Across the country, temporarily abandoned golf courses are reopening. The course that I’m visiting, however, illustrates longer-term abandonment. Following years of financial instability, the Oaks golf club at Mollington, a couple of miles to the north of Chester, closed its doors in May 2016. Without weedkiller and blades, the paths are slowly succumbing to moss and plantains. Edged by dandelions, the former fairway grows past my ankles and is scattered with wildflowers. Overhead, house martins zap at each other and gorge on the bounty of insects on offer.
Sand traps have been overwhelmed by nettles, and while some water hazards closer to the canal host happy families of mallards, the most artificial ones are now just damp patches marked by buttercups. Elsewhere, paths tumble into ponds, exposing the half-bricks of construction. At the water’s edge, a golf ball, half submerged in mud, goes unnoticed by fidgeting tadpoles.
The density of gullies and inclines can be disorienting. At its highest point you get a 360-degree view; on a clear evening like this one, you can see Cheshire’s sandstone ridge to the east and the distant Welsh hills in the west. From this perspective, the golf course rolls out like a child’s play mat, paths winding circuitously around obstacles.
It still attracts leisure seekers: dog walkers and joggers doing their best to stay healthy at a safe distance. Former greens are latticed with desire lines, reminding me of childhood dares to stray from public footpaths and touch a flag. I wonder how many of these exclusive spaces will survive the current crisis, and whether any others will be turned over to councils for wider enjoyment. At Mollington, the land has been sold to developers who are now marketing it for agricultural use.
The rough is now knee-high grass, while the out-of-bounds area is impenetrable – to large mammals at least. As the sun sinks lower, from the thicket of frothy hawthorn comes the unmistakable high-pitched, accelerated rattle of a grasshopper warbler. A natural ventriloquist, it’s more likely to be somewhere in the nearby reeds. The species has suffered from changes in the landscape but, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, it is showing some signs of recovery. Here at least, neglect has provided a niche.
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