Tending God's sporting acres at Lancing College

Tom Jamesin Schools & Colleges

It's true; you only really appreciate the value of a place when you leave it behind. Growing up on the West Sussex coast, many like me may take for granted the magnificent institution that is Lancing College.

After some years away from the South Downs beauty spot, you start to realise just how prestigious an establishment it is, steeped in history, with an alumni the envy of many a sought-after educational powerhouse.

Heading west from Brighton along the A27 towards Worthing, Chichester and Portsmouth, Lancing College Chapel - said to be the world's largest - dominates the sweeping landscape; its gothic sandstone finials offering a monumentally stunning vista for anyone enjoying the South Downs - Britain's newest national park.

Looking down on the site from atop the chalky trails - enjoyed by thousands of visitors annually - you're able to fully appreciate the scale of this independent school and its acres of lush green sports pitches that surround the historic buildings. Lancing College may be known far and wide for its educational pedigree, but sporting prowess has lain at the heart of the school's ethos since the Reverend Nathaniel Woodard founded it in 1848. The commitment to excellence on the field has shone ever since and, today, half of the 550-acre estate is set aside for sporting pursuits.

What struck me when I arrived at Lancing College - aside from the stunning Chapel - is how young the Lancing estates team is. It may be a symptom of the frequency with which we meet turf professionals but, given the prestige of the establishment, I expected that a much older man would greet me.

Head Groundsman James Cowie cannot claim the years but he certainly can claim the expertise. He's arguably better equipped to lead the line at Lancing College than many counterparts of more senior years, with an impressive CV built on family foundations. He started life helping at Finchampstead Cricket Club, where his stepfather, Paul Maynard, is head groundsman, providing the spark that first set James on track to a career in grounds maintenance.

"My early memories are of him riding on the roller," James explains. "A few friends and I used to spend our summers at the club, helping out where we could and, ever since then, I'd wanted to get into the trade myself."

With his career path mapped out, James completed two years at Merrist Wood College, graduating with a diploma in Sports Turf Science. He then landed his first job at Wellington College, where he spent six years under the watchful eyes of senior staff, Peter Lewington, Martin Brandom and Brian Evans.

"Peter worked on the grounds and coached the cricket at Wellington and was involved at all levels," recalls James. "Cricket is my passion, so the Wellington job was a perfect one for me. I loved my time there and only left because I had little chance of progressing whilst Peter was still there."

"I passed my HNC in Sports Turf Management at Wellington and learned a huge amount from the staff there, but I needed more responsibility. It took Peter four years to let me work on the first team square."

Keen to progress his career, James applied for a position at Licensed Victuallers' School, Ascot (LVS) in 2006, where he became head groundsman at the tender age of twenty-four.

For three and a half years he remained in the post before moving on again to climb the ladder. "The LVS job really changed the way I looked at my work," he explains. "The management side of things, being responsible for many different aspects of the job and of staff gave me a thorough grounding for my development as a head."

He adds: "The gardening aspect of the job at Lancing is quite different and is expected in the school environment, so to better tackle those demands, I took evening classes to gain my Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardening certificate whilst at LVS. It took me two years, but was well worth it."

Growing up in the country, James was drawn to the life Lancing College offered, so when the opportunity knocked for a potential move to Sussex, he took it.

"LVS absorbed a new school at Sayers Common [near Burgess Hill, West Sussex] so I travelled there to help with the grounds and fell in love with the area," he says. "The community feel of the school really appealed, as did the countryside. Lancing was a place I'd set my sights on so, when a position fell vacant, I applied and was lucky enough to get it."

James was offered the position of head groundsman in 2009, providing him with the perfect opportunity to take on the level of responsibility he craved, at a school with a cricketing focus and one with a desire to improve and invest in its sports facilities, albeit on a slightly more modest budget than he had grown accustomed to.

"We are working with half the budget than that at LVS," he reveals, "but have double the acreage to maintain. This isn't a problem, but it means I've forged good relationships with other heads of department to put forward the strongest case possible when we need extra funds."

"The big challenge here is that everything has to look pristine and be functional, which includes all areas where pupils and staff go, including the gardens of the onsite educational staff."

James heads up a team of seven; two gardeners and five groundsmen, including his promising young deputy Shawn Town, who, at twenty-four, is already working on his NVQ level 3 and strives to be, in his own words, "the best groundsman in the country".

James is fortunate that he has youth on his side; he's young enough to relate to the pupils, and it's clear that he's already built up a strong rapport with many of them, which not only enhances his standing amongst colleagues but also signals a growing awareness of groundsmen and grounds maintenance, engendering a more active involvement among pupils.

"There's a strong community feel here, I was welcomed into the school very quickly," he explains. "One memory that will stick with me happened recently when I took part in my first school service in the chapel. I was chosen from all the school's support staff, to take part in the event, so it was a special moment for me."

It's clear that James has a natural affinity with leadership and acting as mentor to his young team. During his time at LVS, he helped the progression of one pupil in particular, who joined the groundcare full team at sixteen after several years helping out for fun.

"The school allowed him to join us for a day a week because he showed such passion for the trade," says James. "Academically, he wasn't as able as others and wasn't even entered for exams by the college but, whilst with us, he made huge strides and managed to pass his NVQ Level 2."

"Academia wasn't for him, but he showed a level of application and a work ethic that impressed us. He clearly loved what he was doing and never once let me down, despite being warned by the school that he might be a handful. He achieved his NVQ 2, so it goes to show that, if you find your niche, anyone can excel."

James has enjoyed similar success with Shawn, who joined the team at sixteen from Camelia Botnar Foundation at nearby Cowfold, leaving school with no qualifications but an enthusiasm for groundsmanship.

Shawn has since completed a range of turfcare qualifications, as well as some academic ones, which he's tackled more successfully since the move to Lancing. What particularly attracted him was the multisport aspect of the job which, from a training perspective, has armed him well for the future.

"There are greater opportunities to work in different areas of the trade, whether it be professional football, cricket or golf," explains Shawn. "A solid grounding in all sports, general grounds maintenance skills and gardening gives you a more rounded knowledge."

Shawn's own progression is proof enough of this and, in his career to date, he's already talking like a man with experience beyond his years. "I trained for a year at Craven Cottage [Fulham FC] working alongside their team," Shawn tells me, "but it's great being back at Lancing where they are responsive to new technologies. To improve, you have to evolve."

The multisports demands at Lancing are clearly offering Shawn the challenges he wants, if he's to follow in James' footsteps and progress fast and young. "The variety is what I enjoy about this location. I love working with sportsturf - it's my passion. One mower, his mower and 300 acres, you have to love it to get it all done!"

Shawn's enthusiasm is infectious, and his desire to become head groundsman in the next five years is one that James, and his colleagues, have little doubt will be realised.

The nurturing qualities of James extend beyond just his staff to his work, where he's taken the quality of the sports surfaces to territories hitherto unknown, in line with the professional provision increasingly expected from the leading public and private schools.

"I love it here; the backdrop is stunning, the sea's on our doorstep and we have a great bunch of lads to work with, but there's still much to achieve," he states.

"Cricket wise, the pitches are where we want them," he says, "we've aerated the first square to achieve a bit more pace but, with budget limitations, the results won't be seen this season."

Cricket has always been the focus for the College; the first team square comprises twenty-two strips, with ten on the second, whilst another four squares meet senior demand, with the seventh square at Lancing Prep school in Hove.

In addition, the College has two artificial 3G surfaces (hockey and tennis) and six grass tennis courts.

Football also remains the focus for winter sport, with eight pitches in total, in varying sizes according to age range specifications outlined by the FA.

The significant improvements in pitch quality, plus the addition of a second artificial surface, has strengthened the college's links with Brighton & Hove Albion, who are in the throes of constructing a state of the art academy training site, literally just on the south side of the A27, a stone's throw from the College.

"Brighton's first team has trained here for a while, but we're looking to step this up next season," says James. "Standards will need to remain high for this to be a reality, and there's also the potential to install a Fibresand pitch at some stage."

Forging solid links with the sports department better arms James to bid for the materials he needs. Chris Crowe, Director or Sport, has been a useful ally, particularly when applying for capital bids, James stresses. "I meet with Chris at least once a week to discuss any issues and we'll often join forces to put forward spends where there's crossover."

The approach has proved successful twice recently: First, for the purchase of new hockey goals, scoreboard and netball hoops and, second, for the renovation of the College's six grass tennis courts, which were ineffective for use without ploughing in money to reduce thatch.

"We koroed the top 1.5", laser levelled, then seeded with a Barenbrug Bar Extreme ryegrass mix," James explains. "The students are playing on them for the first time this season and the surfaces are looking good. Next year, we'll see the real benefits of the work though, they'll be excellent."

James has taken on board many of the issues he faced in his previous posts and has strived to avoid repeating them at Lancing, which perhaps accounts for his rigorous approach to works and when specifying materials. "Where possible, we look to source those products where good research and data have been conducted and collected. We're guided by the relevant industry standards when choosing the right products.

The data's there, we should all be using it. Bar Extreme is a great brand at the top end of ratings, so it's no surprise we use it."

Documenting evidence has also become a key facet of James's work, learning once more from his experiences at LVS. "We undertook some pretty significant work there but no photos were taken or documentation made," he says.

"It's par for the course now that we document all works, to not only help us learn for the future but also as proof of what we're doing and why. Photographic evidence can't be disputed, so if I can prove that what we're doing is improving things, that gives us a strong hand when arguing our case financially."

The team's schedule may be a punishing one, but the team is fortunate that the South Downs location is blessed with fertile, free-draining soil. The heavy nature of Downs soil is complemented by the chalk rich composition, so James needs little in the way of chemicals to keep the pitches looking top notch.

When we met, James hoped that this summer would not bring another drought, though, as the Environment Agency's latest ruling means Lancing and other public schools and colleges will only be allowed one hour of irrigation a day.

A hosepipe ban would spell worse news, allowing no watering at all, a situation that doesn't bear thinking about, James fears.

Where fertiliser is used, James puts the organic approach to the forefront of his strategy. "We've trialed Primo Maxx with excellent results," he says. "Our first application (Autumn 2011) was a huge success because we had no rain after application."

"The following spring we applied a slow release fertiliser and then the Primo to lock in nutrients - the results have been excellent. Primo gives the turf a healthy shine and it's now integral to our annual programme. In the spring, we apply a pre-seed fertiliser in March on the upper fields and Primo Maxx on the tennis courts."

"Come August, we'll apply a granular feed, and then a liquid iron application in October, which completes our usual framework, but it's by no means rigid and this year, with the quantity of rain we've had, has shown that you have to be adaptable."

An inability to tailor practices to changing circumstances and technologies is a real bugbear for James, who has too often seen the results of thoughtless maintenance. "There's still plenty of guys out there applying the same products all the time, without recognising the sterilising affect it can have on the soil," he reveals.

"The culture of just chucking down nitrogen to solve the problem still exists, despite the documented benefits of controlled-release products, which deliver better results," James continues. "Adding extra nitrogen only serves to create a more acidic environment and increases the potential for leaching."

James has also experienced problems with spray contractors, largely because they failed to listen to their client's need. "We often have to contend with an 'I know best' attitude, which is often just not the case. We (groundsmen) work with the grass plant daily, so know what's best; we know the soil and the microclimate, so sub-contractors should take our lead."