I arrived on the blustery East Sussex coast just a few days before Christmas, a time when UK plc seemed to have pretty much called time on 2010. Heavy snowfalls and the Arctic freeze kept so many away from work and safely tucked up inside, away from the elements.
No respite for groundstaff however, even in the teeth of a biting, bone-chilling wind sweeping over the sporting acres of Roedean School, overlooking Brighton Marina and a severely choppy English Channel.
I guessed that these conditions were all part and parcel of the day's work for Head Groundswoman, Ali Polawski, and her team at Roedean, one of the most sought-after independent girls schools in the UK and abroad.
Located in Roedean village, within the South Down National Park, the 125-year-old establishment appears every bit a fortress when viewed from the coast road - towering over the sea. Set in forty-five acres, the steeply sloping aspect of the educational edifice and its grounds shape the nature of turfcare here, and serve up peculiarities that are part and parcel of Sussex chalky downland and the site's constant exposure to salt-laden winds.
The school was founded in 1885, under the original name Wimbledon House, by three sisters: Penelope, Millicent, and Dorothy Lawrence. In 1898, it moved to its present site occupying new buildings designed by the architect John William Simpson.
Ali, 38, is one of only a precious few women in the industry, yet has already commanded important positions at two of Sussex leading schools - having moved from neighbouring Brighton College in January 2009 to join Roedean as head of the turfcare team.
"I was always destined to work outdoors," chirps up cheerful Ali. "I was born with wellies on my feet. My dad wanted me to do a regular job, and to think against agricultural college, but I was firm in my ambitions and knew it was the right choice for me."
On leaving sixth form college, Ali took work at a rural travel agents, where the cold was part and parcel of the job. "I wasn't working outdoors, it was just a chilly office. I did take my dog and go walking in the woods at lunchtime to get outside! But I was designed to work outdoors. The others would always complain about the working conditions, yet for me I was quite at home," she reveals.
After completing her studies, Ali applied for a job advertised at Brighton College, a position she successfully procured despite prolonged warnings of the difficulties of success in the business from her father.
Ploughing on regardless, she joined the college in 1993, aged only 21, where she stayed for seventeen years, rising to become deputy head - the highest position she had initially aspired to within groundsmanship.
"Whilst I had always wanted to get on in this business, I by no means ever wanted to be one of those people whose job was the only thing in their life," Ali explains. "I have an important family and social life, and have commitments to my horses, so never thought that a position as head groundsman, with the extra workload, would be an option for me."
"I had no desire, initially, to leave the college and was content with being a very good deputy, yet I got a call from the old head groundsman at Roedean, Derek Mann, who informed he was retiring and suggested that I apply for the post, also notifying me that the weekend commitments to sport were less than at the college, so I would be able to balance both work and my life outside."
Ali applied for the post, along with eighteen other applicants, and was short-listed for the final three, eventually going head to head with another woman and winning the battle.
Since 2009, she has headed up the team of five full-time staff and one part timer. Phil Rowan is second in command, taking care of the sports side of things with Ali. Two staff, Tom Edwin-Scott and Rob Howard, are tasked with the amenity side, while Sian Harry and Cath Wells undertake the gardening duties. Terry Brooker makes up the final member of staff, taking care of odd jobs and "the finishing touches".
"At first, I had reservations that the job would not offer as much of a challenge for me as Brighton College, yet it has proved to be quite the contrary," she reveals. "I haven't stopped running since I got here."
Whilst only a third of a mile apart, Brighton College and Roedean School offer significantly different challenges. A road is all that separates the school's sports pitches from the English Channel. The salty winds and the fact that the pitches sit on a chalk foundation with only 12" of topsoil mean that drying out poses, arguably, the biggest issue for Ali to contend with.
Yet, due to precious little cultivation of the land over the years, the turf has evolved to deal with its unique microclimate perfectly, she explains. "We're fortunate, in many ways, that we are not an intensive sporting school like the college. The grasses are perfectly evolved to deal with the dual problems of salt and wind," she explains. "We have nurtured the pitches we have out of these native species, something that made me really look again at all that I had learned over the years about cultivating turf, because, for this site, it was a case of throwing the rule book out of the window and rethinking," adds Ali.
On the face of it, the school had something of a serious thatch problem when she moved to her new position two years ago. "Whilst thatch is the first thing that I would usually try and eradicate, in our case its presence hasn't actually been to our detriment."
"It seems to be working for us, and has acted as a beneficial cushion against the winds and allows that little extra bit of water retention, even permitting us to still have a good 6" root depth." However, a gently does it approach is being taken with regular grooming to thin out the thatch slowly."
"Because the grasses are so well adapted to their climate, we have to do things slowly here. The grasses had been left to their own devices for so long that any changes to the work pattern really stresses them out."
"So, my work improving the pitches has had to be a steady, well-planned process to achieve the right changes and not destroy the grasses that are perfectly adapted to our climate here."
Roedean's natural grasslands do not require any 'serious' fertiliser programme, reacting more effectively to natural turfcare, something Ali has always been a strong advocate of.
"One of the most important aspects at Roedean has always been to get the soil biology right, and working from the ground up," Ali continues. "Soil analysis is becoming much more widespread for groundsmen at all levels and the science of the business is really coming to people's attention now, which is vital if those at the top want to understand how our job works."
"I've moved over to the Symbio system quite recently, and am looking forward to seeing the results in the summer months when the pitches are generally used much more intensely," she explains.
Ali is in the process of making a conversion kit to brew her own compost tea in a 1000ltr IBC, which may lead to a future investment in a brewing system if the programme is a success.
Whilst such well-adapted grass species may present a number of benefits to Ali, they throw up their fair share of snags too - the biggest being the brome, a big weed grass.
The species is native to chalky downland areas and is known for being particularly hard to cut, as its blades are flaccid and tend to sit flat on the surface, once the front roller has gone over them, frustrating the mowing process.
"We've had a real nightmare with it," Ali recalls. "The Toro has even struggled with it, as it is nearly impossible to get it to stand up to cut. The only machine that will do a half decent job on it is our Wessex topper, but it's not an ideal situation."
Whilst the school has, in fairness, always prized its academic achievements above its sporting prowess, since Ali's arrival she has seen a sprouting of interest for outdoor sports, with lacrosse (a sport uncommon for schools in the South-east) and hockey increasing their draw year on year.
"The school has a dramatically different demographic from that of fifty years ago, where active outdoor girls were more the bread and butter of its intake," Ali explains.
"Roedean, like many of its counterparts, now has a good number of overseas students who have, perhaps, not experienced some of our traditional sports. But this is changing and, as the standard of the pitches increases, it can only mean positive steps for sport in the school."
Roedean's sports pitches include a full-size hockey pitch, which directly overlooks the sea, a junior hockey pitch, one full-size lacrosse pitch, a full-size football pitch, a cricket square with eleven wickets and a small putting green and golfing area, which sits in front of the imposing main entrance.
It's a sport Ali is keen to progress further in the coming years. "When I arrived, the golf area was only a year old, and I have since tried to really get the standard up to putting green calibre," she reports.
"We've had a healthy take-up of golf since the standard has improved, and students enjoy being coached all year round."
In summer, the winter pitches are converted into four rounders/softball pitches, a 400m track is drawn up with field events such as long jump also provided, with all the additional field events being played on the football pitch. Ali has also constructed a Redgra shale run-up for the long jump.
Her ability to make changes and improvements is testament, she says, to her "accommodating and pro-active employers", which means, in most cases, she has only to discuss any changes with the Estates Manager before she progresses with new work. "For many years, the groundstaff had no real budget to speak of, and had to clear any spend with the bursar."
Forward-thinking Ali was keen to ensure that she had control of her own budget, and be the one who could decide where more investment was needed and at what times. "After all, we're the people who know what needs to be done when, and how much it will cost," she emphasises.
In her first year, the team were in need of a new spiker, yet her budget couldn't stretch to the purchase, so Ali decided to pay for it in two chunks, over two budgets, something which didn't affect the supplier and meant she was showing herself as someone with a reliable grasp of the purse-strings.
This year, in the teeth of financial stringencies for many facilities, including prestigious independent schools such as Roedean, the budget has been pruned slightly, Ali confirms, and commitments to the department remain strong.
"On the whole, Roedean is coping well, especially as education is an area that has been hammered in the cuts. In the two years I've been here, there has been a real shift in emphasis on sports maintenance, and I've managed to successfully update a stock of machines and equipment that had been in real need of refreshing."
Two sets of 40-year-old gangs and two tractors, a Kubota and a Kilworth were in need of updating when Ali joined Roedean yet, as she explains, she managed to get a pretty quick turnaround once she put her case to the Estates Manager.
"The first new machine we got in was a New Holland TC45 tractor, as the old ones wouldn't be able to lift the machinery I felt we needed. All our utility work is now done on the Toro 5400 Reelmaster, my second purchase, and a machine that aesthetically has made a real difference here, especially with the scope for striping, which makes all the difference in presentation." The newest addition to the fleet is a Charterhouse Vertidrain, a machine that Ali was to unveil to her staff early in the new year.
For Ali, maintaining strong staff relationships is vital to her doing her job to the best of her ability, especially in ensuring that all jobs are shared equally among all of her staff members. "I always like to make sure that I take turns on the less interesting jobs, and so the others can see that I muck in just like they do, and that its' not a matter of cherry-picking."
"Importantly though, I have to show that I am as capable as anyone else in a similar position to me, whether that be a man or a women. I'm a firm believer that I should be able to carry out any job that a man can do, I'm a bit old school in that respect."
"I do not approve of positive discrimination for this or any job, as I'm as physically capable as any man in this job and I got to the position I am today by being so. It's not a matter of gender, but of work ethic and passion for the job."
Having already helped progress and enhance the school sports provision, Ali plans to build on what she has already achieved and see a further step up in concentration on sports from the pupils.
"We have the perfect turf for hockey here, and are one of very few schools with a top quality grass pitch, so I am keen to develop on this."
"The evidence of the hard work we have put in to really bring the sports pitches to a top standard, is shown by the girls enthusiasm to want to get out and get involved in sports much more."
We depart the cosiness of the tea room to walk out to the front of the main building for a few pictures. In the depths of winter, the healthy hue of the turf and surrounding grass is a surprise. "I bought a Hayter Harrier to tackle the verges and give them a more attractive stripy presentation," she reveals.
"Today, groundsmen and women have to be articulate when asking for what they want. I try to make the purchasing decision easy for the bursar by telling telling the Estates Manager, Paul de Garis, exactly why I need machinery and equipment, the agronomic benefits they will bring and the economic sense of doing so. I also back that up with a written synopsis." So, that's the secret.
Standing shivering on her golfing turf in front of Roedean's dramatic front elevation in late December, in freezing temperatures and a biting wind while overlooking the choppy waters of the English Channel, I marvel at the resilience of Ali and her grounds team.
Not everyone's ideal job, but Ali is clearly immune to such extremes. However, even this hardy soul has to draw the line somewhere. "Sometimes, I can barely get off the ride-on, my knees are so cold. On days like this, I drag on the outdoor gear - what we call 'the fat suit' - before venturing out.
"How about a picture."
"Of course, but not with the fat suit on," she laughs. "That would be a step too far."