Fairway to the valleys

Wales' new championship golf course incorporates generous space for wildlife as well as spectators, writes Mike Beardall.

Celtic Manor's new Ryder Cup Course presented designers with the unusual challenge of accommodating both wildlife and anticipated huge crowds.

Being the first landmark that visitors to South Wales see as they leave the Severn Bridge when heading for Newport, the imposing presence of the Celtic Manor is the foreground to undulating hills, the winding River Usk, superb lakes and immaculate fairways and greens.

The casual observer of the beautiful courses is often unaware that this is a thriving habitat for wildlife and plants - and a Roman history site. This was reflected in the design brief, which encompassed more than just creating a challenging circuit for players.

Planting of trees and longer grasses which encourage animals and birds is encouraged by course owners looking for biodiversity. And landscaping which blends with the contours of the area gives natural pleasure to players and spectators.

"Our job is to work with the existing countryside and improve habitat for wildlife and plants," says Ross McMurray of European Golf Design, the lead designer of the £16m course, which has already been used for this year's Wales Open in May.

"With Celtic Manor we had to think about reducing the impact of the scheme on the environment because the Usk Valley is particularly sensitive.

"Detailed surveys of the ecology of the site were carried out and as a result various elements such as planting corridors and protection buffer zones were incorporated within the landscape design."

Hedges were created to protect dormice, bats and badgers. On the banks of the River Usk, otters were protected by a no-go zone.

"We put tall fescues in the rough, mowing at different heights, and grow a mixture of ryegrass, fescues and bents in the fairways and semi-rough," says McMurray, who has been a golf course designer for 20 years.

"By using careful management regimes, the aim is to encourage greater biodiversity within the golf course, especially when compared to the previous pastureland, which has a relatively low ecological and landscape value," he explains.

"Particular emphasis has been placed on increasing habitat creation by incorporating a variety of vegetation types - as well as streams, wetlands and planted areas."

The course creates a new 18-hole facility for the Ryder Cup in 2010 - half of which are on new land, with the other half using part of the existing Wentwood Hills golf holes.

"This event is growing to such an extent that the level course we have created allows us to cater for the 50,000-plus visitors expected," says director of golf courses and estates management Jim McKenzie.

He is crucial to the process of keeping the golf courses in shape, both for the players and the environment.

Stretching over more than 566ha, and boasting courses designed by Robert Trent Jones (both senior and junior) and European Golf Design, more than £16m has been spent on the project.

Contractor MJ Abbott was responsible for the course construction including drainage, irrigation, the profile of the greens and tees, together with seed bed preparation and seeding on the new development.

"Flood-prevention measures were an essential part of the build due to the course's proximity to the River Usk," says contracts director Nigel Wyatt. "A large element of the course is situated on the flood plain. We built a bund at one end of the driving range using 7m of fill from the hillside opposite.

"With 80ha of potential erosion, we had to consider the possibility of large volumes of water washing down the hillside. To prevent any run-off of soil and silt into the river, we built a soil bund with a geotextile layer where the Usk curls around the course."

Work commenced on the Wentwood Hills site in April 2005. An interesting facet of the project has been the creation of new greens to match the existing ones.

"We looked at seeding or re-turfing but this would have meant extended closure of the course," McKenzie says.

"Instead, we closed the existing Wentwood Hills course for nine months and took all the grass off the nine undulating holes and used it to re-turf the brand new greens."

Turf grower Inturf grew the grass used to replace the stripped turf.

With more than 1,200mm of rain a year on the site, a free-draining surface on the fairways was created by mixing the topsoil with pure sand, half and half.

An additional workshop facility has been built to cater for the new course's requirements. Bernhard, the mower-blade grinding company, has installed new machines to ensure grass is cut cleanly - preventing browning of tips and disease.

"Grass cutting has become a science and we now know that sharper blades reduce disease and loss of moisture, and give a better finish to the sward," says McKenzie.

Being situated in an environmentally sensitive area has meant that a number of conditions were imposed with the work on the Twenty Ten Course.

"We welcomed these because we are in the business of ensuring the environment is maintained and developed down in the valley," says McKenzie.

"Some Roman artefacts were found, so we worked closely with the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, the Countryside Commission, Wales, local planners and all the relevant agencies."

A Roman pottery was found on the site, so kilns and pots were discovered, some of which were given to museums. Other monuments were documented and then covered back over by geotextile and sand.

History abounds - the Via Julia, a Roman road that stretched from London to South Wales, ran across the property. And nearby Caerleon was the second-largest Roman garrison outside London, and there on the hill they created a burial site.

Designer McMurray says: "Much of the grassland is out of play and provides natural habitat for wildlife. There are vast areas which are hardly mowed and these are the places where we had to think about the natural environment."

Like all big projects, he says, this was one that posed a number of problems.

"The greatest was the huge number of bodies involved," says McMurray. "From ecologists and engineers to local authorities and event organisers.

"Problems were solved using a lot of back-up - particularly with CAD (computer-aided design) work in the office and regular 'fly-throughs' with all the parties involved, so everyone was fully informed of what was going on at every stage."

VISION BORN ON A WELSH HILLSIDE

The Celtic Manor dream was literally born on the site - birthplace of telecoms tycoon Sir Terry Matthews.

He decided to buy the building and surrounding land when it became available. "As I stood there, I was struck by how many cars were passing by on the M4 - 20,000 an hour - and I realised that this would be a great location for a hotel. If I only attracted a quarter of one per cent of the passers-by, I would have a successful venture," he reflects.

Sir Terry formed Celtic Inns and bought the property in 1980. Originally known as Coldra House, the building dates from the early 1860s when it was the home of Thomas Powell, son of a leading industrialist.

When the building closed as a maternity home, there were fears it might have to be demolished - until Sir Terry stepped in and obtained planning permission for a 17-bedroom hotel. The Celtic Manor opened in April 1982 and was an instant success, winning top awards. By 1988, the Celtic Manor was ready to open a major extension, adding 58 bedrooms.

In 1991, plans were unveiled for a £100m expansion programme using 566ha of land stretching from the grounds of the manor to the River Usk 5km away. The major elements were a new hotel and convention centre and golf courses (initially two) with a clubhouse and leisure centre.

"From the outset, my aim was to create a major resort," says Sir Terry. "The location, visible from the M4, was the starting point. When you add 566ha of our own parkland, 9,300ha of adjacent woodland, and top-quality hotel, convention and leisure facilities, you have something special, a world-class destination."

Work began on the Roman road course in 1992, with painstaking attention to the protection of trees, wildlife and archaeological features.

In 1994, as contractors started building the luxurious £10m golf clubhouse, construction was also underway on a 4,000-yard (3.7km), executive-style course - Coldra Woods, built around the site of a hilltop Roman military camp. The following year the new facilities opened to the public, and in 1996 work began on the hotel and convention centre and a third course, Wentwood Hills.

Meanwhile, 121ha of land was being shaped into 18 holes under the watchful eye of Robert Trent Jones Jnr, with the aim of creating a venue fit for the Ryder Cup.

In May 1999, Wentwood Hills was officially opened and later, Sir Terry and George O'Grady, the deputy executive director of golf's European Tour, announced that the course would stage a new event - the Welsh Open - from 2000.

Now the Twenty Ten Course, host to this year's Wales Open, is set to be the Ryder Cup venue in two years' time. Sir Terry's dream has become reality.


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