Fairway to heaven? UK cathedral golf course draws fans

Rochester (United Kingdom) (AFP) - A mini-golf course in the nave of a mediaeval English cathedral to encourage families to visit this summer is proving a match made in heaven -- and controversy.

The nine-hole course blessing Rochester Cathedral in southern England, which dates back to 604AD, has been drawing in families since the miniature fairways were rolled out last week.

The course will stay in the cathedral throughout August, in the latest move by the Church of England to stem dwindling congregations in an increasingly secular Britain.

"The cathedral is full of people playing adventure golf -- it's absolutely wonderful," Rachel Phillips, one of the cathedral canons, told AFP as numerous families putted their way around the nave course.

She said visitor numbers were up more than 80 percent compared to the same period in 2018, and noted other cathedrals were making similar outreach efforts.

Norwich Cathedral has installed a 50-foot (15-metre) helter-skelter ride inside its nave, while Lichfield Cathedral in July unveiled a replica of the moon's surface on its floor as a visitor attraction.

Phillips conceded there has been some criticism -- primarily on social media -- which she hopes to dispel.

"It's not at all inappropriate," the canon said.

"People are coming in, discovering that they're welcome and... everything that the cathedral has to offer them and it's really positive.

"Quite a lot of people haven't been before but they all say 'we'll be back'."

The cathedral partnered with a local charity that manages a nearby historic crossing over the River Medway to create a course themed around bridges, to inspire young people to learn more about engineering.

Each hole is an accurately engineered replica of an actual bridge, with players hitting the balls over the model spans in the spirit of adventure golf.

"Golf is my favourite thing," six-year-old Oscar said as he attempted an ambitious hole-in-one across an imitation of London's iconic Tower Bridge.

"It's really hard and really good," he said.

Regular visitors to Rochester Cathedral, renowned for having one of the finest romanesque facades in England, seemed unperturbed by the flocks of mini-golf disciples.

"At first sight it's quite shocking," said Peter Scholey, 70, a retired headteacher on the 19th stop of a tour of all 27 mediaeval cathedrals still standing in England and Wales.

"But if you stop and think about it... it's no different to how it was in the Middle Ages," he added, noting people then would bring animals and hold markets in cathedrals.

"Why not? I think it's really interesting," his wife, Brigid Allen, added.

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