King's Ely - Keeping busy all year round

Blair Fergusonin Schools & Colleges

A common factor of maintaining the grounds of any independent school site is constant use. Autumn turns to winter followed by spring and then into summer without little pause for breath for the sports pitches, gardens and other areas that fall into the grounds and gardens team remit.

King's Ely is no exception. This historic site is home to sports pitches, cricket tables, multiple gardens and flower beds and public areas - all of which sits in the shadow of the spectacular Ely Cathedral.

Sixteen years ago, Will Temple joined the school as a gardener and, for the past eleven years, has been in his role as grounds and gardens manager. One year into his new job he made his way around the fence to neighbouring Ely City Golf Club to recruit his head groundsman, Chris Young. Both attended the College of West Anglia, with Will studying as a gamekeeper and forester before moving into horticulture, and Chris in countryside management before moving into sports turf management. Neither had aimed to work in the jobs they're now in but, having seen their impact on the site, it is to King's Ely's benefit that they did.

For just over a decade, both of them have worked with a team of eight dedicated individuals to bring this richly historical site into a condition befitting of its stature. This school sits within 80-acres of rural Cambridgeshire in the small city of Ely, and it's been in place since 1541. In that year, King Henry VIII founded a College of Canons at Ely Cathedral to replace the monks whose monastery had been dissolved in 1539 and the school received its Royal Charter. Through the decades it has grown and now hosts just over a 1,000 pupils and counts King Edward the Confessor, Olympian Goldie Sayers and current Burnley FC goalkeeper and England International, Nick Pope, among its alumni.

Head Groundsman Chris Young (left) and Grounds and Gardens Manager Will Temple

To maintain a site like this to such a high standard requires several attributes and, while speaking to Will and Chris, one topic quickly comes out on top - being proactive. During his time in charge Will, along with Chris, has worked to establish a connection with the staff in the school and build a relationship with the sports department to make sure there's always open communication, allowing him to plan far in advance and make space for last-minute requests around events.

"I think we're proactive and, organisationally speaking, we have our routines, and that plays a big part," Will explained. "Often, we'll know what's going to happen before the sports teachers do and that really helps because we're thinking about open days, the soapbox race, a swimming gala or the district cross country three of four weeks before a teacher will email us for a gazebo or something like that, but that's just experience really."

Chris adds: "Working like that means we have everything ready so, when we do get requests, they're easy to deal with. We're big on keeping on top of things as opposed to letting them build-up - we'd rather do an hour's leaf clearing every morning than a whole day once a week and that makes a big difference."

Will continues: "Because we do all of the tree management and handle the spraying contractors, swimming pool contractors and crickets nets in the sports hall or whatever is going on, we know the times when they have to happen, so we're continually planning around that, and we have to. I already know what's going to happen to the trees next May, and the planning consents have to go in, and there are projects that we're planning two-years in advance because there will be something, whether it be a wedding somewhere or an unexpected swimming gala or we decide to host a county championship for something, then we have to be able to react to it, and I think being organised helps that."

Stacy Squirrell leaf clearing leaves in the Old Palace Garden / Senior Gardener Lee Yearn (left) with Will Temple

"The sports pitches especially benefit from our proactive approach because we have such a tight turnaround and we don't have training areas, so all of the pitches and cricket tables are used for fixtures and training."

"From the gardeners' point of view, we don't have to grow all the plants ourselves, but it's nice that we do and you get the sense of satisfaction and, once people know that you do it, it picks everyone up. The teachers don't believe that we make soapbox racecourses, manage all the trees and grow all the plants - they don't know we do that, so it's getting that out there that really brings it all together."

"Anything that we can see to improve we'll look at, like the new fencing we put in around the rugby pitch. And that applies all over the site, the car park is something we suggested and are now finishing and, if there's a green space where we think a tree would look nice, then we'll go and plant the tree. There's always something that we can look at within reason because we can't go ripping stuff up without consultation, but generally, if we put a decent plan together and we can prove it's beneficial, then we can do it."

"There's a well down the bottom of one of the fields which was completely forgotten about. We decided to clear it out and turn it into a nature area. We've got trees planted down there now, and we'll create a pond dipping area for the junior school during the winter. We're only doing that because we can, and it'll benefit the school. It doesn't cost a lot, only our time, but if we're keeping busy when we wouldn't usually be busy, then it's good all round."

Winter maintenance continues on the rugby pitches / One of the three cricket squares

"I think when you say you've got ten members of staff people assume you're quite well off, and we are, but we do a lot that other grounds or garden departments wouldn't. We do lay paths, build roads and patios and put sheds up. We do all of that, and that's the element of keeping us busy for twelve months of the year, and sometimes we do take on a bit too much, but we get there in the end."

Keeping busy all year round isn't difficult on the sports side. Going through the terms, there are thirteen football pitches, eleven rugby pitches, two grass athletics tracks and three main cricket tables with six outfields making up nine cricket fields. This excludes extra events like the recently hosted cross country or the summer soapbox race which is prepared in great detail by both teams.

As it's November, the pitches are set for rugby and, given the wet weather and constant use, they are in excellent condition. For Chris, keeping them at this standard is down to doing the basics well and ensuring maintenance is done regularly.

"The pitches are getting played on every day. It's split between junior school and senior school and then the year groups and they're out there pretty much all the time. In the cricket season, it's pretty much all day every day, apart from Sunday when they might get a bit of a rest, but then we host county sometimes as well."

Chris making sure the basics are done well with the Verti-Drain / Cricket pitch ready for action in summer 2019

"We're good at keeping on top of the scarifying and that sort of thing in the springtime, so we generally don't get a significant build-up of thatch or anything like that, which helps us throughout the year."

Will adds: "I like to think we do the basics well; we don't try and be flash. I think sometimes people get too caught up with spray programmes and things like that. I can see in a stadium environment where you need that colour, but I think basic grass management is really it."

"You have to be ahead because I think the hardest time is from Christmas to the cricket season. We have a full season of rugby now and then a full term of football and then, all of a sudden, you need nine cricket outfields - on pitches that have been churned up for the last six months - on a three week turn around. During that three weeks, you've got to do the pitch maintenance, get the goals away and you've still got to plan in cutting all the beds, putting out the 4000 bedding plants, swimming pool tests, tennis courts to clean, astros to brush, hedges to cut and trees to maintain. So, there's always something happening."

"It also gets exceptionally busy during the cricket season after the May half-term. You have open days, and every house has its summer barbeque or summer party, and it does get relentless from that point of view with cathedral services, governors meetings and all the balls we have - the summer term does explode, and if we're not on it, we can suffer."

Cricket in play in the shadow of Ely Cathedral

When talking to Will and Chris, it's clear they don't fully appreciate how well their operation is run. In the space of ten minutes, we talk about the winter term being the most difficult, before talking about how the cricket season is the hardest. It's taken a lot of time to get them to where they are now, both in terms of well-executed routines and gaining the respect of the wider school. One thing that has helped this progression is having a clear set of priorities, and that is to always focus on what the parents are paying for, as Will explains.

"It has taken a while to get it to this point - definitely, but I think in the last five or six years we've had it right. A lot of the time you have to be quite straightforward with people. I suppose it's getting people's mentalities right, it's educating people that the priority is the children and the events that they put on. Yes, we'll look after your personal space, but we have to get this running - if they're not playing cricket then they're not getting what they pay for, then that's an issue, and that's the same wherever you are, so that's the priority."

"On the gardens side, the biggest thing is the Leavers' Ball in the summer at The Old Palace, and it has to look good for these events as there are a lot of expectations surrounding them; it has to be perfect. We can put four gardeners in there for two weeks, as well as having to do everything else just to get that looking exactly how it should be for that one night."

Laying the foundations for the resin bond path in Clara's Garden / Clara's Garden which also remembers other members of the King's Ely community

With priorities in place and a plan to match them, the grounds and gardens team have gained the trust of the school, and with that has come investment, both on machinery and on new cricket tables. A defining moment in this period was when The Old Palace Garden was put in the control of Will in 2012. What made the project that bit more special is the over 300-year-old London Plane Tree that sits in the centre of the garden.

"The Old Palace was quite a big shift because we had a new budget created for us when it came on board, which focused more on the estates side of it, like fencing, trees, hiring machinery to build a road and uniforms," Will explained. "Before, quite a lot of that came out of the grounds department which was then money that wasn't being spent on turfcare so, rather than spraying the fields, we'd go and build a patio, whereas now they've been good to us and we can use the money for what it's there for."

"It was a brilliant project to do because it is one of the original London Plane trees in the UK, planted in around 1680 and it's definitely the largest in the UK if not Europe. It's just over 40 metres high now and over 10 metres girth. It's on the National Heritage register and is one of the top fifty trees in the UK, and people come from all over the world to see it. We've had people from China, a couple last week came from Holland, some from America and all across Europe and they all want to see it. During the summer, they'll come and knock on the door and ask to see it - so it's known worldwide."

The spectacular over 300-year-old London Plane tree in the Old Palace Garden / Recently re-dug pond in the newly created conservation area at King's Ely Acremont

"We've entered into a project with Barcham Trees to propagate from it, so there is a direct line of London Plane that are coming from it. They are under attack at the moment from a fungus called Massaria which is leading authorities to remove thousands of them in Europe, and now in the UK, so it's quite important that we promote the species, get the tree noticed and more of them planted."

"The Sue Ryder Charity (the previous incumbents) had been gone for four or five years before we came in, so it's obvious things were going to get out of control. They had a gardener and Ray did a lovely job in there, but when we got control of it, we wanted to put our own stamp on it. Over the last four or five years, every person in the department has had legitimate input into that garden, whether it's digging the path out, pulling the trees out of the pond or laying some turf - everyone has played a part." This has also led to a memorial garden within the Palace grounds for ex-governor Clara Taylor (Clara's Garden) which also remembers other members of the King's Ely community.

"The tree has got its own problems, and the school has invested in it heavily already. These things come at huge costs, so we're fortunate that our current chief operating officer, Mark Hart, and the bursar before him, are really on board with what we do and they understand it, so we're very lucky from that perspective. And it's not just that tree, it's all the trees on the site, some of which are hundreds of years old. It's essential to look after them and educate people about them. We do educational classes with the junior school, assemblies, do little tours with the nursery children and take them to the yard to plant plants and Chris has done things with them as well."

Ross Bennett and Lee Yearn taking junior school pupils through a lesson

"Doing things with the children and showing them the area gives them a new respect for it and they know not to walk under a tree or cut across the lawn and stuff like that. We've been lucky, on the grounds side the department got invited into a junior school assembly, and they did the whole assembly on us, and the garden side has recently had theirs. It shows their appreciation for us and shows we're doing what we do right, which is nice."

The restructuring of budgets following the Old Palace project has helped the grounds operation be more agile, but it is the investment in machinery that has played the most significant part. When Will first took over, there was a pick and mix of equipment at his disposal and he, along with Chris, has worked at getting a range of machinery that suits the site and allows them to carry out routine maintenance as and when they need to do it.

"When I was working at Ely City Golf Club, we used John Deere mowers so, when Will said he wanted to get everything from one dealer and one manufacturer, I recommended that was the way to go. That investment has paid off because there is a noticeable difference in quality since we've had the new equipment," Chris began.

The Soapbox track ready for action

Will continued: "It's been our focus to get that equipment and it works into our proactive approach. When I first took over we were able to invest. The first time around we weren't able to get any of the equipment we wanted, but it was still a significant improvement on what we had. We were quite keen to get it all under one umbrella as far as a dealer and manufacturer, and as Chris said, he had experience of using John Deere quite a lot at the golf club, so we went that way."

"The one that's really made the difference is the large 15ft Progressive tow behind mowing deck because we can cut volume. There are times where we just need to cut volume and still present the pitches right. Chris went out on it this morning when it was pouring with rain, and it still did a lovely job of cutting the pitches. We just got a five-gang fairway mower, and we had a triple last year because, with the new cricket tables, we needed to cut more volume of grass."

"We used to hire in a verti-drain, but we've managed to pick up an old one, and we've just got a Trilo scarifier and collector, so over the last ten years we've built up necessary core machinery which enables us to be in control of stuff. I think that's the biggest thing, when we want to put the verti-drain on we can do it rather than having to wait."

"We're lucky, our budgets are healthy, the school does invest well in us, and they do allow us to do our job. Obviously, we have a consultation, we're not just running around doing what we want when we want, but on a day to day basis they know we work well with the sports department, so they let us get on with it. It wouldn't matter if we didn't speak to anyone else for a month, they'd know things are happening and they can see it. From a grounds perspective, it has been a big thing to build up towards this."

Whilst the machines play an important role in the operation, it is the staff who make the biggest impact. Trevor Mott and Stacy Squirrell have been at the school for a combined fifty-five years, with other staff members coming from diverse backgrounds ranging from being a forklift driver, golfer, cleaner and bus driver.

With a large site and always plenty to do, both Will and Chris place a lot of importance on the character of their staff. They'd both rather someone who is willing to pitch in and put in the effort, but this approach has presented one of the bigger challenges.

"One of the biggest challenges has been to get people to think for themselves," Will explained. "You might have to repeat yourself three or four times on one thing, but I think you can only get to that when you allow people to do it in some regards. But it's challenging because a lot of it is a confidence thing because they don't want to get it wrong, not because we're horrible bosses, but because they care."

"I'd like to think they get that from us, and that's because our management care and our bosses will walk around and talk to us and tell us what a great job we're doing. More so in the last few years, we've got a lot wider appreciation, whether it be an email or a thank you card or whatever, we are getting more and more of that and more involvement as a department in other activities."

Chris continues: "By doing these things we aren't just the guys walking around in the green tops marking pitches, so it's a big thing that helps everyone, especially with their confidence."

"We know people are going to make mistakes. One of newest guys hadn't been with us long when he cut our long grass at the 20mm outfield height. It looked a state when he did it, but when he came to me, I just laughed because these things happen. It's not that I like them making mistakes to learn, but when they do make mistakes, it's important they learn from them. Sometimes, they'll have their own ideas about what will work best and, even though you think there's a better way, you let them try it because, once again, they learn from it."

Will concludes: "Every morning there are ten people that want to come to work and, in any profession, to have ten people who want to come is great. It's not a trade where you benefit from big financial reward or pay, it's not a glamorous job, but it's a job they, and we, get satisfaction out of, at a place we all like to work at, with people we like to work with - if you don't have that, you can forget about it."