For over forty years, Peter Craig has served in what he views as his vocation. Like many who have worked in this industry for such a long period of time, he has a genuine passion for what he does, arguably just as much now as he did when he was first blown away by the Old Trafford cricket pitch in the mid-seventies. Blair Ferguson reports.
Peter Craig's career has been an impressive one, including two-spells at The Lensbury Club and eighteen years at the prestigious Hurlingham Club, as well as his early years at Leyland Cricket Ground and Ealing Cricket Club.
In September 2017, Peter returned for his second spell by the River Thames in Teddington at The Lensbury, as Grounds and Gardens Manager. It's here at the 4-star club, hotel and conference centre, on an unusually warm February day, that we discuss his impressive career and the challenges he's faced during his four decades as a groundsman.
Clearly, his passion for sport was pivotal in his career choice. Despite living in London for many years, Peter still travels back to where he grew up to watch Chorley Football Club play and is quick to compliment the work head groundsman, Ben Kay, does for the National League North team and, throughout our interview, he speaks highly of many of his peers.
As previously mentioned, it was a visit to Old Trafford that sparked Peter's interest in turf and would shape his career for the next seven years. "I used to play cricket a lot up until my late teens. My dad was a big cricket fan and he took me to Old Trafford cricket ground in the mid-seventies and I remember being blown away by the presentation of the ground, it was hatched out and looked absolutely amazing."
"Fast forward a little bit and I went to college to take A-Levels and realised that wasn't my thing, and because of that I didn't put a lot of effort into it and found myself close to the exams knowing I wasn't going to pass and knowing that I didn't have anything to do after them."
"So I wrote a letter to Old Trafford. They hadn't advertised for anything, but I wrote them a letter saying how I loved the way the grounds looked, that I was a big cricket fan and I'd love to know how you get a cricket ground looking like that. Fortunately, from that time, the new head groundsman, Gordon Prosser, took me on as an apprentice in 1978 and I never looked back."
"I was there for a couple of years and then moved back to live with my mum in Chorley and got a job at a cricket ground in Leyland. It was the first time I'd looked after bowling greens and they also played grass hockey there, so that was a first as well. I spent a couple of years there with one part-time assistant."
"One very wet day, I had a visit from a couple of guys from the Manchester Ship Canal Recreation Club which was the club for the company and, at the time, they were one of the biggest companies in the country. They had a cricket square, crown green bowling green and a couple of football pitches, and this is where I had my first experience of managing grass tennis courts. Five years there flew by."
A spell at Ealing Cricket Club brought Peter to work in London for the first time in 1986 and, after four-years, he moved to The Lensbury for his first spell in charge, before moving to the Hurlingham Club. For Peter, this marked a career highlight, a move he regards as the biggest and most significant thing to happen to him.
"I regarded it as one of the best jobs in the industry outside of the real high-profile Wimbledons and Wembleys and jobs of that standing," he explained. "I had fantastic resources; however, the sports turf facilities were not of the standard befitting a high profile club and, over the eighteen years I spent there, the standards were improved dramatically, both technically and aesthetically. This was reflected in the demand for my advice and experience from organisations such as the New England Turf Grass Association. They flew me to America to do a presentation on grass tennis court maintenance alongside Neil Stubley from Wimbledon,"
"During my time there, we staged three world croquet championships and, due to the significant improvement in the grass tennis courts, many of the world's top tennis players were drawn to the club, including Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, and they were fulsome in their praise."
"I'd say that, of my eighteen years there, sixteen of them were the happiest of my life. But things started to turn sour and eventually I left."
Peter is very honest about the impact leaving the Hurlingham Club had on him and his passion for the job. For anyone, leaving their dream position would be very difficult, but he quickly got back into groundsmanship and applied for a job at Kings College School in Wimbledon as a groundsman.
"After I left Hurlingham, I went right back down to the shop floor. Boredom had become an issue and there was a job at Kings College School, which is a fantastic facility, and I got a job there."
"Having spent eighteen years in a shirt and tie overseeing one of the finest facilities of its type, my first day at Kings College sat on a mower in my greens was kind of a 'what have I come to' moment. I saw it through, and everybody was fantastic. I was there for six months and can't praise the place and people I worked with enough."
Despite going through a difficult time in his career, forces were at work to bring Peter back to The Lensbury. Initially, he was contacted to consult on the grass tennis courts and, as the focus on their rugby pitches changed for the Teddington based club, they began to consider bringing in a full-time head groundsman, eventually leading to Peter's return in September 2017.
As would be expected, the club he returned to was very different from the one he left. When he first joined, the whole site was owned, operated and funded by Shell, and himself and a team of twelve full-time staff maintained four cricket squares, four football pitches, three rugby pitches, six grass tennis courts, twenty artificial tennis courts, a flat rink bowling green and a grass hockey pitch on a 45-acre site.
By the mid-nineties, Shell changed the status of the club from being purely subsidised into a self-financing private enterprise. This meant, over a period of four years, Peter's staff was halved through natural wastage and as a result of Shell selling a majority of the land across the road, thus reducing the workload to a football pitch, cricket square and the grass tennis courts. This led to Peter seeking a new challenge in the shape of the Hurlingham club.
So, how much more has the club changed in the time Peter has been away? "When I came here the first-time, money was no object; there was a fantastic budget. It changed gradually from being wealthy to being far more realistic. You had to justify what you were spending and every penny spent was carefully watched and had to be justified, which is the way it should be."
"When I came back, the connection to Shell was still there and you can still feel it and see it, because a lot of people still come here that work for Shell, but it's very much a business now and it's run as such by very professional individuals who are aware."
"It feels different in a way that is difficult to quantify or describe. Maybe it's because the dynamic of the people I'm working with has changed."
The Lensbury Grounds Team - Left To Right - Andrew Gess (Apprentice), Karl Smith (Head Gardener), Peter Craig, Trevor Kerr (Gardener), Paul Treadgold (Groundsman)
"On my return, there were two members of staff who were still here from when I left in 1998. Paul Treadgold has been here for forty years and Trevor Kerr for thirty years, so they have a lot of experience on this site."
"Our Head Gardener, Karl Smith, does a fantastic job and has been here for seventeen years and started just after I left. Between those three people, you've got almost ninety years of service at The Lensbury. One thing the club has done, and I'm really appreciative of, is take on an apprentice groundsman. Andrew Gess is on a two-year apprenticeship at Merrist Wood College and has shown real enthusiasm for what we've asked him to do."
"The area is manageable with five staff, but the rugby pitches weren't our responsibility until 1st January 2019, so we've got 15,000m2 more of turf to look after than we did last year and only one extra member of staff, but it's doable."
"The club has invested a significant amount of money into a Jacobsen TR320 ride on triple mower, a smaller Jacobsen GP400 greens mower and an Infinicut electric mower, which I absolutely love. So, the money that was being spent on the contractors is now being spent on the extra material we're going to need to manage the pitches."
"Renovations are still being contracted out, but we're doing all of the feeding and all the maintenance in-house, so that's added significantly to the budget. However, the club has shown a real commitment to providing the resources required to get the standard that we and they want."
"The pitches are now a significant source of income for The Lensbury and I think that's what helped them make the decision to bring someone in full-time. They recognise that they need to protect that income and maintaining the two pitches every day does that."
Catering for professional rugby began in 2015 when eventual tournament winners, New Zealand, picked The Lensbury to be their base for the Rugby World Cup, following the construction of a Fibresand pitch. The standard of the pitches is now a top priority for Peter, but an issue that needs to be overcome is irrigation.
"The Riverside pitch is Fibresand and its initial construction was done during the winter of 2013/2014 in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup. Fortunately, the weather at the time meant there were no drainage issues. Afterwards, there was a lot of retrospective work that had to be done to impact it, but now it's an extremely free draining Fibresand pitch."
"Our biggest issue with the Fibresand pitch is having enough water. In 2018, we found out a lot about what our irrigation is like compared to what it should be like. We have a borehole and we're limited to 6,000 cubic metres from 1st April to 31st October. That limit has been set for twenty years, but the development of the club and the usage has changed, but because of the environmental situation when we asked for more, we weren't able to get it."
"So, once we use that, we then have to go onto mains water. We had what we thought was an adequate 10,000-litre tank installed which we found out was good to have, but the water was going into it at one-hundredth of the rate it was going out."
"As a result of the experience last year, we've spent the last four months looking at improving our irrigation to make our Rain Bird system more effective. We can take water from the river, but we're limited to 20,000 cubic metres a day and it's not an option we can currently use because it needs to go through a UV filter. We have looked at installing a pump and filter as an option, and that's one of a number of possibilities we've looked at."
Whilst infrastructure changes are in motion, Peter believes communication with users is the key. Regular conversations take place with coaches and training is spread across the pitch rather than being concentrated in one quarter. Off-pitch areas have also been developed for heavier work and have been fully embraced by the teams, helping Peter and his team to provide the best surfaces possible.
A full renovation of the Xtragrass pitch is set to take place to remove poa, with the establishment of a new profile and sward planned to really improve the overall quality. Regular aeration with a Toro Pro-Core and Verti-Drain will also take place and it is hoped that, once they are into the growing season, the differences will start to show.
Away from the rugby pitches, concentration turns to the grass tennis courts. After attending a seminar at Wimbledon, Peter was blown away by the quality of the courts, much like he had been when he first went to Old Trafford. From that moment, grass courts became his obsession, to the point where he was interviewed for the head groundsman job at Wimbledon, with the position going to Neil Stubley, who Peter refers to as 'the right man for the job'."
Peter's work on the courts also highlights how the change in climate has impacted the way grass is maintained. He said: "It's scary to think how long I've been in the job because it's been forty years now but, back then, the climate was different. You got to a certain time of the year and growth did almost stop completely and you could put the mower away in the garage. Now you get significant growth throughout the year and that impacts disease and worm control; and it's so much more difficult now because you can't just throw down a chemical and leave it to it."
"The turf is now under more pressure in the climate we have because the dramatic changes in temperature put the plant under more stress. It's vital that the plant is in top condition all-year round to resist disease and that's a big part of the job now using the right nutrition and aeration and constant monitoring, especially during the winter months as you don't get recovery until growth starts on a regular basis, so disease attacks can be devastating."
"My programme on the grass courts is a combination of turf hardeners, feeds and conditioners that we use on a regular basis and we haven't had a disease attack on the grass courts for eighteen months ... and I really wish I hadn't said that," Peter said laughing with a slight hint of nerves.
"We haven't put fungicide down for the last eighteen months, so the mix is wonderful stuff, and that's what I need to do with the rugby pitches as well. It's prevention rather than cure, because there really isn't a cure now. I take a lot of advice because I'm not a scientist and chemistry baffles me, so that advice combined with my experience and knowledge gives me the answers that I need. I know it's a cliché, but you never stop learning and that's why I'm never afraid to ask a question."
"We either very heavily scarify or Koro the courts every year now and virtually start again from scratch. If you've got a lot of poa there is invariably a residual seed bank which will re-establish, so it's an ongoing programme. However, I'm really happy with the courts as they are now and there's a healthy even sward with very little weeds and I can't wait to get them open in May."
Peter's hope for the courts is to have professionals use them for pre-Wimbledon training, as they used to in his first spell at the club. Attracting professional athletes to the club is important for members and guests alike. Every area of grass around the site is either for professional users, amateur users or casual observers.
The impact a well-prepared lawn, pitch or court can have on an individual should never be underestimated. Turf, unlike people, has the ability to give the ultimate first impression. It displays hard work, skill and pride through the effort it takes to present it in that way and can provide a feel-good factor.
Thousands of people visit The Lensbury each year and, although the number of people who play sport on turf may be small, the quality and presentation of the surfaces they use is high and, in Teddington, that is a testament to a very hard working team led by an experienced and influential Grounds and Gardens Manager.
What's in the shed?
Mitsubishi MT 3000 tractor with loader
Kubota STW40 Tractor
Jacobsen TR320 ride on triple
Jacobsen GP400 greens triple
Martin Lishman MDM 200 tractor mounted sprayer
Honda HRH 536 pedestrian mower x 2
Mastiff 91 mower
Cushman tractor drawn topdresser
Toro ProCore 440
Groundsman 8120 tractor mounted aerator
Lloyds Paladin pedestrian cylinder mowers x 2 - one with groomer
Stihl backpack blowers x 3
Stihl hand-held blower
Stihl hedgecutters x 2
Stihl long arm hedge cutters x 2
Stihl brushcutters x 3
Stihl power brush Combi
Sisis Power-Brush Pro ride on brushing system
Amazone Smartcut tractor mounted Scarifier unit
Kubota G23 ride on Mower
Techneat SSP pedestrian sprayer 80 litre
Taskman power washer
Water bowser (trailer)
On order - Stihl HSA94 R battery backpack hedgecutter
On order - Stihl FSA130R battery backpack brushcutter
On order - Stihl BGA100 battery backpack leaf blower