Coram’s Fields - a time for giving

Tom Jamesin Public Places

Dave Moorcroft
Philanthropists have their place in sport. As early as the 1800s, industrial magnates were ploughing millions into the welfare of their workforces by constructing facilities to help encourage active lifestyles, aimed to offset the risks of absenteeism through sickness and spur employees to forge a lifetime bond with their employer.

What goes around comes around. In a keynote delivery to private and public sector specifiers in November, sports administrator and 3,000m world record holder, Dave Moorcroft, predicted that the next national push on healthy living would be a campaign to encourage greater levels of activity among the population.

Could we conceive of a return to the culture of philanthropy to lift Britain out of the obesity crisis and the health issues that arise from it? Maybe the time has come again, especially so given the era of austerity still gripping Britain.

In fact, to some extent, the movement is already with us. A stone's throw from Russell Square - nestled among prime London real estate - lies Coram's Fields. Established more than 250 years ago by philanthropist, Thomas Coram, as a foundling hospital, it was retained as a seven-acre park and sports venue after the building was demolished in the 1920s, when the hospital moved to the countryside.

Newspaper proprietor, Lord Rothermere, donated funds to create a children's park on the beautiful walled garden enclosure: on the east side, facilities include an expansive sandpit and toddler climbing frames, seesaws and swings. An adventure playground for older children includes zip wire, tunnel slide and climbing equipment honed from natural materials. There's a city farm, too.

Elements of the old estate (some Grade 2 listed) house the Foundling Museum, a retelling of Coram's story and his charity's achievements, as well as offices, and it's in one of these that I meet Head of Groundstaff, Noel Lyons, and Head of Youth and Sports, Naz Deen.

Coram's Fields is a charity set on developing its huge potential as a city focus for a diverse range of sport that includes football, rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics, basketball and netball.

"A prime London community sporting hub striving to inspire children, young people and adults to start, stay and succeed in sport," is how Naz describes the site.

The reality though is that Coram's Fields struggles to find funding for some of its staff. Whilst Noel and four of his five-strong team are salaried, Naz has relied for his livelihood on a one-off contribution from a hedge fund manager living locally, large enough to keep Naz on the books for two years. "That's coming to an end in December," he says, "so we're searching for alternative sources of financial support."

CoramsFields Sign
Noel stresses: "Even when you are salaried, a sword is hanging over you, as you can never be certain what lies ahead. That fact alone keeps you on your toes."

To rely on donations to keep you in a job must prove highly stressful, I suggest. "Well, this will be the third time that my income is in danger of drying up, so I've become used to it," Naz answers matter-of-factly.

Some aspects of Coram's Fields are safe however - the site was awarded protected status under the Queen Elizabeth II Fields in Trust 2012 scheme. So Naz knows children and young people living in or visiting London, including those from deprived communities, can continue to enjoy what is a unique inner-city provision.

"Coram's Fields is believed to be the only full-size synthetic turf facility of its kind in the area, so its importance in terms of regional sporting provision cannot be overstated," stresses Naz.

The hedge fund manager's daughter enjoyed using Coram's Fields regularly and it seems that, for this reason alone, her father was moved to his act of philanthropy.

"Perhaps others are out there," I ask Naz. "Maybe, but sourcing them might be difficult," he says. Film star Rupert Everett's house overlooks the park and he attended the official opening of the pitch, along with hundreds of children. "Rupert is really helpful and generous with his time," says Naz. "He acts as an ambassador for Coram's Fields, so his involvement may attract more funding."

Naz's role in the future prosperity of Coram's Field is pivotal though, as he is blessed with a gift for energising young people to take up sport. Schools are increasingly using the site under planned programmes, especially so since a new floodlit 3G synthetic playing area, marked out as three pitches, came into play in the autumn.

"Activity has risen dramatically now we have the new pitch," says Noel, whose team has the task of maintaining the surface to standards that can support what Naz predicts will be a huge influx of use among people of all ages.

"More work for you," I suggest. "Yes, but that's a good problem to have," says Noel.

Naz continues: "Yes, our hire-out programme for the surface is going through the roof because we can now stage so much more sport than before - and, crucially, we can increase revenue significantly for the charity - with programming seven days a week, dawn 'til dusk - as it is the only source of income; all other children and young people's services at Coram's Fields are free.'

CoramsFields New3G2
We walk outside to view a surface littered with the distinctive leaves of the London plane tree. "They surround the site," says Noel, "and are one of the highlights of the city's streets, but they make our work that much more difficult at this time of year. We have about fifty around the site. They are high maintenance and all of them carry TPOs [Tree Protection Orders]. We mainly lift branches so they do not overhang the pitch too much and remove ones that have died because of Masari, a disease of London plane, which dries up the insides. It's a lingering problem that I don't believe has a cure. Our arboriculturalist visits us every three months to check on things and advise us."

The sand and rubber crumb infill surface, part-funded by Sport England, can be marked out for several modes of football, including 5 and 7-a-side and rugby, and replaces the existing synthetic pitch that was no longer fit for purpose. "The first pitch here was a cinder one," Noel notes. Ouch!

CoramsFields Community
"Sport England ploughed in some £200,000 into the project," Naz confirms, "whilst The Marathon Trust [which dissipates funding from the proceeds of the London event] gave £100,000 and Camden Council £50,000. We therefore are committed to heighten community use of the facility. We provide free PE and after school pitch hire for all of Camden's schools, for example."

The surface is manufactured from the same yarn used for the pitch laid at Aviva Premiership rugby union national champions, Saracens, earlier in 2013.

It is said to be extremely resilient and player friendly, carrying minimal risk of skin burns and abrasions. The existing engineered base laid beneath the old synthetic area was sound, but a new 15mm rubber shockpad has replaced the earlier one.

Improvements to the perimeter fencing have been completed - extending the height to 8m where necessary, replacing half the 3m high surround and fitting low-level duo-mesh rigid panelling, with soft netting above it.

CoramsFields New3G
Under a contractual agreement, the pitch will be monitored and inspected for twelve months, which will include a deep, vigorous brush every three months on top of the basic weekly maintenance to self-level the crumb, carried out by Noel's team utilising a John Deere X300 tractor and dragbrush supplied under, what is said to have been, a £385,000 deal.

"We wanted to improve the quality of our sporting provision so that we can attract more clubs to train and compete here," says Naz. "We already stage the Camden Unity Cup 5-a-side football tournament in the summer (London's biggest) and hold numerous other competitions all year round, including 'Young Women's Sports Day' in conjunction with International Women's Week, which is Camden's biggest female sports tournament, so the standard of surface is very important to allow us to sustain the intensity of use we are aiming for."

"Teams from University College London and Birkbeck College regularly play here, as do other faculties of the university, Belsize Park Rugby Club and several youth centre teams under the league we recently established."

"I believe we have the best artificial pitch in London and intend to build on this by developing Coram's Fields into a nucleus of inner-city sport, attracting more young people to take up the game, inspiring the next generation to continue playing and enjoying sport and exercise."

CoramsFields GroundstaffTractor2
"The pitch will be integral in our development of tag rugby, which is rapidly going global in its appeal," he adds, "and we are in partnership with the RFU and the Lawrence Dallaglio Foundation to move that forward strongly, especially with the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, to be staged in the UK."

Noel comes in: "I was surprised how much less litter we have on site since the pitch was installed, but the kids who use it have taken ownership of the facility - it's their pitch and they can use it free of charge. They don't have to dribble past banana skins any more, that's for sure."

Noel and the team must complete a rather diverse range of tasks on site - from brushing the synthetic surface once a week to cleaning out the farm animals, the responsibility of Greg Allright. "That keeps him busy," quips Noel.

I enquire further and learn of a menagerie that includes ducks, chickens, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs and an aviary. The farm's two sheep, however, died recently. "Foxes?" I ask. "Old age," Noel responds. "They liked the life here." Evidently. Alongside bursts of frenetic sporting activity, there's the peace and isolation that other corners of the park offer visitors.

CoramsFields Groundstaff
"Foxes are an issue though," Noel continues. "They liked to gnaw through netting either side of the gates and squeeze through, but we've blocked up the perimeter where they gained entrance to the park and have installed removable panels so they cannot get on to the pitch, in the hope that we've solved the problem."

The improvements in pitch perimeter fencing are an important security element, he adds. "The lower grade steel used in the old fencing didn't deter vandalism, but the steel structure we have now is thicker grade and more robust - and it's higher."

Noel started life in construction before moving into groundsmanship, so his skills there have held him in good stead for the demands at Coram's Fields. Not an industry to enter for the money, Noel concedes, the job does pay dividends. "You're outside in a beautiful, tree-filled environment and there's plenty of variety in our work. One minute you're clearing leaves, the next you're administering first-aid, repairing roofs, glazing, mending gutters or plastering walls - as much of the site is Grade 2 listed, we have to apply specially recommended plaster, such as Tupre, and other materials that are as near as possible to the original ones."

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Acting as health and safety marshalls for the annual fireworks display is another of the team's commitments, as is preparing for and clearing up after the unusually named Kings Cross County Show. "It attracts stalls selling everything from bric a brac to antiques and fruit and vegetables," says Noel. "We take everything they can throw at us, as events like this all attract revenue and we are acutely aware of the difficulties with funding in the present climate."

"There's not much natural turf in the park. I'd expected more," I state innocently. "That's because much of it is lying under the marquees that have been erected for an arts exhibition," Noel answers. Another signal that life is busy at Coram's Fields.

"We can have 2,500-3,000 people a day on site, so there is that feeling of vulnerability about keeping everyone safe and sound."

As football bookings begin at midday, the grounds team completes the maintenance duties in the morning before moving on to other duties. Rising demand though could squeeze time slots to complete the necessary work, Noel admits.

CoramsFields Goose
How about career development for the team? Part-timer Amir Ali is one to watch, Noel predicts. "He's good at everything and has the energy and the interest to take up a full-time post and move on up."

Keen to build sustainability into the team, Noel anticipates a time when he can bring in apprentices, "but not just yet," he says. "The sector is moving forward rapidly and groundsmen have to have the front-of-house skills that the likes of the media demand."

"Business from bookings is growing, which means more revenue, but more activity for us, so we'll become more visible generally which, in turn, adds even greater levels of accountability for what we do."

The project to replace the existing tennis courts with new multi-sport surfaces, embracing netball, will introduce further duties for Noel and the team but, at 46, and not planning to retire any time soon, he has plenty of time to further refine the grounds maintenance programme in light of Coram's Fields bright future as an inner-city sports and leisure hub.