Bernard Darwin & Dormy House

Bernard Darwin and Dormy House
A Lifetime Relationship

This love affair was born in 1906 when Bernard Darwin purchased memberships in Rye Golf Club and in Dormy House.  As described in ‘A Special Dozy, Cozy Kind of Dormy House’ presented below, many happy times were enjoyed there until at last, during 1956 some months after the death of his wife Eily, he moved into Dormy House.  Darwin lived there until the summer of 1960 when, due to health issues, he moved to Grange Farm, South Heighton, Sussex, to live with his daughter Ursula.  In October 1961, Darwin’s declining health necessitated a move into Filsham House Nursing Home, St. Leonards, Sussex.  He died on October 18, 1961 of heart disease: Myocardial Degeneration.  Bernard and Eily Darwin’s remains are buried in the village churchyard in Downe, Kent, not far from Gorringes where they had raised their family and lived for so long.

The following article by Bernard Darwin appeared in Sports Illustrated on January 26, 1959 and is presented with permission of A.P. Watt Ltd, on behalf of Dr. Paul Ashton and Mr. Philip Trevelyan.

A Special Dozy, Cozy
Kind of Dormy House

‘Lives in a dormy house, does he?’ some reader may exclaim.  ‘Poor fellow, he must hear all the hard-luck stories of all the golfers.  I’m sorry for him.’

Well, it is really not as bad as that.  The name of dormy house conveys to most people a near neighbor of a golf club if not part of the golf club itself.  But my Dormy House is a little different from the rest.

It is close to the Land Gate in the lovely old town of Rye in Sussex, where one illustrious American, Henry James, made his English home.  It is full of history, for it is one of the two ‘ancient towns,’ its neighbor Winchelsea being the other, which, with the five Cinque Ports, provided in olden days the very heart and nucleus of the British navy.  Today the sea has receded from Rye, even as it has from Sandwich, and left it with its narrow cobbled streets, huddled around the church on the top of a dry cliff, with the water a few miles away.

Naturally, the links are by the sea, which once no doubt rolled over them, and where the sea has been are to be found the best of golf courses.  No human architect, with the wealth of Midas ready to his hand, could imitate this ideal; not only the main features, the lines of sandhills with the valleys between, but all the thousands of smaller undulations, the plateaus and craters in miniature, which go at once to make up that golfing perfection and to make us on our bad days complain that a good drive has given us an unjust lie.  And Rye, in the minds of all who know it, is one of the noblest of links, true seaside, having all the qualities whether bold or subtle which heart can desire and with a sense of peace and privacy which a championship course can scarcely boast.  Rye, thank heaven, is not a championship course and never will be.  The narrow tortuous road that leads to it, together with geographical difficulties, puts it out of the question for any crowded festival, and for that matter I think the members would let the champions come there only over their dead bodies.  So it remains like a man who, without titles or honours, is yet universally accepted as an equal in the most distinguished  company.  It is famous without any of the accompanying disadvantages of fame.

Love and Fortune

The course was laid out in the ‘90s by Harry Colt, and the first time the world heard of it was when a match was played there between Harry Vardon and Freddie Tait, two names that always made news.  It was not very long after this and well in the gutty age that I paid my first visit to the links and to the Dormy House.  At once I fell in love with both, and by good fortune an uncle had, like a fairy godmother, given me a handsome tip.  This, with a reckless wisdom, I devoted to entrance fees and subscriptions otherwise beyond my means, and the place has been near my heart ever since.

This old friend of a dormy house, to which I have now returned for good, is a pleasant, ancient house on the cliff top.  It is a separate institution from the golf club, though most of its members, but not all, are golfers, for it is also a local social club.  By the time the golfers have finished their rounds and returned here for tea and crumpets by the billiard-room fire their acute yearning for sympathy is over.  They tell me those hard-luck stories, which I mentioned, only if I ask for them, and this I do with judicious restraint.

To many American golfers the notion of staying in a dormy house may, for all I know, convey visions of splendor, the mingled splendor of country club and hotel.  It is now, alas, so long since I was in America that my memories of staying in golf clubs may appear those of a golfing Rip Van Winkle.  I stayed twice, in 1913 and 1922, at The Country Club at Brookline.  Both were memorable years, the first that of Francis Ouimet’s victory over Ted Ray and Vardon (I can still hear the pattering of the rain and see the wet mist hanging about the trees), the second that of Jess Sweetser’s championship.  In 1922 I spent a very pleasant night at Pine Valley, which prided itself, unless I am mistaken, on an absence of women and a scorn of changing for dinner.  At the National, where I visited in those same two years, I stayed elsewhere, but the rest of my companions of the first Walker Cup side, in 1922, were put up in a genuine dormy house called, I think, the Hen Coop.

Of my second stay at The Country Club I have one vivid memory.  It was, I suppose, in time of Prohibition not wholly rigid.  On my first night I had gone early to bed, but was awakened by a member.  He was very sorry, but thought he had left a bottle of whiskey under my pillow.  And so he had, though I had not perceived its outline, and after its return we parted with mutual apologies.

The atmosphere of those hospitable American clubs was, as I remember it, essentially one of comfort; of unceremonious snugness.  We here at the Dormy House deem ourselves very snug.  We live under the matriarchal care of a lady who is an admirable cook and is reinforced by two men servants.  Not only are we cozy but we seem to me, and I have been a member for well over 50 years, essentially immutable.

This placid life changes at the weekend to one of cheerful bustle.  A small flood of London golfers pours down upon us, sometimes to play a match against Rye, sometimes to take part in an Old Boy competition, sometimes merely as a party of friends to play foursomes by day and bridge by night.  I may add that I am fortunate in having my own sitting room and my own books and pictures.  If I want to scribble, as now, or to sulk, I can be as unsociable as I please, and my room is impervious to the most jovial shouts from the billiard room.

It is to this billiard room that the new arrival on a Friday night repairs to warm himself after his drive or heaps the golfing plans for the morrow.  It is there that the full tide of the club’s existence may be said to be.  There is a glorious fireplace, where a wood fire crackles with a jolly sound.  It has a fire back bearing an ancient coat of arms and two little seats flanking it on either side from which we may look up the great black throat of the chimney, where the wind rumbles on stormy nights, and watch the sparks flying upwards.

For many people this room and this fire stand for 35-odd years of memories of Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society matches and festivities.  No account of the Dormy House could be complete without a word or two as to the Society, which is bound to Rye by very close and special ties.  Rye is indeed more than half officially the home course of the Society, and it is there in particular that it plays its annual tournament for the President’s Putter, which attracts an amateur field of great strength and is the more noteworthy since it is played at a season when all other public golf is dead.  It is in the bleak days of early January that we of the Society presume to hold our revels, and Providence must favor sheer impudence, since, save for the inevitable blank of wartime, we have played every year since 1920, and never yet, touching wood, has the weather beaten us.

It has often been, as the Iron Duke said of Waterloo, ‘a close run thing.’  We have had one or two frosty years; twice the snow has been so thick that the first day’s play must be postponed, only to melt as if by magic and leave the turf beautifully combed and smoothed by its white coat.  We have had clouds, very black and horrible, threatening to overwhelm us; we have fought against glacial winds, and it is no joke having to start your match at 8 o’clock on a winter’s morning; and that with a field of hard on a hundred players.  And if it can be bitter out there on the links we think of the welcome that awaits us by the billiard-room fire.  The sight of Rye on its cliff top, like some fairy citadel, with its lights beginning to shine through the dusk, and the thought of crumpets and hot baths are almost as warming in imagination as they soon will be in blessed fact.

Fierce Hordes Arrive

The Putter is for the members of the Society a unique occasion, on which we are all comfortably together.  It combines friendliness with good, fierce golf and it takes a lot of winning.  Holderness, Wethered and Tolley are some of the names inscribed on the silver-bound golf balls hanging on the old wooden putter: later came Crawley, Duncan and Micklem, and three years ago Gordon Huddy, a Cambridge undergraduate, outrageously broke into these preserves and set an example to insurgent youth.

I am writing not long after the hordes for the Putter of 1959 will have swept down to fill not only the Dormy House but every available bed in Rye.  I suppose we all know the feeling that comes at the end of some cherished holiday, bringing us bitter envy of those who stay behind.  When we are already far away they will be light-heartedly pursuing their ordinary avocations, perhaps even playing golf, with no more thought of us than has the dog of the house, sunning himself upon the steps and ready to wag a friendly tail at some new visitor.  Many times I have felt that cruel pang of jealousy on leaving the Dormy House after the Putter.  Now I am the one left behind to see all the others depart.  The life here is a dozy, cozy routine, broken at intervals by friends from the outside world.  Soon they will come and go yet again, and then a great peace will descend on the Dormy House.

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Editor’s notes:

a.  In 1898 Bernard Darwin was a founding member of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society.

b.  He was President of the Society in 1939 and again in 1948 for its Jubilee celebration.

c.  He  won the President’s Putter in 1924.  In his article the next day in The Times he referred to himself: ‘I do not think Mr. Darwin will be hurt in his feelings by any remarks I make about him and so I will say that he is one of the most enigmatical golfers of my acquaintance.  You never can tell to what depths of futility he may fall.’

d.  He was Captain of Rye Golf Club in 1906 and 1956.