-- The high moors here inside Dartmoor National Park, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle let the world know in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,’’ are filled with myths and legends as ancient as the moors themselves.
Travel through this 368-square-mile land in west England and you’ll discover an ancient land where civilization goes back more than 5,000 years; where the devil-eyed Whist Hounds are said to roam; and where Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Emily Bronte grew inspiration for their legendary works.
For Conan Doyle, of course, it was "The Hound of the Baskervilles," drawn from the legend of the Whist Hounds; for Agatha Christie, it was "The Stafford Mystery;" and Bronte used the moors as background to tell the story of ill-fated lovers Heathcliff and Catherine in "Wuthering Heights."
Set amidst this mix of legend and lore is Bovey Castle, built in 1906 under the ownership of Viscount Hambledon, son of the business baron W.H. Smith, who was also First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. For film buffs, Bovey Castle is the original Baskerville Hall from 1939 movie “Hound of the Baskervilles" starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
The 65-room resort – actually more an Edwardian house than a true castle – was brought back to splendor by British businessman Peter de Savary. Born during an air raid in 1944, de Savary (PDS to his friends) is one of the sporting world's great characters: shipping magnate, veteran of the America's Cup and Admiral's Cup yacht races, survivor (with his wife and daughters) of a 1986 plane crash, cigar connoisseur; and developer of such properties as Skibo Castle in Scottish Highlands, Carnegie Abbey in Newport, R.I., Cherokee Plantation near Charleston, S.C., and The Abaco Club on Winding Bay in The Bahamas.
De Savary, who spent approximately $50 million resorting Bovey Castle, sold the property to Hillwood Resorts and Hotels in 2006 but it’s splendor remains. And glorious it is, from its Edwardian gardens that lay under the broad expanse of the moors, to the Cathedral Room with its log-burning fireplace, to the Bovey Castle golf course, a John Abercrombie parkland-design that opened in 1930. The course has been renovated by Donald Steel (who designed the outstanding Links Course at The Abaco Club) and Tom Mackenzie.
At 6,303 yards (par 70), Bovey Castle obviously isn't a long course, but it one that demands accuracy and some local knowledge from the start. The first hole, for example, a 309-yard par 4, requires a precise 3-wood or long iron to the right side of the fairway in order to keep the ball from left into bogey territory.
The bold play is 260-yard driver over the River Bovey that leaves a short pitch for an attempt at birdie. It's a good opening risk/reward hole that helps set the tone for the day. The fairway of the first hole actually sloped left more severely than before Steel and Mackenzie reshaped it. The duo also reshaped the ninth and 18th fairways to help them hold drives better than the original design.
Sir Henry Cotton, who listed Bovey Castle as one of his favorite courses in England, had a hand (or at least some advice) that led to the design of the 18th. Abercrombie, because of the steep sloping ground, originally made the 18th a par 3 that left players with long walks back to the hotel. Cotton made some suggestions that eventually led to the hole being expanded to a par 4, but the hole was never quite right because balls would not stay on the fairway. Steel and Mackenzie leveled off a large part of the hill and created the 18th as it exists today - a tough 432-yard par 4.
Golf is only one of the outdoor sports available here on the grounds or in the vicinity. It's not unusual to come down the stairs for breakfast in the early morning and be greeted by guides and experts waiting for clients for excursions on falconry, boating, shooting or fishing.
Bovey Castle also offers Landrover vehicles to take guests through the narrow hedgerow country to the nearby towns and around Dartmoor. A good lunch or dinner spot outside the castle grounds is Sandy Park Inn in Chagford, Devon.
Inside Dartmoor National Park is the village of Moretonhampstead and the White Hart (another de Savary property) a 17th-century house converted to an inn. Formerly a posting house in the Plymouth to London mail route, the White Hart also is another great gateway to the heights of the moorlands.
The city of Bristol, about an hour's drive from Bovey Castle, has emerged the past several years as the cosmopolitan center of southwest England. The birthplace of actor Cary Grant, Bristol's revitalized Harbourside shopping and entertainment area celebrates the city's seafaring history. Perhaps best of all, Bristol's international airport has become an alternative transatlantic destination to London.
For those looking for more golf, Bovey Castle can arrange for rounds at many of the courses in western England. Called "The Royal Necklace of British Golf," each of the seven courses (the Bovey Castle course makes No. 8) is within a 90-minute drive of Bovey Castle. Given the narrow, winding roads here, it's best to let the castle supply a driver, or even a helicopter.
Ideally, you want play each of the courses, but for those on a restricted schedule, a pair of “must plays” is Westward Ho! (Royal North Devon) and Saunton Golf Club. Westward Ho! (6,653 yards, par 72) is the oldest links course in England - built in 1864 with the help of Old Tom Morris himself.
The course, with its landmark Cape Bunker on the fourth hole, was home to the legendary five-time Open Champion J.H. Taylor, who is said to have learned the game at Westward Ho! In addition, the course houses one of Britain's better museums of antique golf clubs in its venerable clubhouse. Even if you don't tee it up, a few minutes walk though the museum is worth the while.
Across Bristol Channel is Saunton Golf Club. Built along the North Devon Coast, Saunton's 36 holes are among the finer links courses in Great Britain. Henry Longhurst once called Saunton's East Course (6,779 yards, par 71) "the finest course never to have hosted the Open Championship." Once you play it, you'll know Longhurst, as usual, was correct.
To get the full embrace of the Royal Necklace, however, one has to experience all of its jewels.
On the north coast of Cornwall overlooking Constantine Bay is Trevose Golf Club, a links course (6,608 yards, par 72) with wide, undulating fairways designed by Harry Colt. Yelverton (6,353 yards, par 71), designed by Herbert Fowler in 1904, offers terrific views of Dartmoor and across the River Tamar into Cornwall.
Alister Mackenzie built Teignmoth Golf Course in 1924 reportedly for about $7,000. Mackenzie, designer of Augusta National Golf Club along with Bobby Jones, laid out Heathland-style Teignmouth (6,227 yards, par 71) on the high tableland of Little Haldon, more than 800 feet above sea level, making it one of England's more popular courses.
Jack Nicklaus' first design in England - St. Mellion's in Cornwall (7,000 yards, par 72) - is representative of Nicklaus design in the late 1980s, featuring high tee boxes and a lot of sand and water.
If you think links courses are all flat and uninspiring, try St. Enodoc (6,243 yards, par 70), which James Braid in Rock on the banks of the Camel estuary. Braid built above the cliffs of the village. A natural links course, St. Enodoc winds its way through and around massive sand dunes with great views of Daymer Bay, particularly around the loop at the far end of the course.
The 10th to 14th holes skirt around tiny St. Enodoc Church. The story goes that the church had been covered by the sands before golf was started in the area in 1888.
It's another great story in a land full of great stories. And in a land where, if you know the way, all roads lead to Bovey Castle.