Eden Project creators open ‘edible’ and green golf course | Cornwall

The views are spectacular, encompassing a beautiful Cornish river, a ruined castle and the skyline of an ancient town while the golf course is pleasantly challenging, with narrow fairways and undulating greens.

But what makes the Gillyflower Golf Course at Lostwithiel different is that every square meter of non-playable area will be used to grow fruit and vegetables or encourage flora and fauna.

The brainchild of the creators behind Cornish eco attractions, Eden Project and The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Gillyflower is billed as a unique ‘edible’ golf course and green.

A fallen tree at the renovated golf course in Losthwithiel, Cornwall, which has been left in place to attract wildlife. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Each of the nine holes of the course, which is about to welcome its first players, is planted with fruit trees, nuts and vegetables. Hedges and hilly areas are maintained with wildlife in mind; greens and fairways managed in the most ecological way possible.

“The golf course has a reputation for not being very green,” said Gillyflower golf manager Joe Micklethwaite. “The idea here is to create a great course, but ensuring that everything we do is as good for the environment as possible.”

Micklethwaite, 29, learned to play in Cornwall before moving to California and turning professional. This winter he was back in the county overseeing the development of Gillyflower – and also planting hundreds of cornelian cherry trees on a slope to the left of the third hole. “We are all committed,” he said. “It’s been a steep learning curve.”

Apples from trees planted along the fairway of Gillyflower's first hole will be used to make cider.
Apples from trees planted along the fairway of Gillyflower’s first hole will be used to make cider. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

So now, in addition to helping point out the best line for a first tee shot, Micklethwaite can give a history of lines of Gillyflower apple trees planted on the hole (it’s an old Cornish variety eaten on Christmas Day ).

He can also talk about the pineapple guava bushes next to the train tracks and the plans for a tea plantation on the slope of the very steep second hole, and how he grew attached to the three Tamworth pigs who are kept there for help carve undergrowth in a more natural way.

Gillyflower Golf Manager Joe Micklethwaite strokes the pigs on the renovated golf course.
Gillyflower Golf Manager Joe Micklethwaite strokes the pigs on the renovated golf course. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Some golfers will be frustrated when they lose their ball in longer than usual rough. But the hope is that they will understand that it is better for the flora and fauna and accept the penalty. “It’s for a good cause,” Micklethwaite said.

Gillyflower was created from the remains of the former Lostwithiel Golf and Country Club, which closed in 2014, much to the anguish of its 300 members. It was quickly reclaimed by brush and gorse and might have been lost forever.

But Sir Tim Smit, one of the founders of the Eden Project, and his son, Alex, who both live nearby, fell in love with the stretch of land beside the River Fowey and, although no of the two were golfers, decided to save her.

Alex Smit, managing director of the Gillyflower project, said eyebrows were raised over the plans.
Alex Smit, managing director of the Gillyflower project, said eyebrows were raised over the plans. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Alex Smit, managing director of the Gillyflower project, said eyebrows were raised. Bringing a golf course back to life didn’t seem like the kind of project that would capture the imagination of a green pioneer like his father.

But he said it has been exciting to find environmentally friendly solutions to maintenance challenges that have turned some courses into man-made and toxic natural wastelands.

These range from an early decision not to water the greens to an exotic response to the age-old problem of keeping badgers away from manicured surfaces – lion droppings.

Almond seeds on a tree at the golf course.
Almond seeds on a tree at the golf course. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

They work with local food and beverage companies to turn Gillyflower crops into products. The apples will be transformed into cider, the cherries into liquor. The former first hole has been remodeled into a vegetable garden where rare varieties of beans, asparagus, shallots and rhubarb grow side by side.

The Smits aren’t claiming they’re the first to try to tackle golf’s notoriously ungreen image — courses around the world are looking for ways to use fewer chemicals and pesticides — but they hope their name will encourage many others to look at their holistic approach and perhaps inspire golfers who play Gillyflower to do something interesting with their own gardens, planters or vegetable plots.

Tess Dickinson working in the kitchen garden at the renovated golf course
Tess Dickinson working in the kitchen garden at the renovated golf course Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

The project is not without controversy. As part of this program, the Smits want to create a center for teaching horticulture, agronomy and cooking on part of the site.

But hundreds of residents objected, saying its prominent position would spoil valuable views of the city. Cornwall Council rejected the project at a heated meeting in April, but there is expected to be an appeal.

Alex Smit admitted the process had been “painful” for the family. He said he hoped that once the course opens early next month, people could see that their intentions were honorable and good.

Rob Porrington, the chief greenkeeper, said it had been difficult to get him back into shape without most of the 'old fashioned' methods.
Rob Porrington, the chief greenkeeper, said it had been difficult to get him back into shape without most of the ‘old fashioned’ methods. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Rob Porrington, the chief greenkeeper and one of the original course builders, said the course’s closure had been a blow to the town. It had been difficult to get him back into shape without most of the “old school” methods. “But people are eager to come back now. It will be wonderful to see people playing golf here again,” Porrington said.

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