surprising about this issue is that golf almost comes second to the course’s appeal from environmental and heritage points of view. I am not a golfer and what I know about the sport could be written on the back of a stamp but one thing I am aware of is that the world’s most famous player, Tiger Woods, started out on public courses. What if the loss of this course plays a part in the failure of the UK to produce another Rory McIlroy? Wouldn’t it be great if Greenford could be thought of as the place where at least one of the UK’s golfing stars came from? There seems to be more of an air of resignation than passion where this club’s golfers are concerned, no waving of clubs in front of the town hall or a camera.

Golf is an important part of Greenford’s heritage and social history, as the course was set up at the same time that most of the surrounding homes were built. Imagine what it must have been like in 1935, to live in a convenient flat next to the Sudbury Town Odeon in Allendale Road, close to the station and within easy reach of central London for work and recreation. Young single players must have joined those from larger households living in the surrounding semis in a game. The Prince of Wales made golf popular after his mother asked the heir to the throne to engage in a sport safer than steeplechasing, and it was part of an increasing interest in sport and exercise. Professional golfers (including women) were some of the most glamorous people around at the time, setting trends in clothing. It’s unfortunate that in later years golf came to be regarded as exclusive, a pastime for the wealthy. Too many associate golf with stereotypes featured in films of the 1960s, where doctors with registers of well off patients could afford to spend their afternoons on a course, perfecting their swing, and more recent television dramas, where senior police officers conferred with councillors out of earshot of honest tax payers. I’m sure these aren’t total myths but I doubt if anything of that kind took place on modest public courses such at the one in North Greenford. It’s a shame I couldn’t get any feedback from England Golf, “the governing body for all amateur golf in England”, despite an email and a phone call. I’m surprised that public courses aren’t supported and protected by this body, as they must be an entry point for those who might develop an interest in the game.

The concept of golf as a snobbish and exclusive pastime has been emphasised by supporters of the cycling facility, although I think it was a mistake for one of them, in the same breath, to state that “cycling is the new golf”. It certainly is exclusive if you consider that the cost of a bicycle suitable for such a course, such as a hybrid bike, would set you back at least £200. You can buy a basic set of clubs (a very basic set admittedly) for £50 but even the belief that the cost of buying appropriate kit would put golf beyond the means of the average person is a myth as you can hire what you need at the course. Cycling seems to have taken over from football as the activity that everyone has to like or have an opinion about, especially politicians. Over the last few years there has been scarcely an edition of the Gazette where Bassam Mahfouz, Cabinet Member for Transport and the Environment or council leader Julian Bell haven’t been shown on, next to or commenting on bicycles and their use. You could be forgiven for believing that they’re hardly ever out of their lycra kit in their free time.

Another option being considered by campaigners is the conversion of the course to a meadow but its maintenance would still cost the council money. Most people aren’t around during the day to see the grass on the hill being cut and baled but it has to be done to keep back the scrub. The grazing project in late summer, when cows are kept in a fenced area, is not just an effort to encourage diversity. It is also a more economical and environmentally friendly way of warding off the brambles and young trees that would take over the hill if allowed.

It was too much to hope that the three North Greenford ward councillors would stand up for the course and the residents likely to be affected by its loss, or support any effort by them to take it over. Any such ideas tend to originate from members of the community rather than from councillors these days, most of them seem unwilling to express personal opinions for fear of upsetting their party HQ. I have met all the councillors in question. One has made a conspicuous display of his concern for the residents of Gaza (it’s only a matter of time before he petitions for it to be renamed East Greenford and given a ward budget). Another, while on a planning committee site visit, gave away nothing but tight smiles. His face must have ached quite badly by the time he got home. The third? How I wish she would change her status to that of an independent. I find it hard to believe that she is convinced that the tree farm is a good idea and it fills me with despair to see someone with so many good ideas toeing the party line. In the weeks since the news about the course broke I have tried and failed to get comments and opinions from Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, who seem unwilling to comment on it outside the council chamber other than to report what residents have said to them via the Gazette.

The only feedback I’ve had from a local political party was a statement from Bob Little, Communities spokesman for Ealing UKIP: “The closing down of Horsenden Hill Golf Course represents a serious blow to an already flagging community spirit in the Greenford area. The loss of another social meeting place is eroding the morale in an already bleak residential wilderness. One of my earliest memories as a child was of my father buying me my own set of miniature golf clubs and taking me to Horsenden Hill to play a few rounds with him, possibly my first step in the rite of passage into the adult world, and it seems a great shame that after many decades this social focal point is to be lost to us. It seems this council is intent on destroying the whole character of this borough and replacing it with nothing but more housing development. We can only hope that whatever the land is used for, it will be for the public to use and enjoy and not developed on, or fenced off as a private Xmas tree farm, as has been proposed.” His point about the loss of the course as a place to congregate and socialise is an important one. Pubs and similar social spaces in this area are disappearing. In some parts of the UK the local golf club is the centre of social activity, with a licensed bar and function rooms for hire. With the right management Horsenden Hill Golf Course could be such a centre, especially if its facilities were expanded and improved.

The approach through Horsenden Wood to Whitton Drive, one of the streets close to the course, reminds me of why I chose to live in Greenford. I was entranced by the prospect of walking amongst mature trees that are a few minutes away from my home, through meadows populated by wildlife that has survived the advance of suburbia, to a hill which archaeological evidence has shown has been part of local life since the Iron Age. The houses in Whitton Drive, Woodland Rise and Oakwood Crescent, with their red tiles and brickwork, are typical of the English Vernacular architecture that drew thousands to live in areas such as this one, close to ancient woodland. There is something sly and unwholesome about the way in which it has been targeted for such a drastic change with so little notice. It is as though the council is aware that, given enough time, its more canny residents would be able to offer an alternative proposal. In the same way that an unpopular planning decision is pushed through by its notice being given at a holiday period, the proposal to close the course was made known before Christmas, with the deadline in the New Year. I hope that the golfers of Horsenden Hill will be able to continue a tradition that began eighty years ago but a lot depends on the self confidence and motivation of its supporters, who need to avoid taking a parochial attitude to the problem. The failure to draw support from the rest of the borough could limit the impact of a campaign aimed at saving a treasure that belongs to everyone who lives in it.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quotes © Alice Mun 2015 and © Bob Little 2015. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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