It was once an immaculate golf course where footballers such as Michael Owen and Dietmar Hamann played.
Nowadays, the only holes are those made by badgers and woodpeckers. Instead of golfers, silver birch saplings parade across the greens.
In the two years since its closure, Frodsham Golf Course in Cheshire has regenerated. Now it is being turned into a public forest after being acquired by the Woodland Trust.
The 18-hole course is one of a growing number of once-exclusive tracts of land given over to golf that are being put to a new, more community-friendly use as campaigners draw attention to the value of nearby green space urban areas.
“We’re really excited about this place,” said Simon Mangeean of the Woodland Trust, giving the Guardian an exclusive tour of the fairways now popular with local joggers and dog walkers. “During the lockdown people came out and practically commandeered the space. Once the opportunity is there, it almost becomes like common ground.
Frodsham Golf Course has closed during the pandemic. When it was put up for sale, local residents feared the scenic 94-acre (38-hectare) site would become a housing estate. Instead, it was purchased by a charitable trust and leased to the Woodland Trust, which is to allow natural regeneration alongside planting trees and creating glades rich in wildflowers.
In Brighton, the council-owned Waterhall Golf Course is being regenerated, while the former 18-hole park at Beckenham Place has been transformed into the largest park in south-east London. Other council-owned courses in Exeter and Sunderland are also being turned into wild green spaces for people and nature.
At the northern end of a sandstone ridge that runs through Cheshire, the Old Frodsham Course offers spectacular views over Frodsham Marsh, an internationally protected wetland, and across the Mersey to the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool on the distant horizon.
The site becomes the latest addition to the North Forest, an effort to add 50m of trees to 10,000 square miles of mostly treeless northern England from Liverpool to Hull.
Turning the course into woods will reconnect the old woods of Frodsham Hill Woods, Snidley Moor and Woodhouse Hill. “It was a highly strategic opportunity because it ran into ancient forest,” Mangeean said. “With this land, we can protect our ancient forest, especially from pesticide and herbicide spray drift from farmland, and make this habitat bigger, better, and more united.”
Older trees, including some venerable ash trees and other native species planted by the golf course, will be retained, with jays and squirrels helping to plant the acorns of old oak trees lining the site. Local community volunteers will also plant trees from local seeds.
A third of the route will remain open space such as glades strewn with wildflowers, thus retaining the spectacular views of the Mersey as well as the biodiverse grassland species. “It won’t be wall-to-wall trees at all,” Mangeean said. Meanwhile, the clubhouse has been converted into the Ashton House children’s nursery and the Woodland Trust hopes the new forest will provide forestry opportunities for pre-school children as well as local primary and secondary schools.
The plan has been well received by local walkers. “I’m happy,” said Cliff Seeger. “I heard they were going to plant thousands more trees there. There is room for many more trees and the environment needs more green space.
“It’s like a country park has opened up,” Sophie Gibson said. “I think some golfers aren’t so happy, but it’s a lovely place with great views.”
But in the nearby market town of Frodsham, it is hard to find dissenters, even among golfers. A local golfer said: “It’s good news, it’s much better than building accommodation on it.
“We’re all thrilled,” said Jayne Davies, owner of Tail Mates pet store and dog-friendly cafe. “It was a very nice golf course, but it’s good to have something for everyone. Not everyone plays golf – a forest is more universal.
“It’s good to see people using this place, going out for exercise or spiritual nourishment,” Mageean said. The Woodland Trust is not against golf courses, but would like more wildlife-friendly links. “The biodiversity value of golf courses could be massively increased if they changed their conventional management practices. If I was a golfer, I would like to see more wildflowers in their raw state for example.
Activist and writer Guy Shrubsole, who has started a petition to open city golf courses to the public during the pandemic, said Frodsham’s conversion to timber was a good sign. “Golf courses take up a disproportionate share of our greenbelt and city green spaces. In urban areas, many more need to be redeveloped into public parks filled with wildlife rather than manicured greens.
Frodsham’s sandstone ridge is rich in archaeology, from Iron Age hill forts to Stone Age mounds. Mangeean added, “I wonder what future archaeologists will think of sandy bunkers in the middle of a forest?”