Giggleswick School - creating a level playing field...

Greg Rhodesin Schools & Colleges

Medieval ridge and furrow farmland can prove a challenge in delivering sporting excellence. Greg Rhodes speaks to Head of Grounds, Craig Eccleston, a man on a mission to create a level playing field across the winter and summer provision

Giggleswick School is no stranger to television celebrities. Richard Whiteley, the long-standing host of afternoon TV game show Countdown, won a scholarship here, later becoming a governor. Teaching Whiteley English was Russell Harty, the television presenter of arts programmes and chat shows, who also taught drama at the school after leaving university, before later moving into the media.

A co-educational junior, senior and day boarding school, Giggleswick commands a stunning location in the Yorkshire dales, within walking distance of the popular market town of Settle. The independent Schools Inspectorate has awarded it 'Excellent' in no fewer than six areas of provision.

The last decade has seen Giggleswick invest £13m in classroom and sports facilities, including a new £1.5m sports hall and the Richard Whiteley Theatre.

With its deliberately broad curriculum and an emphasis on each individual reaching their potential at every stage: "The best thing about Giggleswick is the sense of community," states Camilla, one of its pupils.

Craig Eccleston joined the grounds team as an apprentice nearly twenty years ago under then head groundsman Martin South, along with friend and fellow apprentice David Worthington.

After Martin left for Sedbergh School in 2000, Kevin Byrne filled the post until 2008/2009. A team of three ran the department for a year or so until the school unified the garden and grounds team in 2010 to rationalise the regime and create new requirements, Craig explains.

"When I became head of grounds, I assumed responsibility for the school's sports and horticultural provision. The gardening side alone demands a good deal of attention to the extensive lawns and borders around many of the school buildings."

Managing a team with a varying skills set keeps Craig busy, not only keeping the right mix of capabilities but also bringing on the apprentices who work under him - a tradition that's building at Giggleswick.

Now thirty-eight, Craig himself had attended Shipley College as an apprentice, before gaining Level 3 through Myerscough College. Long-standing friend and colleague David Worthington is the same age and has travelled a similar career path to Craig.

"We both grew up in Settle, attending the same school, and growing keen on groundsmanship, volunteering for work on local football grounds. My dad and granddad both helped out at Settle football and cricket clubs as volunteers, so I came into the industry early on, you might say."

Recently joining the team is Will Moorhouse (23), a year two apprentice at Craven College, Skipton - a predominantly horticultural training establishment with some sport also included, explains Craig.

Matthew Jackson (22), another recent recruit, is newly qualified with a specialism in golf.

James Wright (36), who was tending Settle Golf Club, which leases some of its course from the school, has moved on to a facilities management role within Giggleswick, leaving Matthew to look after its nine holes.

"One lad works alongside gardener Mark Shepherd (47), who came from Lowther Estate, Shap, the home of Lord and Lady Lonsdale of boxing fame"

"One lad works alongside gardener Mark Shepherd (47), who came from Lowther Estate, Shap, the home of Lord and Lady Lonsdale of boxing fame," Craig continues.

"He worked there for nearly seven years - a massive task - and came here to bolster the gardening programme, bringing in fresh ideas. His family had moved down this way and he wished to be near them."

Phillip Lord (57) also assists the gardening effort. "He's been here for more than thirty years and I find him a very useful colleague," says Craig.

"Although he has no formal qualifications, he has huge experience and knows where everything is around the estate - the layout of underground drains, water pipes and so on."

Sporting hubs

Another fine example of an educational establishment founded under the reign of second Tudor monarch Henry V111, Giggleswick celebrated its quincentenary in 2012 in suitably distinguished fashion.

"The Halle Orchestra played for the school on The Papes playing field," Craig recalls. "It went down a storm."

One of four outdoor sporting hubs at Giggleswick, The Papes was created from farmland in 1995/96. "This was a full grass pitch construction big enough to take four junior rugby pitches and a cricket square for the 7-13 year-olds," explains Craig. "Started in 1994, it was finished before I came here."

Also played on The Papes is junior football and athletics. "We create the 6-lane 400m track from scratch each year and the marking out usually takes two of us just under a day, including initial marking."

In contrast to some schools, which run a short, intensive athletics season, that at Giggleswick stretches over three months, from May through July. "Local athletics clubs hire the track during the summer after the pupils have left for the break," says Craig

Commitment to synthetic surface provision has proved a sterling investment for Giggleswick. Its sand-dressed hockey pitch has weathered more than sixteen years' continuous action, and not only for hockey, as Craig explains:

"The surface is used for football and rugby training rather than competitive games and is still proving its worth after all this time. Application of moss treatments and applying our Sisis drag brush at least once a week keep the surface in good condition."

"The biggest factor with a surface of this age is that the glue fails, so the seams can kick up and affect ball bounce. A specialist looks over the pitch every eighteen months. We're looking to relay it though within the next two or three years"

"The biggest factor with a surface of this age is that the glue fails, so the seams can kick up and affect ball bounce. A specialist looks over the pitch every eighteen months. We're looking to relay it though within the next two or three years."

The second focus for sport is Lords, which accommodates three senior rugby pitches and was developed under a major project with the hockey area. The vision was to create new first and second XV pitches, with a third for reserves play and still have room for a cricket square for the U14s and U15s, says Craig.

Plans are afoot to reconstruct the natural area though. "As my next project, I'd like to set out a rugby pitch on either side of the square to ensure they do not impact the cricket provision and are more level than at present."

The issue is a historical one, Craig explains: "The Papes and Lords are recent developments, but the other winter pitches and cricket squares have arisen on medieval ridge and furrow farmland, so the natural levels are not brilliant. The goal is to iron out the surfaces to build smoother playing areas."

Meanwhile, Craig and the team muscle in to make the most of the topographical challenges. "We continue to improve the surfaces," he says, "fertilising, overseeding, scarifying and cutting, so we are doing everything we can to raise the quality of the playing conditions."

Sited in a traditionally rainy region of England and located in the trough of a valley scoured out in the last ice age, Giggleswick is perilously close to the River Ribble, which wends its way across the estate.

Flooding is not an issue for Craig though. "The first XV pitch is fewer than 100m from the river, but is on higher ground so, fingers crossed, I have never witnessed a flood here."

"However, the Thames Beck, which feeds into the Ribble, runs alongside and under The Papes, so the field can gather water. The school is pretty much the lowest point of the valley, so we are a natural collecting point and are doing well to avoid floods."

The third hub, Main/Top Pitch, is sited by the school chapel and hosts first XI cricket, three grass tennis courts and six hard, Tarmac ones. "These facilities are also hired out to local clubs once the school has broken up for summer," records Craig.

Although just sixteen school cricket fixtures a season are staged here, the relatively uncluttered calendar holds a hidden benefit. "The square is in a natural bowl, so can collect rain. However, raining off need not be too big an issue as we are not crammed, but my second mission is to raise the square to help reduce the risk of waterlogging."

"The square is in a natural bowl, so can collect rain. However, raining off need not be too big an issue as we are not crammed, but my second mission is to raise the square to help reduce the risk of waterlogging"

Across an estate of more than 200 acres, sporting provision can be far flung. Lords, for example, is nearly half a mile from the main buildings - the walk to the field would be exercise enough for many of the population.

Aside from sport, Giggleswick has plenty of space to keep Craig and the team busy year-round.

Merging of the gardening and grounds staff reflects the need to keep the 'front of house' looking as pretty as a picture. "The seven boarding houses each have fine turf ornamental gardens and herbaceous borders which need plenty of attention," states Craig.

"Our woodland also has to be maintained in good order and our tree survey, conducted every three years, gives us an indication of what's to be done."

A corner of the estate falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the authority planted some 4,000 trees on the land several years ago. "We helped the volunteers out, providing stakes and other materials, and keep an eye on how the trees are doing."

Giggleswick is blessed with arboricultural diversity and includes rare species among its tree stock. Sturdy specimens of beech, horse chestnut and sycamore populate the grounds. So too does a budding young elm.

After Dutch Elm Disease wiped out so many trees, the school participated in a national drive to cultivate specimens resistant to the blight. That was in 2010 and the elm in question is doing well, so far showing no signs of infection, Craig is pleased to report. "Matthew [Hodge, the bursar] asks me for an annual report on how it's doing for him to relay to those managing the scheme," he notes.

"The school likes to help the local community when it can, including local sports clubs," explains Craig. "David and I grew up working on cricket clubs near home so, in our spare time, we let them use our machines. They usually run their own mowers, but not the attachments such as fertiliser spreaders, which can be costly for them to buy."

Craig's turfcare duties don't end there though. Near neighbour 9-hole Settle Golf Club rents a slice of its land from Giggleswick and the grounds team maintains the course for them.

"We've looked after it for the last three years," Craig says. "James and Matthew were running the show but, now that James has left, it's come under my remit."

With no bunkers, the course presents a little less maintenance commitment than would otherwise be the case, but the essentials still have to be completed.

"We run a full maintenance programme on the greens, tees - overseeding, fertilising, topdressing - as well as cutting the fairways and rough. It's an old course, with just a couple of new greens and no irrigation. We are in a wet part of the world after all."

Although confessing to enjoying the "occasional round of golf" there, Craig's sporting love lies elsewhere, he divulges. "I'm head coach for Ribblesdale Rugby Club, which plays its rugby in the Yorkshire 1 league, and organise training, team selection and help out with maintaining their two pitches."

Does Giggleswick number any rugby prospects in the ranks? "One or two, but most notably is former pupil Alex Rieder who is in the back row for London Wasps, which he joined ahead of the 2015/16 campaign."

Communications with those steering sport at the school is important, Craig stresses. "I meet our director of sport, Dan Cook, to discuss the week ahead, confirm fixtures and organise the practice nets in summer. We have two synthetic turf nets - on The Papes - which Jonathan Smith installed last year to accompany the four indoor ones in our sports hall that the netball and tennis teams also use."

Given its rural setting, you'd expect wildlife to populate Giggleswick's green and pleasant land. Rabbits present a "big problem", says Craig, and grey squirrels prove "a nuisance", but deer and badgers have, to date, failed to add to his headaches.

Sea trout swim in Thames Beck, while salmon spawn in the stream, he adds - and a wild pond acts as an education focus for younger pupils.

The crowning glory has to be the peregrine falcons - said to be the speediest birds on earth - which nest locally just above the rock face of the scar.

Craig and the team actively encourage diversity - making and fitting up bird boxes right across the estate and planting wildflowers along sports pitches and woodland peripherals.

Craig is clear on his priorities in the years ahead - to create a level playing field, literally, by recontouring cricket outfields and winter pitches and to continue his planned programme of other improvements in the quality of the sports surfaces under his care.

He reflects on his journey into groundsmanship. "I left school at sixteen, was a builder for a year, worked for Yorkshire Dales National Park, as well as Settle Golf Club, as I wanted to gain experience in several fields."

What are the most important elements he can take from his predecessors at Giggleswick? "Martin's attention to detail - he is an extremely good groundsman and is known especially for his work on cricket grounds - skills that have developed my understanding of them."

"Kevin taught me the value of presentation; applying the finishing touches - the flags, posts and nets - that I'd overlooked as a youngster."

"You never stop learning, from those older and younger than yourself. I try to take in the industry shows and seminars but, being on the border of Yorkshire and Cumbria, we are a good couple of hours from urban centres like Leeds, so travelling time is an issue."