The calm after the storm at Victoria Park Bowls

Jane Carleyin Bowls

Picture this... you and your team have just prepared greens for a global, televised event and you've now got less than three weeks to turn them around for the National Championships. Oh, and in between, the club members that also patronise the greens would quite like to play on them!

This is the challenge that faced Warwick District Council and the idverde Warwick sports maintenance team, headed up by Mike Finch, who delivered the flat green bowls and para bowls surfaces for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, closely followed by the National Bowls Championships at Victoria Park, Leamington Spa. Jane Carley reports.

It was all achieved with a mixture of meticulous planning, strong teamwork and positive co-operation between greenkeepers, Warwick District Council, turf consultants STRI and the CWG organising committee, according to Mike.

"The contract to renovate the greens went out to tender, and the Sports Construction Division of idverde, led by Steve Tingley, secured the bid. This is probably one of the great benefits of working at idverde, as we have the experience and staff to offer a one stop shop of construction, grow-in and ongoing maintenance to local authorities and sports clubs," he added.

"Work began as soon as the announcement of Birmingham's successful bid was made in 2018, with planning consultations ahead of renovations in 2019," he recalls. "In autumn 2020, greens A, B and C were renovated, regraded and levelled, but it has taken continuous work since then as there was a very small degree of settlement."

Close liaison between the idverde Warwick sports team, led by head greenkeeper Mike Finch (right) and Warwick District Council, represented here by green space development officer Simon Richardson, was key in planning preparation for the Commonwealth Games and National Bowls Championship

The pandemic slowed construction work as idverde teams heading up from London were unable to travel together, but for the Leamington team it was largely business as usual, explains Warwick District Council Green Space Development Officer, Simon Richardson:

"As long as the greenkeepers could socially distance, we were able to carry on; in fact, we were able to strip A, B and C greens earlier than originally planned as they weren't being played on. And having seen the issues from the very wet winter of 2019-20, we got the seed on earlier."

"In March 2020, we used a levelling bar, then top dressed and micro tined regularly until August. We ended up working by hand as it's easier to adjust to any settlement."

With five greens in total to prepare, this adds up to some 7500sqm… Simon points out that as the greens were effectively new, natural settlement meant more work to get them completely even.

Mike explains: "Most greens take two or three years to mature. By the time of the 2021 National Championships, the new greens were just eleven months old and it was their first big trial event. However, Bowls England found no negatives throughout the tournament."

"It takes time to get the root systems established; we've now got 80-110mm of root growth. Nutrition is key and we've used a weekly feeding programme. We've stuck to our programme but had regular site meetings with the organising committee and used all our skills to get the perfection they required."

Monitoring has played an important part, he confirms: "We soil sampled regularly and used percolation tests to check how well all they key elements were coming together."

Levels also received continual attention. "The only way to get results is to constantly check imperfections and correct them by hand. We were topdressing every ten days in the run up to the 2021 Nationals, using a 3m straight edge with two men on the bars, one loading and one adjusting. We'll do this again in October." Simon adds: "It's useful to have laser levelling, but you can't discount the value of levelling by hand."

Pest control is an ongoing concern, with bowls not considered for the EAMU on Acelypryn to control chafer grubs. "Now Merit (imidacloprid) is no longer available, we have few options - pheromone traps are not very practical," says Mike. "This year hasn't been too bad, but we'll see what next season brings."

A longer term programme of cultural work has seen poa replaced with fescue and bent in an 80:20 ratio. "The site favours fine leaved grasses," comments Simon, "It's very open to the wind with little tree cover."

Home to Bowls England, Leamington Spa is no stranger to world class events, which provide a significant uplift for local businesses Right: A long term programme of cultural work has seen poa replaced with fescue and bent in an 80:20 ratio

Mike studied grass mixtures at Irish golf clubs before embarking on fescue conversion and he says: "Getting rid of poa made nutrition and watering easier, which cut costs, and the fescues produced a good fast surface. By 2021, we'd gone to fescue greens with some bents which withstand the winter temperatures well; you just need some bents to act as the 'scaffolding' in the construction phase."

The sand in the construction meant that the surfaces were very firm and, along with two cool springs, a couple of overseeds during renovations and a couple more based on Mike's observations of grass cover were needed.

From September 2021, the team worked seven days a week to get the greens to the standard they required. "We were aiming for continual improvement. By this time green D was three years old and was really good, however the three new ones had also performed well," says Mike.

Final preparations included working with England bowlers to run bowls on the greens and see how they performed. "We needed to ensure that the colours (rinks) on each green ran equal," explains Mike, "and if one was slightly out, we levelled it up. Given the standard of the competition at the Games and the constant TV coverage, there was no margin for error."

From early May this year, the demand for international teams to train on the greens added to the workload. "We understood that they needed to train, but we also had to balance this with giving Leamington Bowls Club time on the greens, and with maintenance. There were then just five days break at the end of this period to present the greens before official practice began on July 21st."

Mowing is naturally a major element of this, and with Warwick District Council committed to being carbon neutral by 2025, the Victoria Park team has been working with electric mowers for several years. "Using electric mowers fulfils two requirements," explains Mike. "As well as the environmental aspect, we have our neighbours in residential streets to consider. For the actual competition, we came to an agreement that we could start mowing at 5.30am by using the Infinicuts."

The battery cylinder mowers were first trialled on the greens in 2013, and have been in the idverde contract since 2021. "It's a developing technology and our goal is to match the reliability and consistent cut of our Baroness petrol mowers," he comments. "On the latest versions, settings can be adjusted via an Android phone which is a useful development. We continue to watch the market as it progresses."

The mowers were another plus for the 'green' profile of the Games, where electric power was supplied by solar panels. "We were also provided with battery gulley suckers and blowers by Makita which were very good, so it's of wider interest too."

Although the last international tournament at Victoria Park was the Ladies World Championship in 2004, Mike and his team are no strangers to pressure. With Leamington Spa as the headquarters of Bowls England, the National Championships, which take place over 19 days, this puts the greens firmly in the spotlight. At the Commonwealth Games, competition was packed into eight days.

The build-up to the games has seen considerable investment by Warwick District Council, notes Simon. "We've been able to channel funding to Victoria Park. We knew the greens needed renovating and having the Commonwealth Games ensured that it happened. It's now a matter of looking to the legacy; we've got four new greens and they need to be maintained to the highest standards as there's the potential to host other international events in the future."

He acknowledges that international aspirations have to be balanced with the amenity role of Victoria Park. "We do need to communicate this legacy; we have a local club playing at an international standard venue and we want the members to benefit too."

Mike comments that it was always his ambition to achieve international standard greens from joining the previous contractor in 2009. "From 2011, we began to look at how we could address the standards and from 2016 I saw it was possible."

Investment was also made in personnel - in addition to the bowling greens, the idverde sports facilities team look after 43 football pitches and 20 hard tennis courts for Warwick District Council. To support the full-time squad of Mike, deputy Tim Rouse, Darren Povey and Connor Parry-Hall, Colin Shipman and Chris Charlesworth were brought in from idverde's Leicester contract.

"Each day, we would have four mowers going, and then two staff would be rolling while the other two took on other maintenance and presentation jobs. Working hours were from 4.30am to 8.30pm, although I was here till ten o'clock one night," Mike says.

Close liaison with the CWG organising committee ensured that their standards were met.

"It's similar to how we would normally work, but more detailed," he comments. "The colour of the greens had to meet Commonwealth requirements, and we altered the direction of play to suit the TV cameras."

With the eyes of the world on Leamington Spa through the television screen, ensuring no wear was visible was also vital. "Presentation was very important; all of the work was carried out between 4.30am and 8.30am, and we had to keep the surface even and with some moisture in it. More watering than usual was required due to the high temperatures. I think we had one day of rain - we're not used to that, as it usually rains throughout the National Championships!"

The Commonwealth Games matches finished on 7th August, and the club players were back on the greens on 12th August. "There was only time for aeration and to irrigate," confirms Simon. "It's fantastic how well they have recovered. Within four or five days, all sign of wear had gone."

It's a testament to the standard of the greens that there was no lasting impact on them from the Commonwealth Games, making the final preparations for the National Championships, which began on 25th August, much easier.

An air of calm presided over Victoria Park when Pitchcare visited just two days before the start of the Championships.

Gone were the striking Commonwealth Games banners, ticket booths and tall grandstands that had transformed the venue a couple of weeks earlier. A new Bowls England Chief Executive has masterminded a higher profile for the Nationals, however with slightly more modest grandstands replacing the folding chairs spectators used to haul from their cars, and hospitality facilities being put into place.

Thoughts move on then to renovation - which should be a quicker job this year - and then to some much needed holidays. "Although it's been hard work, it's been such an exciting year for the team," comments Mike. "They now have experience of being part of a high-profile event, and even when we return to normal, that will stand them in good stead for the future."

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