The Person-al Approach ...

Tom Jamesin Schools & Colleges

SummerFields mainBuildingMany of our nation's greatest politicians, actors and sportsmen found their calling while attending some of Britain's finest educational institutions.

The wealth of facilities at their disposal and a willingness to continue investing have helped ensure parents across the generations remain as determined as ever to give their children the best possible chance to hone their early development, before moving on to greatness and acclaim.

Summer Fields, a Preparatory School in North Oxford, is one such institution, and can boast a long and illustrious list of 'Old Summerfieldians' in its 157-year history, such as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (his grandson is the current headmaster) to famed Hollywood actor Christopher Lee and co-star of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee.

The boarding and day preparatory school was founded in 1864 and established to offer the highest standard of education for boys aged seven to 13.

It takes a full tour of the grounds to reveal the extent of Summer Fields seventy acre estate - land that had for most of the school's earlier history been run as a farm by owner and founder Archibald Maclaren, a fencing master who ran a gymnasium in Oxford, and his wife Gertrude, a fine Classical scholar and gifted teacher.

The school took its first steps into education in 1863 when Charles William Shirley Brooks, the soon-to-be editor of Punch, asked the couple to educate his sons.
The school remained in the Maclaren family for seventy-five years before benefactors, John Evans and Geoffrey Bolton, assumed control in 1939, forming Summer SummerFields Aerial2Fields into a charitable trust in 1955, with a board of governors that included Harold Macmillan.

Nigel Talbot Rice became headmaster in 1975 and the school embarked on a major extension of its facilities stretching over two decades. A series of capital campaigns enabled it to launch an ambitious building programme and the tradition of investment has remained the core vision of succeeding headmasters, and lives on today as the school invests in another major improvement of and addition to its outdoor sports provision.

Summer Fields has long supported and promoted sport, reflected appropriately in the school motto, 'Mens sana in corpore sano' - 'a healthy mind in a healthy body', which also echoes the sentiments of the Maclaren founders, who were both keen sports enthusiasts.

Yet. it wasn't until 1983 that wholesale change started to unfold on the estate, which saw the scaling down of the farmland, the construction of more playing fields and a nine hole golf course - a move that was largely unprecedented for a boys preparatory school.

With the clear move towards upping the game on sports provision, spearheaded by the desire of former headmaster and keen golfer and cricketer Talbot Rice, there was born the need to bolster the turfcare team and recruit the staff necessary to realise the dream of bringing the pitches up to the standard desired.

GrahamPerson2The man spearheading that drive was Graham Person (pronounced Pear son) who had joined the groundstaff fresh from school at seventeen and was promoted to Head Groundsman in 1983.

Now fifty-seven, and with forty years' service behind him, Graham still has a twinkle in his eye and the thirst for the job that he must have felt as a teenager tending the grounds.

The construction of the golf course was one of his first major tasks, turning what was basically worked farmland on sandy soils into the fairways and greens on show today.

Golf has always been a focus at the school and, before the bespoke course came into use in 1988, boys would practise on nine small greens clustered around the main house under the tuition of the then master in charge of golf, Charles Churchill.

The spirit of achievement in the sport remains evident today, with Summer Fields having helped nurture the talents of one talented golfer who has, this year, won a Sport Exhibition to Wellington College and who recently won the school's annual 'Father and Son Open'.

SummerFields GolfGolf is only one of a host of outdoor sports that Graham and his three assistants provide for, including first team, Colts and Junior Colts football and rugby pitches and four cricket squares.

Much has changed in forty years, says Graham, who still relishes the continuing programme of improvements under way at Summer Fields. "Things are so much different now: the grounds are huge and, because of that, our workload has expanded out of all recognition."

With seventy acres to manage, sticking to a rigid routine can be hard, Graham acknowledges so, to some degree, matters "have to be left to the elements", which is arguably what he prefers, given that he is, by his own admission, "an organic man".

"I've always been a strong advocate of a fully organic programme, long before such things were seen as fashionable," he states. Given the crackdown on pesticides in recent years, and impending EU law emerging later in 2011, his stance carries added credibility.

His commitment to green practices may well be manifest in the estate's freedom from weeds and fungal infections. "If you've been in the business as long as I have, you soon pick up a thing or two and, for me, the most important thing has been to always remain organic but, also, not to be too intensive with your practices," he explains. SummerFields Aerial

"We're lucky here that, while we pride ourselves on having good quality surfaces, we are not under the same pressures to keep the sward very short, so have been less likely to develop the diseases associated with keeping it that way."

A combination of bespoke and specialist machines has also helped his programme maintain its integrity over the years. "My custom-made gang mower is the most well used in our fleet, as it's been specially set up to meet our needs."

"It's set to a very high setting, so there's little chance of us damaging the turf, and we've learnt to use it at the right times to make it as effective as possible." In addition to this machine, his fleet includes a mix of new and second-hand equipment, including a T120 New Holland tractor (Graham's "pride and joy"), SISIS and Ransomes cylinder mowers, a Ransomes ride-on and a New Holland rotary mower.

"Some are beginning to show their age now, and we'll soon have to start thinking about replacements, but they have served me well," he reflects. Graham's knack of looking after his second-hand machines is such that he has managed to keep some of his oldest items in full working order far longer than the manufacturers might have intended.

"When the top guy from New Holland was down on site last year, he commented that our tractors were among some of the best second-hand examples he had ever seen, which is great to hear, but maybe I'm guilty of hanging on to my prized possessions for too long." If they're still doing the job though, why not.

Alongside Graham is a team of three groundsmen who, between them, have clocked up more than a century of turfcare know-how. Longest-serving among them is sixty-five year-old Roger King, who greeted me holding a wheelbarrow full of tree cuttings when I arrived, and is in his forty-eighth year of service, outlasting all other staff at the school.

SummerFields PavilionGraham's brother, Stewart, the deputy head groundsman, has already notched up twenty years, while the baby of team, twenty-nine year-old Adam Watkins, joined the school six years ago from Radley College.

Between them they "divvy up the work," says Graham, each chipping in on the "less desirable" aspects of the job. "At this time of year, our focus is on giving the pitches a light roll and keeping the mowing to a minimum, only doing what's necessary," Graham explains.

"Preparation for the new cricket season starts to take on a central role to bring the four squares up to standard." The team maintains seven good quality strips on the main square, while the Colts and 1st XI squares are widely admired, Graham adds.

Summer Fields has a long and proud cricketing history - Gubby Allen, Charles Lyttelton - 10th Viscount Cobham, and Johnny Barclay, president of the MCC last year, are numbered among Old Summerfieldians.

But, only recently did the school learn that it actually invented The Ashes - in the person of a sporting journalist called Reginald Brooks.

In summer 1863, Reginald, and his brother Cecil, were sent by their father to learn Classics from Gertrude Maclaren and to receive physical training from Archie. The following year, five more young pupils joined, creating Summerfield, as the school was then called.

Reggie, a talented cricketer himself, later became a journalist and he was approaching 30 when he wrote the obituary that has passed into cricket folklore: "In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882 deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."

The school's archivist has persuaded Oxford University Press to include its Dictionary of Quotations by Subject - though sadly unattributed.

As my interview with Graham draws on, it becomes clear that he has passions and interests that are not the preserve of your stereotypical groundsman.

GrahamPerson TriumphHe begins to talk excitedly about motorcycles and reveals that he often cruises into work astride one of his three prized possessions - a Harley Davidson, Triumph Bonneville or an American spec Bonneville.

He's a classical music buff too. "Beethoven's my favourite," he says. "I enjoy listening to his music when I'm going about my daily duties on the grounds. I acquired a taste for his works early on from my musician uncle, who first introduced me to the music of the man many regard as the greatest ever composer." Mozart lovers may well have something to say about that view.

The arts are similarly well represented at the school, with a thriving music department that ensures the boys are equally as culturally enriched as they are academically.

The importance of sport and sporting excellence has, in all its years, never been in doubt though.

The start of the summer term will mark the completion of the school's latest improvements, that will see a further development and improvement of its repertoire of sports facilities, to the tune of over £350,000, forming part of the wider school investment that has been made possible by fundraising of over £1m (taking just two years to amass), which also included a redevelopment of the dining facilities.

SummerFields WhiteHorse4While the project was under the brainchild of former Headmaster, Robin Badham-Thornhill, it was enthusiastically carried forward by current headmaster David Faber, a former MP and historian who, as a member of the MCC committee, wanted to make his impact on sport in the school - a desire that will, no doubt, see the further progression of cricket provision in good time.

Yet, despite the clear support for both cricket and golf, it was felt the school needed to improve hockey facilities that led to the green light for the project.

"The school had earmarked its artificial facilities as those that were in most need of updating, and wanted especially to push participation in hockey and get it back to being a curriculum sport," Graham explains.

"Timescales were also key to the works, so they wanted a contractor that could deliver a turnkey package in a short timescale and at a good cost. Our project manager, Andrew Parsons Associates, recommended White Horse Contractors, and we had heard good things about them from their work at other private schools, as well as their successes at the Chelsea FC training ground," he adds.
SummerFields WhiteHorse3
"Ultimately though, price was a crucial factor in the decision and, for the work the school needed, they offered us the best package."

Following a competitive tender process, White Horse were successfully appointed on the strength of their alternative design and construction proposal - one made possible by an in-house availability of surveyors, designers and contract management staff and its highlighting of the merits of redesigning the proposed facility and including a number of additional items.

The project involved transforming tired, over-used tarmacadam tennis courts into a purpose-built facility to stage both hockey and tennis.

After stripping off the existing surface, the contractor installed pitch drainage at 5m centres before creating a new sub-base and rubber shockpad, then laying an FIH approved 53m x 43m Tiger Turf Evolution sand dressed monofilament carpet pitch.

SummerFields WhiteHorse6Two 34m x 31m purpose-built Macadam tennis courts, approved to LTA competition standard are also underway, which will also play host to high-profile competitions.
Following the success of the site works, the school has appointed White Horse to design and construct other sport and leisure facilities. These include five-bay cricket nets with artificial turf batting and bowling ends and tiered seating, constructed using an adjacent viewing bund and designed to augment the new tennis facilities.

The contractor was also brought in to design and construct a competition standard, synthetic long/triple jump facility with senior size landing area, create an artificial practice area for cricket and other ball games, install an irrigation point to the main cricket wicket and add a pond to the school's nature reserve for educational use by the pupils.

In the words of a White Horse spokesman: "Our capability to deliver a turnkey package from concept to completion has been fully tested with the facility renovation project here."

The work is set to reach completion in the summer term ready for a formal unveiling ceremony, by the former headmaster, Robin Badham-Thornhill, which will draw a line under the investments that have shaped the school's sporting future for the last thirty years.
SummerFields TennisNew
While some minor additions will have to be made, Graham says, including machines to tend the new facilities, all that will be left for the turfcare team to do is carry on delivering their proven maintenance regime.

"The whole project has been expertly managed and executed, with all the boxes ticked for handover, when we resume control," he explains. "The bursar has put together a five to ten-year programme to invest in any new machines we might need. After all, there seems little point investing so much money if you fail to carry it through.

"We're in the enviable position here that the school have always understood what a big task our job is, and that we need the right tools to carry it out successfully, which I believe we are achieving and will continue to achieve."

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