Magdalen College School - Flooded in history

Jake Barrowin Schools & Colleges

Known as 'Commem' (short for 'Commemoration Day'), the leavers' celebration at Magdalen College School, Oxford was a predictable success. Contrary to its name, the day is simply the cherry on a two-week cake of celebration, known as the Oxford Festival of the Arts. The wider event featured such special guests as Mark Ramprakash, Henry Blofeld & Peter Baxter and its scope provides a year-defining challenge for the ancient school's eight-man grounds team.

The school's junior building is no different. Its style is distinctly Victorian, but it is immediately next to St Hilda's College, which includes those ranging from the Georgian to the Postmodern. All these grand facades overlook a two-and-a-half-hectare plain, surrounded by river on most edges, which features a large cricket pitch with clubhouse at one end, and a rugby pitch at the other.

These pitches make up one of four sites operated by the school. Immediately across the river Cherwell, which is rather narrow through Oxford as it is a feeder river to the Thames, lies the prized rose garden which can be accessed by an end-to-end pair of white, wooden bridges. Beside this garden there is a steel husk, an un-canvassed marquee in which the passers-out recently celebrated.

This 'Commem' is a long-held annual tradition and brings with it a few weeks of arts and a spattering of sport, a highlight of which is the Commem Day 1st XI versus Old Waynfletes (alumni, also 'OWs') cricket match. The event is followed, for three consecutive days, by additional OWs matches, which are all also held on the School Field (the main cricket pitch with the clubhouse).

This year, the pre-Commem arts festival included a locals' cricket tournament. And this was accompanied by guest speeches by three of English cricket's most outstanding characters.

Blowers is known for his Old Etonian accent, flamboyance, and being the namesake of James Bond's cat-stroking arch nemesis 'Ernst Stavro Blofeld', Backers for being the brains behind Test Match Special and Ramprakash is famed for his explosive temper and how it affected his international career.

Stuart Webber, thirty-two, runs the team which had to deal with all this madness happening at once. He and six groundsmen maintain the sites, three of them around that same three-hectare mark, and one of them a small artificial surface used for hockey. The school also employs a gardener, who oversees the famous rose garden, as well as other flora that lines the river on both sides.

Each of the main sites is run by one of Stuart's deputies - Christ Church Field by Ashley Nutley, School Field by Matt Goodwin, and Merton Ground by Graham Harris.

Left Stuart Webber. Right: Stuart with deputy of the School Field and Matt Goodwin, Merton Ground deputy along with Christ Church Field deputies Luke Weston and Ashley Nutley

Merton has four rugby pitches and a cricket square, School Field has two cricket squares and three rugby pitches, with Christ Church having the same set-up as Merton. Christ Church also features eleven grass tennis courts, with six more on School.

Christ Church field is, in fact, in Christ Church College's remit, though it is both maintained and used by the school. The cricket team at the College use it for their first XI matches, as do their football teams.

The hockey pitch, the school's fourth site, is remote and has its own changing rooms. It gets a weekly brushing and cleaning, which turns into a daily check during the autumn when the leaves start coming down.

Hockey is mostly played by the girls in the first, or 'Michaelmas', term. Whilst the girls play hockey, the boys play rugby union. Then in the second 'Hilary' Term, boys take over the hockey, whilst the girls switch to netball. In the final 'Trinity' term, players of different sports are divided by preference between cricket, tennis and athletics, although the girls don't take part in cricket.

Stuart plans for the year ahead each February, and submits a plan including expected costs and usually a pre-emptive request for one additional bit of kit that he's felt is most necessary, which is considered immediately, then enacted from July.

Very recently, they have completely replaced every single piece of machinery, including tractors and mowers. They have two new Toros and a one-week-old Baroness mower, a one-week-old suite of Dennis G860s with four mounted rakes, new spikers, new hand mowers and a new pick-up. They purchase all this equipment outright.

They also hire some of the larger pieces, such as a Koro and a topdresser. Big Mowers undertake their servicing.

School field ready for summer

Stuart said: "That was the one thing that was missing when I got here. It was an equipment problem. It was just all old and didn't work properly, so they sorted that out for us. That's been our biggest project since I arrived here."

"If I could request one more thing, I think it'd be a grinder so we could complete the servicing on our own terms. Both of my assistants are very good mechanically. So, if we had a grinder, they could do that, and then we would be literally self-reliant, fully in-house."

"And I order all my loams for the cricket and rugby then (February), and all the seeding etc. It works, because once you've done a budget for one year, it's a lot easier to carry on doing them in much the same way."

"Of course, we renovate all the areas where the marquees and things are, and that gets planned for in the budget as well. The big marquee they've just taken down from Commem, for example, has been there for nearly four weeks, so that's just going to be dead when we start work on it."

This comprehensive staffing, along with the school's sound financial planning, mean the team require no outside help to undertake their work. They are now free of contractors, from spraying to seeding.

They do their own spraying, and use a liquid feed programme which is applied all over every four weeks, and a granular feed too. They do not spray for any kind of pest, including chafer grubs or use any fungicides, with the sole exception of earthworm prevention.

This spray equipment, along with Helly Hansen workwear and sometimes seeds and soils, is provided by Maxwell Amenity Ltd. When it comes to larger equipment and machinery, Stuart likes to shop around: "I think even local firms can just get complacent and rely on your loyalty if you buy literally everything from them."

This is also helped by the GPS systems now running on their tractors. Like farmers, the system tells them exactly where they have been, as fed to a screen in the cabin, so they avoid wasting product and time in the same areas twice, and always know the most economical route around the surface.

The soils under the sites vary significantly, as dictated by distance from the river. Tight in by the riverside near School Field, dark Oxford clay prevails, but this graduates out into sand, particularly under Christ Church Field.

Around four years ago, the school had drainage installed to combat the issue beneath School Field, which was a dramatic operation due to the island nature of the field, and the bridges being unsuitable for crossing large vehicles.

One by one, the components of the drainage system were craned across the river, costing a lot of time and money. But since then, Stuart says, the rugby union team have finally been able to play matches later than the beginning of November. They now play right up until Christmas, which represents a large extra chunk of rugby when working in school years.

It can still cause problems, however. Last March, School Field flooded surprisingly. It came during pre-season pitch rolling for cricket. Once the flooding occurs, with the drains now in place, the silt on top is the foremost problem, and it takes around a week to get back into working order. Beforehand, it took unaffordably long.

This is partly because the extra water is now pumped out of its resting place. However, because of the height of the ground, the pumps couldn't go directly into the river, and the constructors put a soakaway in place to combat this. This fills with the pumped water and, when it overflows, this water runs into the river.

The weather, Stuart tells us, doesn't directly affect them too much: "It's more of a knock-on thing. It's funny, because it's more when the weather's bad in other places that it affects us. Because we're down river, if there's a lot of rain north of here, that's what causes the flooding. In fact, that awful flood we had in 2015 came without any rain. The river just kept rising."

Left: Flooded School Field and right: Rugby on Christ Church

"It was sunny all week, and we didn't think anything of it. Then we turned up on the Saturday with a plan to carry on rolling the pitches, and the whole field was under water."

Stuart and his team tend to take a visual, easy-going approach to their evaluations. When they plan, it is based on how the surfaces feel and look. They don't take soil samples, as Stuart said: "I think that if there doesn't seem to be a problem there, it's a mistake to go looking for one."

"If the grass is healthy, if the deeper layers are draining well, if everything is alive and colourful, I think to then sample is to go looking for problems. Obviously, if there's yellowing, if anything's stopped growing, there could be a compaction problem or what have you. But don't go looking for things that aren't there."

"I took a sample early on, and it brought up a couple of issues mainly due to the river. But these weren't major. You can tell if something's wrong."

As well as being hindered by its location, the school utilises the river for its natural resource. In the drier months, the team use Javelin's irrigation system to re-direct water from the river to the turf.

When they don't want water affecting the cricket square, they alternate between a full sheet or individual domes, to avoid the issue initially, and a whale to soak up any moisture that finds its way to the surface.

Whilst out of use in the winter, the cricket squares are spiked every two weeks and cut to 20mm twice a week, which changes to between 13mm-15mm. The outfield, when used for cricket, also hovers between those same heights, and is held at 30mm for the rest of the year.

And every cricket outfield they run is also a rugby union pitch at some point during the year. There is no dedicated cricket pitch.

For aeration, the school uses a Toro ProCore walk-behind, a Charterhouse Verti-drain, a SISIS Maxi Slitter and a tractor-mounted Wiedenman spiker for use on finer turfs. In winter, this is at least every two weeks, and weekly during busier periods. This is done alternately, however: they may for example slit one week, spike the next and verti-drain the next, all in cycle.

They also use their Dennis G860s and verti-cut through the winter often, and brush more frequently still. After the football season has finished in March, they also undertake a full scarifying regime. This is vigorous, and finished with topdressing and fertiliser.

Left: School field tennis courts and right: New quad sports hall

This topdressing on School Field weighs 120 tonnes, and is shipped down the road (through a one-way system) one tonne at a time from Christ Church. This, of course, means 120 runs are required with the truck to transport the necessary dressing - perhaps why they only bother once per year.

This logistical issue is in part due to the nature of the city in which the school is based. The roads are narrow, and the one-way system is time-consuming. Where one school ends, another college begins.

And on this road, that is about to become the case even more so. Magdalen are building a brand new sixth form centre directly across from the entrance to St. Hilda's.

Expected to take just over a year from its start date in July 2016, the new build is indeed not far from completion.

Due to these logistical difficulties, School Field is renovated first. The team simply can't tell how long it will take before they begin. Merton is next, because it also requires this commute (minus quite as much difficulty river-crossing), and finally Christ Church is sorted, which is the simplest of the bunch.

Each gets roughly the same seeding treatment, which is around 60 bags of seed. This is split to thirty bags in March and thirty in August, to repair any heat damage in time for the late-year rugby union season.

Christ Church gets 220 bags of soil, whilst School Field gets just 120, because of the time it would take to carry any more across the river. Merton receives 180.

This is in part because Christ Church is used all year round, whereas School and Merton cease their duties around Christmas - so, Christ Church gets the most wear and needs more topping up.

Thankfully, they have plenty of staff with which to complete all this work. This includes four apprentices within the last two years (currently three, as one moved on last year).

Stuart bemoans the prospects for young people entering the industry, however: "When we advertise for an apprentice or a young groundsman, we don't usually get lots of interest, to be honest,"

"When you look around the grounds in Oxfordshire, there are plenty of them and they're certainly well-staffed. It's just that they tend to be a lot older. In the Oxford area, we definitely need to get more young people involved."

Ready for cricket

"I'd say there's little doubt there are more people retiring right now from the profession than there are entering it. There will be a shortage eventually if it carries on as it is."

When acting as a rugby pitch, School Field is used by Oxfordshire county rugby union club (Oxfordshire RFU), and successful rugby union side Wasps RFC have their under-18s squad train there too.

They also host the third team match of the famous University of Oxford versus University of Cambridge varsity football match, with the second team's being immediately behind the school's sixth form centre at the university's Iffley Road field.

And around this track in 1954, Roger Bannister became the first person recorded running a mile in less than four minutes. Such is the history in the city of Oxford. Due to the university's propensity to recruit the best of the best, records are broken there, and breakthroughs are made there.

All of this is done within a very confined area. The city is extremely narrow east-to-west, due to the river, and has a population less than half that of Coventry.

Asked about any other problems faced on the grounds, Stuart has no hesitation in calling out the geese which nest in the river. His research early on taught him that they tend to grow attached to a breeding ground for life, so if they can scare the geese away during breeding season, they may have a chance to move their home somewhere less problematic.

However, they are still around for the time being. And the droppings are so frequent, and the geese so numerous, that they pose a genuine cleaning problem. Stuart and the team spend a portion of their time just scooping or mowing the droppings from the surface which could be better spent on longer-term solutions.

Stuart said: "It gets everywhere, and there's not much you can do other than pick it up in some way. We try not to use the mowers on it, because it pretty much just spreads it about.

"It gets on the mower blades, it gets on the lads, and obviously when the rugby season starts, it's not nice for them to be diving about in it."

"They also dig up, scratch up all the grass, and eat all the new seed. The school have tried hawks. They've also tried the bangers that the farmers use, the fake guns. But that didn't go down very well with the locals."

"And so, two months ago, we got a school dog. In Canada and the US, they use dogs to clear the geese. Then geese don't think the area's safe, so they won't come back. He's a springer spaniel puppy. Even though he's only little, he's already made a difference."

"We called him 'Chase'."

Rich school history

William Waynflete, England's Lord Chancellor and the founder of Magdalen College, believing in education as a facilitator of social mobility, has established a school of an entirely new kind - a school that would be at the heart of that new and exciting proposition, the university.

Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's closest adviser, would soon take the reins of Magdalen College School, and he and other early Masters would oversee the education of such luminaries of the time as Thomas More and William Tyndale.

The small college school formed roots deep in the fabric of Oxford and would accumulate a rich and interesting history...

It endured the threatening religious turmoil of the Tudor period and the bloody end of Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and William Tyndale. It watched on as Royalists attempted to stop Parliamentarian troops entering the city over Magdalen Bridge one 17th Century morning. It even stood firm in the following century as numbers fell, behaviour hit rock-bottom and the school was forced to punish choristers who were frequently getting caught drunk and had reputedly shot the Usher's dog. The advent of a stern Victorian era soon put an end to disorder in schools and sweeping reforms were made that changed the face of education.

Magdalen College School quickly earned a reputation, which it still holds to the day, as Oxford's leading school, seeing many of its boys - and now girls - winning places at Oxford and Cambridge, enhancing the already remarkable relationship it enjoys with the global university that surrounds it.

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