Shrewsbury School has a distinguished history: founded by Royal Charter in 1552, and identified as one of the 'Great' public schools by the Clarendon Commission in 1868. Since then - in line with the work of its most famous old boy, Charles Darwin - the school has continued to evolve in an innovative and dynamic way, based on foundations of traditional values. Most recently, the successful introduction of a co-educational sixth form, in 2008, has prepared the way for a new period of expansion and achievement.
Shrewsbury School lives and breathes all the benefits of its boarding ethos - it is a proper boarding school. Many teaching staff live on site and all are committed well beyond 'the call of duty'. So much so that the regular academic timetable forms but a portion of daily routine. Each afternoon Salopians enjoy a rich diet of sport.
Boys compete internationally, particularly in rowing and cricket, and are one of the strongest football schools in the country. Rugby is played to an increasingly high standard. Girls train and compete locally and nationally in hockey, netball and tennis and are also able to access a whole host of other sports including rowing, fives, football, swimming, badminton, cricket, sub aqua and fencing.
Head Groundsman, Ken Spiby, started the trend of being innovative and investing in equipment and staff back in the 1960s. Since his retirement, over twenty five years ago, the school has continued employing a highly competent team of groundsmen.
Today the school have eleven groundstaff under the supervision of Grounds Manager, Andy Richards, who came to the school in 2010. Andy began his career back in 1986 as a parks apprentice with Birmingham City Council, working at Kings Heath, Cannon Hill Park and Cocksmoors Woods Golf Clubs during his four year apprenticeship. He then moved to a private school working under the supervision of James Mead (the current Head Groundsman at Rugby School) who, at the time, was in charge of looking after the grounds at all of the King Edward's school sites.
Andy spent five years working at King Edward's Grammar school for girls in Handsworth. In 1996 he then became Head Groundsman at Birmingham City Football Club, working at the main stadium for five years. His next job was in London at British Airways' BA Concord Club, then on to Christ College School in Brecon, before finally arriving at Shrewsbury School.
Most of the school pitches are situated within the main school campus, set out on two tiers, known affectionately as the Top Common and Bottom Common. Both areas are a heavy, clay loam soil which offer plenty of challenges in terms of keeping the pitches free draining and coping with the heavy fixture lists that occur during the three school term periods.
There is evidence of some old drainage systems in certain areas of the grounds, but there are no real primary or secondary systems installed, with the exception of the new 1st team football pitch.
On the one hundred acre site, there are nine full-size grass pitches and an artificial Astroturf surface. The Top Common has full irrigation, which enables the school to have first-class playing and training surfaces all year round.
Top Common currently provides the best specified and maintained playing surfaces for 1st team football, rugby and cricket.
The cricket pitches at the school have had a lot of money spent on them in recent year, which included a complete a pop up watering system incorporating over one hundred pop-up sprinkler heads, new cricket strips and a fibrelastic training area.
Bottom Common provides three cricket squares, rugby and football pitches, and it is this area that takes more punishment, being used on a daily basis.
Andy has an experienced team of staff working under him. His deputy is Jon Lloyd, who also comes from a greenkeeping background and has been at the school several years. Jon was able to pass on plenty of valuable information on the previous maintenance regimes. Gavin Perry and Anthony Parker (Senior Groundsmen), Brian Reynolds, Alec Waite and Delme Whitbread complete the grounds maintenance team. Richard Russell is Head Gardener, who is assisted by Brian Jones, Ron Williams and Frances Llewelyn.
After seeing at first hand how the pitches were performing, along with holding meetings with the various heads of sport, Andy began his new maintenance programme centred around a more consistent approach to cultural practices, better aeration, feeding and overseeding regimes.
Andy has increased the amount of remedial work carried out on Bottom Common, as the heavier amount of play was having an effect on the surfaces. He changed the cutting regime and raised the height of cut to enable the grass to cope with the heavy wear, and has seen a vast improvement. Previously, some pitches were being cut as low as 19mm. Now, that has to increased to 25-27mm for football and between 35-45mm for rugby, depending on growth.
The cutting regimes are driven by the needs of the playing surface. 1st team pitches are mown more frequently. The 1st team football pitch is cut two or three times a week using the Dennis G860 cassette mowers, whilst other pitches are cut using triple cylinder mowers and rotary deck mowers, once or twice a week, as required.
Most of the garden lawn areas are cut using pedestrian rotaries on a weekly basis.
Like most school grounds managers, Andy has to submit capital budget requests every year, to secure the funding for machinery, resources and materials. He includes his staff in the decision making process as, after all, they are the ones who are tasked with using the equipment and know the site better than most.
Andy would like to replace all the current tractors in one go, on a hire purchase or lease basis. The tractors were bought one a year, the oldest being six years old. Replacing the tractors in this way works out considerably cheaper than the current method.
The current tractors are widely disliked by all the groundstaff, as they are under powered and also leave a very heavy footprint on the turf. This causes quite a lot of damage whilst trying to carry out even the most routine maintenance tasks. In some cases, during the winter, Andy has had to stop work being done to the pitches as the tractors cause more damage/compaction than the remedial action of the task.
He would like to buy two 50hp, a 30hp and a 25hp size tractors, which he is looking into at the moment. This will give his staff a wide mix of tractors, with most service parts being transferable between them all.
The same purchase/lease arrangement could be used to replace the ride-on mowers. Currently, they have three Toro machines; a 6500, 5500 and a Greensmaster 3100, all with 9-blade cylinders. The 3100 also has 9-bladed cylinders. As Andy explains, these machines are really made for the golf industry, where cutting regimes are quite different to sportsfields.
"A golf fairway is cut quite close and very regularly, so the blade of grass is just 'tipped', needing as many blades as possible. Sports pitches, on the other hand, are kept at different heights, the lowest being around 14mm (longer than most fairways) for a cricket outfield and up to 40mm for a rugby pitch."
"Cutting regimes are also different, two to three cuts a week on average. This then needs wider spacings between blades, 5 or 6 bladed being about right."
"The maintenance of these machines is also high and gets considerably higher year on year," says Andy. "I would like to replace all three machines with two 3-unit machines." To this end, Andy has had every major manufacturer's triple mower on demo in the last four months; having them for at least a week. This allowed all members of staff to evaluate each machine and provide valuable feedback.
With prices ranging from £13,000 up to £24,000, the decision has to be right. "Quality of cut, speed, comfort and ease of servicing all have to be taken into consideration, it is not just about price," says Andy. A couple of the triples did stand out from the rest, which Andy would like to look into further.
Recognising the need to increase the frequency and variance of aeration work, he would also like to replace his current Charterhouse Verti-drain 7516 with a lighter, faster 7316 machine. "This will also give us the ability to deep aerate, and be able to reduce compaction by using a smaller tractor to power the unit. The current 7516, with its weight, can only be used at certain times of the year. Ideally, I want to be able to vertidrain each pitch every third week."
"In my previous position, I managed to vertidrain the cricket squares in November, December and January to encourage deep rooting and to help unify the surface. But, I could never risk our current model, as the size of tractor would cause tyre mark indentations and the weight of the machine itself could cause rippling of the loam and root breaks."
A topdresser is also on his wish list, which will allow him to apply lighter, but more frequent sand dressing to the pitches. "This would mean buying a 1.5 cubic metre to 3 cubic metre topdresser with twin spinning disks. We could hire one when needed, but you are then tied to when the company has one available and could be stopped by unfavourable weather conditions. In a school environment, where the grounds are heavily used, it sometimes comes down to very small windows of opportunity to get such tasks as topdressing done."
Andy is undertaking a number of projects to improve the playing surfaces.
"Bottom Common does have some drainage issues. They are not as bad as I originally thought and have improved greatly with better maintenance. We found the original plans from when the pitches were laid in 1938. They were built with a full clay drainage system, which was, unfortunately, damaged in World War II when it was used for vegetable production."
"With the levelling of the cricket outfield, last summer, we found the main drain and several large inspection chambers. This is still working well and can be adapted to a new system. The main drain is always the most expensive part of any drainage system, along with the outlet, which is also in place. The pitches, therefore, could be drained using 4in perforated pipe, which could be installed relatively cheaply and with not a great deal of damage with a whizz wheel."
"We have also used the Blec Sandmaster across the whole area. This involved cutting 1" wide slits into the ground, 6in deep, which was then backfilled with sand. These slits are spaced at 12in centres. It works really well at improving the soil structure and surface water percolation rates. But, this is only a short term solution until new primary and secondary systems can be installed." The work was carried out by a local contractor.
"I'm confident in this method as I have used it in the past with very good results, turning a rugby training pitch, which had over twenty unplayable days during the year, to one that had only one unplayable day the following year, when rainfall was heavier." The cost for this is around £1 per square metre. The average pitch size is about 6000 square metres.
"Top Common drains well, where new drains have been installed, and there has been no issues with waterlogging. However, since the installation of the irrigation system, there has been some localised flooding where the new irrigation system was mole ploughed in and cut through a number of the original drains, which were not repaired. I will have to investigate and repair any damaged drains."
Andy is keen to restore the levels on a number of pitches. When the time and budgets become available, he will seek appropriate funding to reconstruct a number of pitches.
Cricket is a very popular sport at the school. There are five cricket squares; the 1st team square has nineteen tracks and the 2nd team, 13 tracks. The three other squares have 5/6 tracks each. The school can be hosting between 15-25 games of cricket every week during the season.
The cricket groundstaff carry out a 7-10 day wicket preparation programme on all wickets, using raised covers and flat sheets to control moisture levels in the square. The school have their own Graden which they use for end of season renovations, ensuring they are effectively cleaned out after a busy playing season. The team has, in the past, used a Koro fraise mower to help restore levels.
One of the first major projects Andy got involved with was rectifying some tracks on the 1st team square. Five of them where prone to drying out and cracking severely, with little bounce. They were, in fact, fairly new tracks that had been installed just three years ago. After some investigations Andy found, what he believes were, the underlying problems with the wicket. They had been constructed using a lot of sand and gravel layers. 350mm had been dug out, with a 150mm sand over 150mm of grit, topped with 50mm of Surrey loam. "It was no wonder it was prone to drying out and giving low bounce. So, we dug up the wickets and relaid them with local soils, topped that with 100mm of Surrey loam and seeded. If all goes well, I may try some games on them later this summer."
It is early days for Andy but, having already addressed a number of problems, he and his staff are enjoying the positive feedback they are getting from sports masters and pupils alike.