South coast’s spice of life at The Saffrons Sports Club

Neville Johnsonin Multi-sports venues

This delightful multi sports venue on the south coast was, and still is, part of the Duke of Devonshire's estate, where in Victorian times the most expensive spice in the world was harvested. Neville Johnson visited the eponymous Saffrons to find out more about it, with a surprising discovery.

Aerial view of Saffrons

It's one of those days in early May when summer sport beckons and winter games wave farewell. Summer, and cricket in particular, seem to be winning as I enter the Saffrons. It's a hive of activity. Mowers are whirring and there are rows and rows of gleaming white seats freshly positioned for an expected bumper cricket crowd. It turns out the ground is just a couple of days away from hosting a Royal London Cup clash between Sussex and Gloucestershire.

The pavilion is no less busy. I'm introduced to two members of the Saffrons Sports Club management committee, David Lockyer and Roger Myall, both also key figures in the running of Eastbourne Cricket Club, whose history runs alongside that of the Saffrons itself.

The Saffons Club was founded in 1886 on land within the Compton Estate, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. The growing of the saffron crocus, from which the culinary and medicinally famed spice is derived, had taken up some of it. Potatoes, rather less glamorously, took up the rest. It has been a notable and very pleasing home to year round outdoor sport ever since.

"The Saffrons management committee is responsible for looking after the club, including its grounds and the surrounds, and meets every couple of months," said Roger Myall.

"The Club pays an annual rent to the Devonshire estate for use of the 11-acre grounds."

Left to right: David Lockyer, Roger Myall and Eastbourne Cricket Club Chairman Ian Fletcher-Price

He goes on to explain that, when the Club had faced difficulties back in 2000, what is known as the 100 Club was set up by local residents to help contribute to the rental cost, alongside the clubs that use the site, principally Eastbourne Town Football Club, Eastbourne Cricket Club and Eastbourne Hockey Club.

"The Saffrons Club is an 'umbrella' for these main clubs," said David Lockyer.

"Cricket, football and hockey exist and thrive here mutually, yet separately. Their individual wellbeing is important to them collectively. There's never any falling out. It has worked well year after year."

Outside the main club umbrella, but still part of the Saffrons site, and with leases for their respective playing areas are Eastbourne Bowls Club and the Compton Croquet Club - more of which shortly.

Eastbourne Town FC is apparently the oldest senior football club in Sussex pre-dating the Saffrons, but it took up residence here in 1886. It plays in the Southern Combination Premier Division and its ground has a 3,000 maximum capacity. Also within Saffrons is the home of Eastbourne Hockey Club, with senior and junior teams enjoying a new sand-based, floodlit pitch.

Rolling a practice strip for the Sussex one-day cup game / The Saffrons grounds team

It is cricket, however, for which Saffrons is best known, and this is perfectly chronicled in the book Cricket at the Saffrons by local Chris Westcott, which details its history as a club and county ground admired countrywide for over a century.

In the book's foreword, cricket writer and broadcaster E W (Jim) Swanton opens by saying: "The Saffrons ground at Eastbourne has a fragrant place in the history of English cricket consistent with its name." The author also declares that John Arlott once described Saffrons as bearing comparison with Cape Town's Newlands and Worcester's New Road in terms of beauty. Praise indeed from two of the game's legendary observers and not given to easy compliments.

Everything this day at The Saffrons was focused on cricket and the Eastbourne Cricket Club's high spot of the season, the staging of a key one-day game for Sussex CCC.

Sussex head groundsman Andy McKay was overseeing preparation for the game, but it was The Saffrons' own team, headed by Jamie Ramsden, that was handling the actual work.

"Eastbourne Cricket Club funded the relaying of part of the square last autumn at considerable cost," said Roger.

"Andy has done 'Clegg testing' of the strip to be used and he reckoned the surface had distinctly more bounce than last year, so we're looking forward to a summer of great cricket here."

The match against Gloucestershire was to be the new surface's first outing since this refurbishment. Sussex support staff were much in evidence forty-eight hours ahead of the game. It was big for the county club, and very big for the Saffrons. Weather permitting, the club was expecting and ready for a 4,000 crowd that coming Sunday. Forty volunteers were lined up to help on the day of the game, too.

There was a nervous all round excitement about the new square and its match baptism.

Contractors Kestrel had been appointed by Eastbourne CC to do the resurfacing of the 17-pitch square on the recommendation of Sussex CCC. Work was started in the first week in September last year and took under six days to complete.

There is apparently a six-foot fall from one side of the ground to the other. The main object of the relaying was to offset this across the 'business area'.

The brief had been to Koro and clean up pitches 1-6, and for the remainder, to Koro them off and power harrow to a depth of 50mm, then apply 55 tonnes of Binders Super Surrey Loam and laser level. The fresh surface was then sowed with Barenbrug Bar Extreme.

The square had its first cut just seventeen days after sowing. Germination sheets had been used on the top six pitches, but conditions at the time were dry and favourable. Since then, there has been no need for any over seeding at all.

The new Saffrons square, two days before its big debut game / David Wiese at the crease for Sussex. It was a great day's cricket and Saffrons new pitch performed well, but the home side fell well short of the Gloucestershire total

It was pitch number five that was being prepared for the Sussex/Gloucestershire one-day clash. It was then still being cut to 10mm, but this would be reduced to 6mm immediately ahead of match day.

Andy McKay would be there for the match because of his expertise and experience in dealing with ECB pitch advisers and the like. Otherwise, it was going to be very much a Saffrons' team day.

There are to be other Saffrons' days this summer, not with such crowd appeal, but with a standing of a global rather than county level. The game is croquet, or more specifically golf croquet: the event, the World Croquet Federation Championships.

There are 220 croquet clubs in the UK and the Compton Club in Eastbourne's Saffrons is one of three staging matches in a tournament that will attract some of the best players in the world. It is a feather in the club's cap and richly deserved.

The five lawns at Compton make it one of the biggest croquet venues in the south-east and there are regular regional and inter-county championships held here.

Saffrons Compton Croquet Club Greenkeeper John Crisford

The Compton Club's greenkeeper, John Crisford, is the man who will ensure that this year's number one event is played on a perfect surface. I talked to him in a break in lawn cutting.

How did he get to be a croquet greenkeeper?

"Creating fine turf has been my life. I used to construct golf courses, and worked as a greenkeeper for thirty years, latterly at the Royal Eastbourne until I retired," said John.

"I came to the Compton eight years ago because they wanted someone with know-how to improve the playing surface. Until then, it had got by with the efforts of well-meaning volunteers."

Presentation, aeration and scarification are very much the same as they are for a golf green, according to John. Coming out of winter he cuts to 8mm, and it was down to 7mm this particular day, but for top competition he brings it down to 4mm.

Compton Croquet Club greenkeeper, John Crisford, diagonally cutting lawn five, which was drill re-seeded a couple of autumns ago / Serene and ready for international battle, Compton Croquet Club

An inter-counties tournament was due there over the spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May and it would be at its minimum height in time for this. For club play he lets it grow back to 6mm 'to give it a bit of a rest' as he put it.

John uses a John Deere 220SL greens mower which grooms as it cuts to produce an even cut. Mowing all five lawns takes four hours, and John reckons he walks between seven and eight miles doing it. Width of cut is 22 inches and each lawn is cut on the diagonal, as they are for bowls, to create an even run of balls over the whole area.

He uses granular fertiliser in spring, then from May to September carries out monthly application of liquid feed containing potash, nitrogen and phosphates.

Irrigation is simple and basic and he uses an inch and half hose, and that too takes him about four hours to do all of the greens. In the summer months he usually starts this at 6.00am and does the job solo, which at least means he knows it's been done evenly.

Unlike golf green holes, the hoops are static for general club play, but positioning is changed for major tournaments. Long-time club member Roger Wood has that task.

The Compton Club is one of three hosting the World Cup

In the words of the Croquet Association here in the UK, croquet is a game of strategy, angles and tactics - a bit like snooker on grass. All you need are six hoops, two mallets, four balls - blue, black, red and yellow, and a patch of grass. The rules of Association Croquet are quite detailed, but Golf Croquet has simpler rules yet requires the same skills. It is this latter version that is centre stage at the Compton later this summer. The WCF, which organises the World Championships, is the international body for the sport of croquet

For the record, there are at least nine versions of the sport in all, including Garden Croquet, Ancient Croquet and, would you believe, Extreme Croquet. It has been re-invented many times since its 18th century origins.

The standard size of a croquet lawn is 35 yards long and 28 yards wide, a perfect 5:4 ratio. Hoops are set seven yards apart.

This April, as every year, John topdressed the lawns by spreading and dragmatting a rootzone mixture of 60% sand and 40% soil. He says 14 tonnes were used to cover all five of the club's lawns.

John is very much a fine turf professional and proud that he has raised the level of the playing surfaces to meet international standards. He's grown to like the game too and is now in his fourth season as a player.

The Compton Club last had the privilege of hosting World Tournament matches back in 2004. The Southwick Club to the west of Brighton is the main venue for this year's. Other matches are being played in Tunbridge Wells.

Eastbourne Town FC versus Herne Bay. The building in the background is the town hall © Nick Macneill

Croquet has always been part of Eastbourne, since the 1880s, and part of Saffrons since it moved here from Devonshire Park in 1906. Today's lawns are the same ones that were created then. The club continues to flourish with currently about 70 full-time members.

Lawn number three at the Compton Club is always 'centre court' for big matches, bang in front of the pavilion. John says it is the one that runs the truest and, as much as possible, he tries to keep players off it for practising.

It looks immaculate, but then so do the other four lawns, thanks to John's hard work and dedication.

Croquet has an image as a game for seniors. This is quite wrong. It attracts people of all ages, many in their twenties, especially at international level.

Significant event that it is, this summer's World Cup will not catch public attention. It is not a sport with a non-playing fan base. The Saffrons is not expecting crowd control issues. There will, however, be players from all around the globe competing fiercely here come late July. Hushed but intense, that's the way John likes it, and so does the world of croquet. It signifies the perpetual quality of this south coast sports haven.

As I leave, to my right is the serenity of John's croquet lawns awaiting serious international battle: to my left, Eastbourne Cricket Club's historic ground transformed into a 4,000-seat arena. Sport is the spice of life here at the Saffrons.