0 All England Bowls - no place for the old!

Just as The Open' golf championship moves on a rota basis, so too does the crown green bowls equivalent, the famous 'All England' competition.

This year, it was the turn of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Counties Bowling Association (WWCBA) to host the event, and the venue chosen was the Portland Road Pavilion in Edgbaston.

The site is shared jointly by two bowling clubs - Broomfield and Mitchells & Butlers - and has staged seven previous All England championships, having been used in virtually every decade since 1935.

WWCBA have been lauded in recent seasons for their willingness to select 'youth over experience' for their County representative team, a policy that will have been further reinforced by twenty year old Greg Smith cruising to an impressive 2013 title victory and becoming the first Warwick & Worcester male to lift the trophy for twenty-eight years.

However, it is the story of the bowling greens and, specifically, a twenty-something greenkeeper that has brought me back to a place I vividly remember from my own childhood and early bowls career.

Portland Road Pavilion - or 'M&B's' as it is more commonly referred to - was built in 1930 as the sports ground for the thriving Mitchells and Butlers Cape Hill Brewery. Like many large employers with a social conscience, the brewers provided their workforce with a sporting facility that was second to none. Ten full-time staff were employed to maintain the nine acre site, complete with three large bowling greens, a cricket ground capable of hosting first class cricket, grass and clay tennis courts, football pitches and even a short pitch and putt golf course.

Between 1935 and 1980, only two people held the position of Grounds Superintendent, George Gurley (1935-1960) and Ray Weston (1960-1980). The position afforded both men legendary status in local sports turf circles, as they were responsible for not only the Portland Road site, but also virtually every blade of grass under M&B ownership in the Greater Birmingham area.

As a young lad in the 1980s, I remember a visit to M&B's like a step into a Garden of Eden as, behind the cast iron entrance gates, lay clipped hedges and immaculate beds and borders leading to a fine clubhouse with various bars and function rooms.

Unfortunately, like many works sports grounds, the site began to deteriorate in the 1990s when the company put the maintenance out to contract, and by 2002, the closure of the brewery signalled the end of Mitchells & Butlers involvement with the site.

Looking at the buildings today, there is an air of sadness at the faded glamour of the place - though at least it still exists - helped largely by a Section 106 planning agreement ensuring it cannot be developed for anything other than sporting use.

Sadly, only two bowling greens now remain (the old floodlit third green has long since been a children's playground), the cricket square is now the middle of a football pitch and, as for the grass tennis courts, well, it's probably best not to dwell.

Yet, ironically, the recent demise of another local bowling club - Broomfield - has brought about an injection of life into Portland Road, not least due to the drive and determination of a young volunteer greenkeeper.

Jonathan Blakeman is that man and, at twenty-nine years old, has more than ten years experience of turf management - much of which under the tutelage of his father, Rigby Taylor's Steve Blakeman.

Growing up playing bowls with his brother Carl at the Broomfield Bowling Club in Smethwick, Jon lent a hand with the upkeep of a green regarded by many as one of the best surfaces in the Midlands.

When Steve decided to hang up his shed key in 2006, Jonathan took over and continued to achieve the high standards that the club had come to expect.

Therefore, it was gut-wrenching for all concerned when, halfway through the 2010 season - following a long disagreement with the site managers - Broomfield Bowling Club found themselves needing a new home.

"Without wishing to sound too melodramatic, when we lost the old green it felt like we lost an old friend and a spiritual home, all at the same time," explains Jon. "After 112 years on the same site, it was tough for all of us to take."

After considering various options, Broomfield were able to move, en masse, to nearby Mitchells & Butlers Bowling Club. With two greens at their disposal, but a dwindling membership, M&B's were quite happy to accept their neighbours and allow them to adopt the no. 2 green.

Significantly, the organisations would remain independent of each other, thereby ensuring two of the oldest clubs in the area continued to survive, rather than merge as one and lose yet another bowls club forever.

"I don't think I'd be doing anyone a disservice if I said the bowling green was in poor condition when we arrived here, so coming from an immaculate surface like old Broomfield was extremely challenging for the whole club. As we were halfway through the playing year, there was very little we could do to significantly improve the green until the end of the season."

As soon as autumn arrived and the bowling had finished, Jonathan decided to "hit the green hard" with his renovations, the objective being to simply "provide a surface to bowl on" for the following year.

"Knowing the green had received little attention for a number of years, we used a Robin Dagger to aerate to a good depth, before solid-tining with a pedestrian Groundsman machine, ripping the guts out with a Graden, then overseeding, topdressing and feeding."

Not surprisingly, improvements were swift and, despite the initial difficulties, the Broomfield membership could see potential for the set-up to be first-class. Indeed, players of a certain vintage still remembered M&B's as the finest sports facility in the Birmingham area.

"Things were going well, the green continued to improve and the club entered a period of much needed stability. Then 'it' happened!"

The 'it', Jon is referring to, was a truly horrible accident involving his hand being mangled in the tungsten tipped verticut unit of the club's Dennis mower.

It was a sunny weekday afternoon - a rarity in the miserably wet 2012 season - and Jon had been verticutting both the bowling greens. Getting to the end of a strip, he instinctively bent down to push a build up of grass cuttings deeper into the back of the grass box.

"I rarely wear gloves - however, on this particular day I did - and in the blink of an eye, the end of the glove got caught in the verticutters tungsten tips and pulled my right hand straight into the revolving blades"

The noise of the mower's engine stalling is something that still remains vivid in Jon's memory, as does the stagger from the bowling green to the pavilion in an effort to wash the wound under a cold tap. Immediately, Jon knew things were bad - especially given his colleague Dave Southall had just left for home, moments before the accident.

"As luck would have it, Dave was still around the car park area and I managed to attract his attention by shouting. He took one look and called for an ambulance and, before I knew it, I was in the Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital being operated on."

Despite a gloomy initial prognosis - there was talk of maybe losing two fingers - Jonathan received first-rate medical attention from the Q.E. surgeons and his fingers all remained attached and intact. With physio and rest, Jon was soon back playing bowls, albeit using his left hand for the remainder of that season!

"If Dave hadn't been around on that afternoon, I'd have been in real trouble, because I was losing lots of blood and there was no-one else on site. Hopefully, this will serve as a reminder to all greenkeepers and groundsmen of the dangers of operating machinery and also the potential problems of lone-working."

Despite the trauma of the accident, the 2012 season ended on a positive note, with the opportunity to showcase the fine work going on at Portland Road to a much wider audience.

As mentioned, the All England bowls tournament moves from county to county each season and 2013 was to be the turn of the WWCBA to play host. Any club within the county that is interested in staging the event can put themselves forward and, following a lengthy selection process, it was decided that Broomfield and M&B bowling clubs would jointly stage this year's event.

"Despite the fact that Portland Pavilion, as a whole, is not quite the standard it was in, say, Ray Weston's day, we feel it remains the jewel in the Warwick & Worcester crown. We have restored the bowling surfaces to their former glory and the venue is still easily capable of hosting sixty-four players and over 1,000 spectators on the biggest Saturday in the bowls calendar."

"As soon as we got the nod to stage the event, I insisted that the greens should be managed identically in the build up to the tournament. That way, come the day of the finals, competitors would enjoy uniformity of green speed across the two surfaces."

In reality, that meant that Jon's workload doubled overnight - although he is quick to point out that he is well assisted by two other guys, one from each of the clubs.

"I get fantastic support from Darren Griffiths (Broomfield) and Dave Southall (M&B). They help with all the mowing as well as always being there to assist with any other matters." ... like saving Jon's hand ... or maybe even his life?

Walking over the greens with Jon, on the morning of the big event, it was obvious that all of the players participating later that day would be delighted with what they found when they arrived through the gates.

"From a playability point of view, both greens have always been regarded as true by visiting bowlers, mainly due to a lack of any real tricks. This makes them well suited to knockout competitions, although not necessarily good for home advantage at club level."

Jonathan maintains the Broomfield green on a 'little but often' feeding regime and provides monthly applications of wetting agent, amino acids and a bio-stimulant. He still works closely with his father Steve, who not surprisingly, supplies the products.

As well as a comprehensive year-round maintenance programme - comparable with many a fully staffed 18 hole golf course - the final weeks before the tournament saw an even greater level of effort going into the greens.

As a measure of Jon's commitment, as soon as the news had been announced regarding the hosting of the tournament, he promptly booked two weeks annual leave from his "real 9 to 5 job", so that he could be on site for the fortnight before the big day.

What he hadn't reckoned on was a heat wave in July that saw no rainfall for over three weeks. With no automatic irrigation system, his days clocked in at anything between 12-16 hours (all unpaid) as he struggled to keep 2,736 square metres of grass plant from giving up the ghost.

"In the month leading up to the event, both greens were solid tined, scarified, fed, verticut and sprayed with chelated iron for a little bit of colour.

In the final week, both greens were cut daily at 4mm up to the Thursday, when the height was dropped to 3.25mm for the last three cuts prior to the Saturday competition."

On the day of the event, I was especially impressed with Jon's innovative presentation of the surfaces - cutting both greens in 'football style' blocks rather than traditional up and back twenty inch stripes

"With the tournament being recorded by a professional TV crew and streamed live on the internet, I was looking for maximum impact from a presentation point of view. As a keen football fan, I'm always impressed by the aesthetics of pitch presentation, especially when seen on telly, so I thought, let's try and reproduce something similar, just on a smaller scale."

And he certainly achieved it, with the greens looking first class, not only from the grandstand, but also on the TV screens showing the action in the various bars around the site and also to the internet viewers at home.

Surprisingly, other than the kudos of hosting the games biggest one-day event, the bowls clubs themselves made no financial gain on the day.
"We estimate that the thick-end of £30,000 changes hands on the day of the All England; that's gate entrance money, additional revenue from seat ticket sales plus all the refreshments, yet we [the bowling clubs] will make nothing very little the event."

With the game's governors, The British Crown Green Bowling Association, taking all gate and additional seating receipts, the privately owned social club taking all refreshments revenue (and believe me there is a lot of beer sold on the day!) and the WWCBA claiming the rights to run a raffle, then the return on the time invested amounts to very little in the way of tangible reward.

However, as many people in sports turf understand, the satisfaction from a job well done usually outweighs the frustration of poor financial return and, as the last bowl of the championships came to rest at almost exactly 7.00pm on Saturday evening, that warm glow of satisfaction burned brightly in many of those present, knowing that the efforts of a talented young greenkeeper had just enabled a talented young bowler to lift the biggest title in the game.

Crown green bowls an old mans game? Never!

Postscript

There is a final, unexpected twist in this tale because, shortly after the successful day, Jon found out that he is to be made redundant from his Corporate Banking job in 2014. With bills to pay and mouths to be fed, he is understandably concerned at what the future holds. However, he is also keen to turn this situation to his advantage and is hopeful of finding an opportunity in sportsturf as a full time career.

"I've loved this kind of work since I was a very young lad. Looking back I do regret perhaps not getting into it at an earlier age, but now, with my enforced change of circumstance, it is an ideal time to consider a switch and follow my heart."

And, given the level of commitment and technical excellence he has demonstrated as an amateur, I have no doubt Jonathan Blakeman has all the attributes to be just as successful as a professional. Watch this space!


What's in the shed?

Lloyds Paladin 20"
Dennis FT510 used for Verticutting
6ft dragbrush (always used prior to cutting)
72" dew brush
Pattisson drum spiker for solid tining
Vitax Evenspray 250 (25L) for spraying
Petrol blower - for greens and surrounds - various debris on greens depending on time of year

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