A gem of a fine-turf sports venue at Llandrindod Wells

Mike Birdin Bowls

LlandrindodWells2Visit any town with 'Spa' or 'Wells' in its name and you can be fairly certain of finding a nearby lake, pool or spring, discovered initially by the Romans, to be followed centuries later by Victorian and Edwardian tourists keen to try out the medicinal qualities of the saline, magnesium and sulphur springs.

Although the Romans did create a settlement close to where the present town now lies, the development of Llandrindod Wells did not take off until the 1860s with the coming of the railway. The rural Welsh town then grew at an astonishing rate, as "taking of the waters" became a fashionable part of Victorian life throughout the British Isles.

Built in 1867, the pump room in the town's aptly-named Rock Park was visited by thousands of visitors each year, leading to a demand for complementary sports and leisure activities, most of which were catered for by local hotels built to accommodate the growing influx of "water tourists".

Tennis, croquet and bowls were played, initially on hotel lawns, until requests from visitors and locals for a "proper" bowling green led to the local council converting a tennis court at the Recreation Ground into the town's first true green dedicated to bowls.

LlandrindodWells4Opening for play in 1907, the green was soon hosting a number of popular annual competitions until Llandrindod Wells Springs Ltd, lessees of Rock Park, announced grand plans to build a first-class bowling green within the park, close to the medicinal springs.

Welcomed by the local council, the opening of the new green, in May 1912, also saw the formation of a new bowling club to play on the green.

Known initially as Radnor County Bowling Club, the organisation changed its name to Llandrindod Wells Bowling Club in 1921, the year after the green had been assessed as being "up to standard" and the club accepted as a member of the Welsh Bowling Association.

In the same year, a second green was constructed leading, in 1925, to the club being selected as the venue for the 19th annual series of men's international matches involving England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, an honour repeated four years later.

LlandrindodWells6By that time, ownership of Rock Park's two greens had passed into new hands, following Llandrindod Wells Urban District Council's acquisition of the Springs company in 1926.

Nine years later, the council oversaw the building of a third full-size bowling green on the site, creating the largest bowls club in Wales.

The greens have remained in public ownership ever since, first within Radnor District Council, before moving under the jurisdiction of Powys County Council in 1996 following the abolition of the administrative district of Radnor.

Current greenkeeper, Steve Smith, started working on the Rock Park greens in the mid 1980s having joined Radnor District Council in 1984 as an apprentice gardener, whilst also attending horticultural courses at the technical college in the town of Brecon, twenty-eight miles distant.

"Over the summer months, I was drafted in to assist the then bowls greenkeeper, John Gough, with maintenance of the grounds and the greens' surrounds," recalls Steve. "Gradually, I was allocated fine turf duties, learning from John and picking up valuable skills on the job. When John retired in May 1989, I was asked by the council if I would like to take over as greenkeeper, an offer which I accepted immediately."

When Steve took on the greenkeeping mantle, Llandrindod Wells Bowling Club was already established as the leading bowls venue in Wales, staging town, district, county, regional and national matches, as well as being the Welsh host for the prestigious Home Internationals.

LlandrindodWells8In summer 2012, the men's Home International championship was staged once again in Llandrindod Wells, with the ladies due back in 2014 before the men return to Rock Park in 2016.

Listed among Steve's proudest moments is the preparation of the greens, in 1997, for the Third Atlantic Rim Games, the biggest international bowls tournament ever staged in Wales, attracting to Llandrindod Wells ladies' teams and supporters from fourteen different countries.

The town basked in the spotlight created by this high profile event, with hotels near and far fully-booked for more than a fortnight with contestants and visitors, many of whom vowed to return to savour the town, its hospitality and peaceful rural surroundings.

Fittingly, the home country was judged the overall winner of the 1997 Games, five points ahead of second-placed England.

LlandrindodWells5"Looking after and preparing three greens on my own for daily use by club members and the general public, let alone for competitions large and small, was a tremendous responsibility when I first started, and remains so to this day," commented Steve, who is employed by the Local Environmental Services department of Powys County Council.

From 1 April until end-of-season renovations in mid October, Steve is working six, sometimes seven, days a week on almost an acre (0.4ha) of fine turf (three greens each covering 1,600 sq yards), and on the surrounding gardens.

Over the winter months, he dons a high-visibility jacket and leggings to join up with the council's local Environmental Services team engaged on tasks around the town, ranging from cleaning public toilets to litter bin emptying, pavement gritting and leaf collection.

"It's not easy tearing myself away from turf surfaces that may require attention at any time over the winter months, especially when the weather is warm and damp," says Steve. "I pop into Rock Park whenever I can from November to March to trim excessive grass growth, aerate the surface and inspect the turf for pests and diseases."

"However, I do appreciate that a balance needs to be struck when one is looking after a public asset, and I do my best to ensure that the greens head into winter in peak condition, hoping that they emerge next spring in a similar state."

After twenty-three years in the job, Steve Smith is valued highly by Llandrindod Wells Bowling Club, not only for his experience and skills but also for the attendant duties, advice and assistance he provides to club members and visitors throughout the playing season.

LlandrindodWells3ASteve's full-time greenkeeping responsibilities commence at the beginning of April with a moss-combating application of kiln-dried sand spread by pedestrian cyclone at a rate of 200kg per green.

"There's a bit of nitrogen mixed in with the sand which helps encourage initial growth as soil temperatures begin to rise," points out Steve.

Regular mowing starts in April at a height of 7mm, reducing gradually to 4mm from July through to September when the grass is cut usually every other day. On the morning of a match or tournament, Steve will cross-cut every green earmarked for competitive play.

"I've been using an increasing quantity of liquid fertilisers on the turf in recent years, obtaining consistent and cost-effective results," said Steve. "In early May 2012, each green was sprayed with six litres of Vitax's 14% N Seaturf organic seaweed extract mixed in 240 litres of water, producing excellent colour and strong early vigour without any soft growth or flushes."

LlandrindodWells7Steve used the same product again twice through the season, following a 'little but often' nutrition programme interspaced with two treatments of Seaturf 3% N Iron Extra, sprayed at an identical concentration and application rate.

Although he has tried slow and controlled release fertilisers, Steve believes that liquid fertilisers are absorbed more effectively by close-cut turf, reducing the risk of leaching after torrential or prolonged rainfall, both common occurrences in mid Wales, particularly in recent years.

Irrespective of the timing or volume of his liquid fertiliser applications, Steve stressed that maintaining open, free-draining surfaces and rootzones is key to the production of strong, healthy turf growth, vibrant colour and the firm surfaces required by bowlers.

To achieve this, a fortnightly programme of light scarification, slitting and solid tining is carried out from May through to late September.

"For the last-mentioned operation, I am able to choose from a mix of tine diameters ranging from 3mm up to 10mm, selected according to turf conditions and the season," he explained.

LlandrindodWells3BThis year, Steve increased both the frequency and the depth of tine and slit aeration treatments, getting down successfully to a maximum of 140mm with minimal surface disturbance.

One point which Steve was keen to stress is the support given to him by the council in providing appropriate powered machinery and turf maintenance products to enable work schedules to be completed on time with optimum results.

"Unsurprisingly, there has been a steady improvement in the capabilities and effectiveness of pedestrian machines since I took on the job in 1989," he said. "Back then, we had several items of kit that were capable of performing more than one task reasonably well by fitting a different tine, knife or blade. Now, I am tending to favour dedicated single-purpose machines such as GreenTek's Thatch-Away which does a great job, removing thatch very effectively while leaving an excellent finish."

Other machines of which Steve speaks highly are his new Baroness LM56 11-bladed greens mower, Sisis Auto Rotorake heavy-duty scarifier and a Groundsman Turf Aerator, which is capable of accepting a variety of solid and hollow tine sizes in a range of configurations, enabling aeration treatments to be tailored precisely to the condition and needs of the turf and the season.

"One has to be careful not to overdo aeration when the soil is drying out," pointed out Steve. "The last thing you need on a bowling green is ever-widening cracks, a feature that we have had to combat during the occasional dry year. Fortunately, mid Wales does not suffer too often from drought, and we do have the ability to cope with dry weather when necessary."

That ability takes the form of a mains-fed Toro irrigation system installed in the early 1990s, with one riser sprinkler head located in the centre of all four sides of all three greens, giving very even water coverage across the entire turf area.

"The system has not had excessive use but, when needed, it does provide huge savings in time and effort compared with pulling out and moving a mobile irrigator," commented Steve. "It means also that I can keep the greens looking and playing at their very best whenever we get a lengthy hot or dry period."
With total summer rainfall amounts averaging around 400mm in mid Wales over the past ten years, the need for irrigation on the three greens is outweighed by the ability to remove precipitation effectively and speedily from the turf.

Steve points out that the greens were constructed properly on free-draining clinker bases covered by a seventy percent soil, thirty percent sand rootzone measuring around 300mm deep. The surfaces of all greens receive a "top-up" dressing every year following reseeding, all carried out as part of October's renovation programme.

"The greens have pipe drainage laid at around 380mm deep and are able to shed water remarkably quickly, aided by the increased frequency and depth of aeration treatments, together with the natural fall of the surrounding land," commented Steve. "However, the popularity of bowls, and the high summer use of our greens, demands increasingly intensive treatments, so I am looking to bring in a deep-tine aerator before next season to alleviate compaction down to around 250mm deep."

Steve says that he would like to also improve the flow of drainage water away from the green known as the "cabbage patch", located to the left of the current clubhouse which was built in 1992.

"It's a bit of a mystery where the water draining from this particular green physically discharges," he said. "However, the green has developed a very shallow depression towards its centre, so we may well get the chance to locate and improve the drainage if and when the green is lifted, graded and relaid."

Another task on Steve's priority list is to repair the subterranean concrete pads supporting the perimeter of the greens adjacent to their surrounding ditches.
"All of the grass banks around the greens were replaced twenty years ago with substantial low level walls that provide a secure and attractive boundary," said Steve. "The outer edges of the greens now need a bit of treatment themselves to prevent possible turf sinkage and damage."

In the current economic climate, there is concern amongst local bowlers whether Powys County Council will be willing and able to continue funding the professional maintenance and presentation of its three top-class greens.

This concern has arisen before and is a situation of which the club is well aware and is prepared to address.

In addition to reviewing membership subscriptions and the daily fee for visitors using the greens, the club's committee is actively encouraging local people to take up the game, particularly youngsters and those with disabilities.

LlandrindodWells9One important factor in favour of keeping Llandrindod Wells' three championship greens maintained in peak condition throughout the summer is the economic importance to the town and local area of the tournaments and competitive events hosted each year at the venue.

With three superb greens and a splendid clubhouse, there could be a case for making Llandrindod Wells a national centre for lawn bowls excellence, or for specialist education and training in fine-turfcare and maintenance.

If nearby Hay-on-Wye can have its international book festival, then Steve Smith and the members of the bowls club which he serves will be delighted if the world is encouraged to beat a more regular path to their greens.

To mark its centenary, Llandrindod Wells Bowling Club has produced a 230-page comprehensively illustrated book describing the formation and history of the club, together with notable events of the past 100 years.

Priced at £10, the book is available at the Rock Park clubhouse or contact secretary, Graham Rees, via the club's website www.llandrindod-bowling.co.uk
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