Copsewood Grange Golf Club - The Coventrian Job

Jake Barrowin Golf

Ashley Bulpitt, 28, is the Head Greenkeeper at Copsewood Grange Golf Club, a Coventry-based private members' club which shares its clubhouse with both football and rugby union arms.

The club is notable for its underground sewage network of huge concrete pipes which, in the late 1960s, were used for filming car chase scenes in the iconic Michael Caine film The Italian Job.

Whilst these are now hidden from view beneath the south-eastern corner of the course, their excavations opened a useful tunnel within which to fire some original S-model Mini Coopers around at breakneck speed.

The course's inclusion in that film is one of thousands of factors leading the UK's 12th-largest city to become the 2021 UK City of Culture, beating Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea and Sunderland.

Nearly fifty years on, the Grange is a local landmark for sport, and there's nothing mini about the task with which Ashley is faced, as Copsewood lies on a flood plain, bordered by the River Sowe.

The Sowe feeds the Avon, which in turn forms a confluence with the Severn and opens out into the Bristol Channel, having started just ten miles north of the club in Bedworth.

The river flows right past the starting box on the first hole and lies just a couple of feet below the level of the fairway so, when it rises, there is no natural barrier and the surface disappears.

The course was invisible during the recent floods, which lasted roughly from Boxing Day until New Year's day, after which the team had to hand-rake the entire course.

Storm drains were installed a few years ago, which has helped; but mostly in times of minor surface water issues. Ashley told us that, when the river breaks its banks though, they simply have to wait.

That starting box - to demonstrate the general feeling of community at the multi-sport club - contains an honesty tin. When visitors turn up to play, they deposit their green fees in an unmanned slot next to the usual space for competition cards.

Ashley said: "It's a community sports and social club. We're all part of Copsewood, each individual section, but we just look after the golf course, not the other sports pitches."

"We'd love to do so. We had a few meetings about it last year, but we can't afford it. There are two volunteers who maintain those, and one is finishing soon. So, we're going to have to sort some new arrangement out, but I'm not sure what right now."

Even with that spending limit being touched, the course is ranked amongst Warwickshire's best. Ashley is proud of its state:

"What's great is that we've gone from strength to strength every year. Last year was very good, and the membership was happy with the greens."

"That shows with the participation figures and the money that's been coming in. The last five years has shown constant increases."

"Last season was the rockiest, however, with a lot of club politics that come with the multi-sport set-up. We nearly folded momentarily, not because of the golf club, but the larger entity."

"That may not have happened at one time, however, and I think that links with the decline of golf over the years and people's need to turn up just to play nine holes while they're busy."

"It used to be a very exclusive club and might then have kept the whole thing afloat. Then, there was a lull. But, over the past five years, the club has really pushed the pay-and-play market, and we've reaped the benefits. It's gone very well."

Ashley joined the club straight out of secondary school and has been there for eleven years. His last year of school was set up in a manner which gave the pupils free Fridays, which allowed him the opportunity to get some work experience (when he perhaps should have been revising for exams).

He felt that some of the lessons were inapplicable to him, so approached the school with a direct request to spend his Fridays greenkeeping at Copsewood, telling them that he knew where his future lay.

"There's not a lot of kids grow up saying they want to be a greenkeeper, is there? It's hard to get them motivated for early mornings and the like, but I always was."

His golfing handicap is three, which he modestly called "alright", before going on to inform me that he'd broken all sorts of club records, as well as winning most of the club's competitions in the past couple of years, including the scratch Club Championship eight years in a row.

"We have a series of competitions, and I won all of them this year, which was nice," he said, "so now they're all coming for me."

There have been two head greenkeepers above Ashley since he started at the club, Pat leaving about a year-or-so in, and Gary for a few years after, but said that he doesn't have industry role models beyond this, and that he doesn't feel the need for a specific greenkeeping ideology.

The one proviso to this is that he attempts to bring through one major development to the course each year. This year, this is the renovation of a vehicular bridge over the river.

They removed 400 sleepers from the old bridge which had rotted due to the length of time which they had festered. These are being replaced with concrete and will provide stability for utility vehicles etc.

The team is also carrying over the remainder of a bunker redevelopment project from last winter; re-shaping and filling those by the fourth and seventh greens.

Ashley is a born-and-bred Coventry boy from "two minutes down the road", and described Coventry as "alright… The City of Culture, I suppose."

"On the way to my house, if you turn right out of the club's car park, is where the old clubhouse used to be. It is a huge, three-storey manor-type building."

"About ten years ago, British Land, who owned it, said they were claiming it back. Now, it's being converted into luxury apartments."

The course is a 72-par over just under fifty acres and runs to 6,048 yards from the white tees over eighteen holes, with a putting green and practice bunker. The players also use a short iron field at the far end of the course.

Richard Coles is Ashley's assistant head, and Jack Evans is a part-time greenkeeper, with Ashley currently pushing to have Jack taken on with full hours due to the club's recent success.

Redtech Machinery helps the club with any servicing and grinding they can't undertake, whilst Ashley and Richard attempt minor fixes.

From around 2008 until 2013, agronomist Peter Jones took samples and gave advice. Ashley said: "It was great to have someone come in to check up on us. That expense stopped for the best of reasons: he was happy with the place, so we left it at that."

"We have contractors in for end of season renovations who Koro the greens, because we don't have the kit, which isn't justifiable for us."

"We also have our own Thatch-Away cassettes for lighter scarification, which we get done perhaps twice a year, but these don't go quite as deep as I'd like. Also, we do a lot of verti-cutting, for which we have our own cassettes too, maybe once or twice a month if we can."

"We've been a little high on iron and the pH is slightly below as they tend to be, but it isn't dramatic. Pat wanted to make the place a 'green' golf club and focused on soluble iron."

"The line in the surface is still visible, and I've stopped us from laying that down because there was too much in the profile."

"It was to relieve moss mainly which, to be fair, has continued to be my biggest bugbear since I arrived too."

"We aerate throughout the season; pencil tining frequently, verti-draining maybe two or three times per year, but we still struggle with the moss."

"I asked Peter about it and he said it was improving, but it's a matter of continuing the regime, including putting plenty of topdressing down in the summer and getting rid of some of the thatch, because we have quite a lot in the greens."

Again, Ashley's ideology doesn't follow Pat's, and more chemicals are applied now than before Ashley took over.

"I fertilise it quite a lot, but it's really based on the idea that we lay everything down as infrequently as possible. We don't go mad with it… the odd wetting agent or fungicide, but almost never herbicides or anything like that."

"To an extent, that's necessary though, because we have a lot of our time taken up by flooding issues like the hand-raking, which means we need quicker solutions to those problems, especially between just the three of us."

"Speaking to other greenkeepers on golf days, I find that there's no one else who has to deal with that. Also, come autumn, we're one of those courses with so many trees that leaf clearance is another project that eats into our time for other jobs."

"I suppose the one plus side to it is that we don't have moles or badgers but, for whatever reason, we do have an awful lot of foxes."

"I don't know why, but they kept digging the greens up last year. We tried spraying pesticides, in case it was bugs they were after. But, to no avail. Then, eventually, they just petered out."

The areas by the second and fourth greens are the wettest areas, and like everywhere, the club can struggle with keeping the moisture levels down in places, but Ashley blames this on the topology far more than on the prevalence of deciduous trees.

All greens have pop-ups, which need repairing every couple of years, but since an educator came in to teach the staff how to, they now complete all these in-house.

There are temporary greens, but Ashley told me these are used very infrequently - in fact, they weren't used for the entirety of 2016.

The team cut their greens every day, and have recently started taking them down to 3mm, because they feel the sward is now healthy enough to sustain this, with tees and aprons to about 10-11mm, fairways at 12-13mm, first cut around 16mm, and a two-inch rough.

And, last year, they purchased a turf iron. Ashley said: "Straight away, you could see the difference. We took Stimp readings quite often last year, and I think our overall average was a nine, which is the best ever, and drew a lot of positive comments."

They only overseed once every two years, usually. When they hired a machine, they ended up using 50% more for the same coverage, so have decided to go back to their own. They use a primarily bent-based mixture, which goes some way to tackling the chronic moss problem.

All equipment at the club is taken on a five-year lease, and they try to get something major in every year, though it sometimes spills over into two.

One thing Ashley has been trying to push for recently is a mini-digger. He also loves his turf iron so much that he would prioritise a new one, were money no object.

Ashley told me: "Originally, all the equipment was John Deere, and we bought it all in a short space of time. But, I'm slowly drifting toward Toro."

"We've got a rough mower, one for the tees and greens, and the next one will be a fairway mower, for which, again, I'll go with Toro."

"I think they're the best bits of kit out there. I think the quality of build is the best available, and that they're the easiest to maintain."

"The committee, of course, will always want to see two different prices and have it sold to them why one brand of kit is better than the other, so we always get a comparison."

"But, the last time we had all our suppliers come around, I was taken by the Toro. They could demonstrate features that it would be hard to find from anyone else."

A brief history of The Grange

The Grange was founded in the 1920s when the Peel Conner Telephone Company, which later became the General Electric Company (GEC), moved from Salford to Coventry to design and manufacture telephone exchange equipment. A huge tract of land was purchased on which was built the factory and housing for employees.

Included in the estate was the Grange House which was rebuilt in 1870. The house became a residence and club for the senior male staff employees and it was these residents who planned and initiated the golf course construction.

The fourth hole is named after Arthur Bowles who was the greenkeeper and club steward during the 1960s and 70s. The sixth hole is named in recognition of the long standing annual fixture with the Viewfield Golf Society from Scotland and their association with other GEC factories.

In 1968, deep excavations were dug across the golf course for a new sewage system. This was the setting for the famous scene in the film The Italian Job starring Michael Caine, with mini cars racing through a giant pipe during the getaway from the daring heist.

Now, not many people know that!

In the 1980s, Allard Way was built through the middle of the course and, as the fortunes of GEC fluctuated during the 1990s, the club's name also changed from GEC through GPT to Marconi.

When Plessey/Marconi closed the factory, it was demolished and the site was to be redeveloped. At that time, the City Council had a policy that with land that had once been industrial land, one third should stay as industrial use. Unfortunately, the one third that was left for industrial use was the area that Copsewood Grange and Copsewood Lodge was in. The other two third of the site was to be developed for housing. It was clear that no one would take on the Grange as industrial development. The Grange and The Lodge both fell into disrepair and were attacked by vandals and set on fire.

The club broke away from Marconi in 2006, becoming a private members club, and was renamed Copsewood Grange.

In recent years, the building has been refurbished into apartments.

What's in the shed?

John Deere 7700 fairway mower
John Deere 2653B banks mower
John Deere E-Gator
Toro 4000 rough mower
X2 Toro 3250D greens mower (one with tees units)
Tru Turf greens iron
Thatchaway cassettes with scarifiers, verticutters and topdress brushes
Kioti Dk 35 tractor
TYM T1431 tractor with front loader
Charterhouse 7416 Verti-Drain
Charterhouse Rapidcore with custom blocks for pencil tining
Sisis Variseeder
Noblat topdresser
Trilo leaf blower
Reco leaf collector
Tad-Len TL206 sprayer
2 ton Trailer
Team Sprayers Team Cub pedestrian sprayer
Cooper Pegler X2 25l knapsack sprayers
Husqvarna 550XP chainsaw
Stihl BR600 backpack blower
Stihl FR 131T Combi with strimmer, hegdcutter and chainsaw

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