King’s School, Canterbury - Oldest school ties

Neville Johnsonin Schools & Colleges


It is said that St Augustine first founded a school here in 597AD and it became the King's School in 1541 when it was re-founded by Royal Charter under Henry VIII. Before the start of the Lent term, Neville Johnson went to this historic seat of learning to meet Neil Dixon, the man who's just taken charge of its sports grounds and gardens.

King's Canterbury school life with the cathedral an ever-present backdrop

As in every cathedral city, wherever you are, a glorious ecclesiastical building looks down on you: none more so than Canterbury where there's an ever present sense of history. Canterbury Cathedral and the King's School are inextricably linked.

King's School, Canterbury for all its great age is a very 21st century, co-educational private establishment with 850 students between thirteen and eighteen. It has thirteen boarding houses scattered around the precincts of the city's cathedral. Very modern, very progressive, but with indelible links to the distant past, that's King's School, Canterbury.

Neil Dixon took up the reins as Head of Gardens and Grounds at the King's School only last September, moving from his home in Essex to become a 'man of Kent'. Already there's a pride and awe in the way he speaks about his new surroundings and the job he's taken on here. Walking around the school and cathedral precincts with him it is very apparent.

Neil has been in turf care all his working life, since the age of sixteen. He started out as an apprentice greenkeeper at the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club where he worked for seven years. He then moved on to the Lensbury Club under Peter Craig, who became a huge and lasting influence on his professional attitude. Effectively he switched from greenkeeper to groundsman in 1997, he recalls.

Likely as not, it was his ten years later spent in charge of the grounds at St Paul's School in London, and a further two as head groundsman for Regents Park, that made him a 'shoe in' for the job at King's when it became available for the current school year.

Neil Dixon, Head of Gardens and Grounds at King's School, Canterbury

For the past couple of years, Neil had switched to the education side of the turf industry as a lecturer at Merrist Wood College. He had thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but began to miss the 'cut and thrust' of actual pitch work. The chance to take over the running of outdoor facilities at the country's oldest school was an irresistible challenge for him.

"Whilst teaching at Merrist Wood and going to various golf clubs, sports clubs and schools with students it was the interaction they had with the professionals out there that drove home just how much I did miss real pitch work," he said.

"There's nothing like the problem solving pressures you get from front line duty. I had to get back into it. I wanted so much to get back 'on to the tools' you could say."

Neil believes that the private schools sector will always have much to offer career groundsmen, but King's Canterbury is particularly special in that it is part of a World Heritage Site, much of it being in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral. It is the school gardens and open space areas in the Cathedral surrounds that are most open to public gaze and where the added responsibilities are most felt.

"We are private and yet very public, so our work has an extra dimension. Everyone sees us. It's a rewarding pressure," he said.

Neil says he is more than comfortable wearing two distinctive 'hats', being in charge of both outdoor sports facilities and the presentation of gardens and lawns.

The rugby pitches at Birley's / Green Court, main school open space within the Cathedral precincts

He has a team of sixteen working for him across two sites: four groundsmen at the main sports area and two at nearby junior school grounds, plus seven gardeners looking after the main school gardens and lawns, and three at the junior school. Very much in keeping with Neil's recent turf education background, a new apprentice, Scott Nolan, joined the grounds team on this first working day of the New Year. He will be studying at Hadlow College.

The gardening team is in the process of being restructured with one or two new faces taking up positions in recent months.

"It's a great mixture of experience and youth: the perfect team, I'd say," said Neil.

Neil's first practical project at King's was about as far away from the sports field as you can get. It was to refurbish Headmaster Peter Roberts' lawn, a focal point for many an important gathering during the school year. It would be true to say that the 550 square metre lawn had slipped below standard with substantial weed growth. Neil recognised that it needed attention and the decision was taken to strip it, level it off and reseed in the October half-term.

"In the past, I think there had been a division of labour between the gardens and grounds staff," said Neil. Part of my aim is to forge a more cohesive effort. The Headmaster's lawn project was my first opportunity to put this into action and get both gardeners and groundsmen involved. It's doing very well and, come spring, I'm confident the Headmaster will be very pleased with it."

The impressive pavilion at Birley's, opened by David Gower in 2005

There are eight hectares of sports pitches at Birley's, named after former headmaster Norman Birley, where all the main school's grassed sport takes place. In the Autumn term rugby and lacrosse are played, and during the Lent term it's football and lacrosse. It's cricket - and athletics - all the way during the Summer term, and the game is very much encouraged at the school, and girls cricket is nowadays very much to the fore.

In passing, mention should perhaps be made that one of the school's most famous alumni is former England cricket captain and until recently Sky Sports presenter David Gower. It was he who, fifteen years ago, came to open the very modern looking sports pavilion that's a focal point of sport at Birley's. Jim Marvin is Neil's head groundsman at Birley's and he's been at the school for thirteen years.

Two miles away at Sturry is a further eight hectares of grounds used by the junior school. Gary Lee, who has twenty-four years experience at the school, is Neil's head groundsman there.

"I'm fortunate to have two such seasoned professionals as my sports ground 'generals'," said Neil.

There is too the Recreation Centre, which used to be playing fields, but now entirely artificially surfaced for outdoor hockey and with extensive indoor sports facilities. Care of the hockey surfaces is also within Neil's remit.

But it's Birley's that is the nerve centre of sport at King's. "There's so much more recreational time at boarding schools and, here at King's, they are especially keen to give students every opportunity to take part in all sports," said Neil.

Cricket at Birley's / Autumn Term rugby at Birley's

"School Bursar Mark Taylor tells me he wants to impress upon parents that we spend a lot of time and money seeing that facilities here are of the highest standard. He wants us to demonstrate how active we are."

Being available to talk to parents on Saturday match days is very much at the core of Neil's remit in running things at King's. He says he always makes a point of being visible and approachable.

The pitches at Birley's are set on a heavy clay soil, consequently wet in winter and fast drying in summer. Five-metre centre drainage does a reasonably good job by and large, but Neil hopes to improve things substantially over the next couple of years by stepping up secondary drainage activity by way of regular verti-draining and much more scarifying and spiking.

Director of Facilities and Grounds at the school, Clare Reed is Neil's boss and he says she's very clear about what she wants to achieve in all areas. Both she and Neil agree the need to get away from relying on contractors as much to carry out this and that task, as has been the case in the past. Since Neil's arrival the plan is very much to up the self-sufficiency game.

Contactors have been used - quite successfully it must be said, but at a cost - to carry out verti-draining and cricket square scarifying, pretty much as a habit, an historical practice. Neil is setting about changing this and getting his team to do much more of the surface preparation work themselves. Saving money is, of course, an aim, but ownership of tasks is very important too, according to Neil.

Historic tranquility shared by King's School and visitors to the cathedral / Tradescant House, built in 1848 and named after John Tradescant, a former pupil whose father was gardener at St Augustine's

"I've always been convinced pride in work reaps the best results," he said. "Contractors have done a good job over the years, and I will still turn to them if a job is too big to handle in-house, and certainly for any large scale renovation work, but I want us all to be more responsible for the vital tasks of good grounds management."

When it comes to 'thorns in the side' in his first few months looking after Birley's, Neil puts worms at the top of the list.

"We have a massive worm problem like so many schools and clubs, and it's frustrating that there's nothing these days on the market to combat it directly. My plan is to attack the source of the problem," said Neil.

"I've noticed in my first term here that the First XV rugby pitch is especially affected, I think, because it is only used a couple of days each week and wear is minimal, reseeding is only sparingly carried out. The resulting thatch is an abundant food source for worms. The same scenario will apply to the pitch's First XI football usage during the Lent term.

"My intention is to carry out vigorous scarifying during the coming Easter holidays to rid the surface of thatch and, with any luck, the unsightly worm action."

After the exceedingly wet autumn and winter, Neil's immediate plan at Birley's was simply to get the pitches neatly cut and marked, and see that they were always fit for purpose and ready for play. There would be no aeration for six to eight weeks into the New Year.

"Pitches at Birley's are always playable and cancellation almost never happens. They are not precious: they are there to do a job," he said.

The School's Recreation Centre with all-weather surfaces for hockey and tennis

Neil already has an excellent working relationship with Richard Singfield, the school's Director of Sport, who believes it is essential to provide students with the highest level of facilities possible.

"Students work hard and deserve to let off steam on the pitch. They are entitled to 'cut them up'. We're here to deal with all that," said Neil. He's clearly anything but a grumpy groundsman.

"I have in my mind's eye what I want to achieve here," he said. "I do still like to get out and do some mowing, but it's the overall planning and problem solving that brought me here."

Trust is a big factor in the way Neil runs his team. He encourages his groundsmen to cut in whatever pattern they wish. He believes very much in the value of changing how a pitch looks when cut. His long-term project at Birley's is to improve the grass pitches, but in the short term he will concentrate on sharpening up presentation.

"All that matters is that I am happy with the end result. I like to think that I don't need to micro manage each and every professional task."

There's a wonderful past at King's Canterbury and, for Neil, his team and the delightful grounds, a very positive future too.

What's in the shed?

Toro Reelmaster 6700D
Toro Reelmaster 2300D
Kubota 5040 tractor
Kioti GX05 tractor
John Deere X950 cut and collect rotary
Charterhouse Easy-Spread 1500
SISIS Variseeder
SISIS Multitiner
SISIS Litamisa
John Deere 855D Utility Vehicle
Allett Buffalo 34 pedestrian mowers x 2
Toro 1000 pedestrian mower
Club Car utility vehicles x 2
Ransomes Marquis 61 pedestrian mower
Allett Tournament pedestrian mower
Lloyds Paladin pedestrian mower
SISIS Tigerake
Billy Goat vacuums x 4
Vicon tractor-mounted spreader
Wessex roller mower
Selection of Honda rotary mowers - with and without rear rollers
Selection of brushcutters and hedgecutters - long reach and standard