As a female writer, I believe the number of years in this title is slightly out… by just a few hundred years. However, at Shrewsbury School, girls have only been admitted into the Sixth Form since 2008. I met up with Grounds Manager, Andy Richards, to discuss the extensive sporting facilities at the school and how his team maintain the 128-acre riverside location.
Set on the banks of the River Severn, Shrewsbury School was founded by Edward VI in 1552 following the dissolution of two ecclesiastical colleges in the town. Its students have included Sir Philip Sidney, soldier, statesman and author; Fulke Greville Brooke, poet and humanist; and Charles Darwin, naturalist. In 2000, a bronze statue of Darwin as a young man was unveiled by Sir David Attenborough which stands in front of the main school building.
Originally a boarding school for boys, girls have been admitted into the Sixth Form since 2008 and the school has been fully co-educational since 2014. Sports play a major part in life for boarding and day pupils alike and it's Andy's responsibility, along with his strong team of ten, to ensure the playing and training surfaces meet all expectations. This is no mean feat given the fields were once described by cricket-writer Sir Neville Cardus as "the most beautiful playing fields in the world, spreading and imperceptibly mingling with the pasture land of Shropshire."
This coming June will mark Andy's eighth year at the school (after leaving Christ College in Brecon following five years there) and he loves the challenge of a multi-sports facility. His uncle was head of conservation on Birmingham City parks and, throughout school, Andy had wanted to be a gardener. His training was carried out at Birmingham City Council, in what turned out to produce a fine year of groundsmen including James Mead whom we now know as Grounds manager at Rugby School. Andy describes the course as an invaluable time to discover what your passion was and a perfect start into the industry.
"The course started with a two-week induction, before sending us off to spend three months in various environments; park, greenhouse, sportsground and golf course amongst others. Those first two years were a great taster before picking a chosen application for the third year and, as I really enjoyed the sportsground aspect, I did that. At nineteen I was made charge-hand at Birmingham City Council, where I stayed for a further five years, before moving to King Edwards Grammar School. Jim Mead was groundsman at their nine sites and, in time and at the ripe age of twenty-one, I was promoted to Head Groundsman at one of the schools. Three years later, I made the move to Birmingham City FC where I became the youngest head groundsman in the country."
Left: Andy Richards and right: Charles Darwin statue
Andy continued: "It was always my ambition to be head groundsman at the blues, and I had achieved this at such a young age, so it was a case of 'what do I do next?'. Someone suggested doing multi-sports to challenge my abilities so, I went to London to gain a broad experience in other sports, as I hadn't touched a cricket square since I was sixteen. I got the position as head groundsman at British Airways Clubs, and it was at this point I realised I definitely wanted to stay in a multi-sports environment."
"I'm going to be controversial and say that preparing football pitches is easy compared to a multi-sports facility, and cricket in particular. You could write down a twelve-month plan for football and, give or take a few adjustments, you would achieve a half decent pitch. With cricket it's very difficult. Every wicket is different, and every day is different. Something you did yesterday that worked well might not work again due to changes in the weather or different requirements."
"I really admire Gary Barwell who prepares the pitches at Edgbaston. The challenges they face and the scrutiny they're under is incredible. If we produce a poor wicket (which I don't think we've ever done) we would get moaned at, but it wouldn't be seen by so-called experts and thousands of viewers. We try to do things here as Gary would at Edgbaston, and I believe our wicket preparation is very similar. Even though it's for schoolboys, we try to produce the best possible surface we can across every sport, for every pupil."
"Having worked at a variety of venues, schools are by far the hardest challenge as the usage is very much feast or famine. Term time pitch usage is seven days a week but then there is a nine week break in the summer and a month off at Christmas. These breaks mean we can hold many outside events, including football, cricket and rowing camps, which bring in publicity and interest for the school, as well as £0.5 million per year of revenue. This is obviously a welcome addition, but it makes it very hard for us to renovate pitches and give them a rest."
Left: football pitches, middle: the eldest tree on site, right: fives courts
The facilities are vast on the site, including thirteen winter sports pitches; term one is all football, term two split between rugby and football for boys. In addition to this there are two Astroturf pitches, eight hard tennis/netball courts and a grass lacrosse pitch for girls. Due to the school going co-educational in 2008, the need for girl's sport and facilities is much more prevalent. Along the way, this meant one football pitch was lost, which put more pressure on the other surfaces, but it also made way for a new Astroturf pitch eighteen months ago.
Also played at the school is a sport called Fives, which is a bit like squash and played with two doubles teams. It is played with your hand wearing a glove and a small cork ball and is a sport that was invented by Eton schoolboys. When they were waiting to go into Chapel, they entertained themselves with a screwed-up piece of paper and would play against the back of the Chapel wall.
All the fives courts (fourteen of them in total) are now modelled on the back wall of Eton Chapel. Andy said: "It's become really popular and Shrewsbury is one of the country's strongest schools in the league. One of our teachers is actually ranked world number one".
Top and bottom common
The soil profile differs throughout the site, as there are effectively two different platforms, known as top and bottom common. The top common has an 8cm layer of clay loam with no subsoil so, whilst it takes a lot of water, there's no drainage or outlet and it suddenly floods making it unplayable for weeks on end. However, this surface does have a full Rain Bird irrigation system with 120 sprinklers, so this is easy to control in dry spells.
Bottom common is built on a rubbish tip and evolved into vegetable patches just before the war. Not long after, it was transformed into football pitches, but it means that under the four inches of soil there is an ash layer followed by lots of bottles and rubbish which is actually quite effective for drainage. Only two pitches have drainage installed, so the school are just looking into putting that into at least one other pitch this year if the budget allows.
Andy commented: "When I first started working here it was summer, and there wasn't a blade of grass growing on the bottom common. At one point, it was completely sterile with no organic matter at all. Finally, it feels as though there is a bit of life down there and it will continue to improve year on year."
A typical day
The majority of sport at the school doesn't start until 4.00pm, so it gives Andy and the team a chance to get everything prepared for all sports. "We have a team meeting at 8.00am every morning and I distribute the daily tasks to each team member, including gardeners and groundstaff comprising of Jon Lloyd, Dominic Murray, Andy Cooke, Stuart Edwards, Mark Ironmonger, Brian Jones, Joe Boyes, Ryan Dawes, Joe Harrison and Adam Davies. In the winter months, someone will be out constantly verti-draining and aerating the pitches, whilst the other lads are mowing, setting flags out etc. We have sport Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday which leaves Thursday free and provides a great opportunity to carry out renovations and better prepare the pitches."
L to R: Ryan Dawes, Mark Ironmonger, Joe Harrison, Stuart Edwards, Jon Lloyd, Andy Richards, Joe Boyes, Brian Jones, Adam Davies and Dominic Murray
Andy continues: "Cricket season is more difficult as so many games are played. If the weather is poor, covering and uncovering the wickets can take six people all day long. We probably have thirty wickets on the go at any one time and, last year, we played two-hundred and sixty matches, which was roughly thirty-five matches per week. First team matches will start at 11.00am for cricket, so that means earlier starts during the season in order to get the wickets prepared and squares mown."
All wickets are 7-10 days preparation and Andy uses his three Dennis FT510s for cricket and G760s for football. "This is my third batch of FT510s and they work extremely hard here. We use them predominantly for cricket wicket presentation and every one of the two-hundred and sixty matches that are played."
Andy revealed that he's an advocate of hand mowing and that he uses his G760s in conjunction with his Dennis Premiers: "I've always been a fan of the G760s and originally we used them on the cricket squares. However, we started hand cutting the first team football pitch with them and we have the added bonus of using a variety of different cassettes such as the verticutter and brush. To allow us to mow more pitches by hand, we use the G760s alongside the Premiers which have a slightly wider cut and it gives us a good contrast with the G760 because that is slightly smaller and slightly lighter."
"For grass seed I use Limagrain MM50 on the cricket squares, whilst I go to MM60 on the football pitches. Everything has a slow-release base feed fertiliser, using ICL products and, in addition, we use a lot of liquids, seaweeds, fulvic and humic acids. We have a very good relationship with ICL and they carry out soil samples twice a year. The results allow us to tailor the products we use and build a 12-month programme for first team football, which we tweak slightly depending on the weather. The rest of the pitches are slightly more ad hoc using a watered-down version of the same programme."
"The annual programme is one of the biggest changes I've implemented since being here, as well as changing the quantities of fertiliser and grass seed. For example, the year before I started, the school used twenty bags of seed and last year we used four tonnes. We use the best quality we can for our budgets and it's all disc seeded which has seen huge improvements. Without a doubt, the Vredo seeder is the one machine that I couldn't live without after using it for the past two years. To be able to disc seed grass into savage pitches and be so accurate has made a huge difference. When you look at statistics for germination... by hand is approximately 10%, dimple seed is 40% and if you disc seed you get 96%. On a pitch even full of meadow grass, it's so satisfying to see the lines of decent grass coming up. It feels like a no brainer now and I wish I had purchased one years ago."
"Year on year things are getting better and the grass is getting stronger but, a lot of the time, it's about making it through the vast amount of usage we have to deal with. 1300 football games are played from September through to March. Last year, we had twenty-five games on the first team pitch all season and already we're on thirty-seven this year, so it's really hard to maintain the pitches and surrounding areas."
There are two artificial surfaces; one is eighteen years old and, in contrast, the other is eighteen months old which means they are maintained very differently. The new one is still under warranty and is cleaned quarterly by the company which did the installation so for the time being that takes care of itself. "The old one is obviously much more difficult to keep in good condition and we have quite a few issues with it. There's a big renovation plan due for the summer, as part of a rejuvenation process, which we also did three years ago. At some point, we will replace the old one but that's obviously a costly process so, for now, we have machinery and equipment to maintain the surfaces, albeit we handle them individually. Artificial doesn't really interest me, but I'm very conscious that if we had a 3G pitch it would certainly take some of the wear off the grass surfaces."
Trees and pests
The school has approximately 1200 trees which are surveyed every three years by an external tree surgeon but maintained by the team. Grounds Training have been used for staff to carry out tree survey courses and these have proved invaluable for them to identify something that's going on with a tree. Every year they remove around twenty trees, but plant three trees for each one taken out, which means the school has acquired many more in Andy's reign. He said: "There's a weird age split with the trees as the school went through a period where the groundsman or head of estates didn't like trees, which has created a forty to fifty-year gap where we have no trees in that age group. We have a lot of young ones that we've planted over the last five to ten years, very few middle-aged trees and then loads that are over mature and coming to the end of their life, which is why we remove so many each year. A lot of the trees are over pathways, so we can't risk the dangers and I spend windy days praying there are no big branches lost."
Andy also uses outside contractors for hedgecutting and weed spraying. The school hosts what is called a Speech Day which has become the show piece for the year and an event to celebrate the numerous achievements of both boys and girls. There are numerous contractors brought in over this period to help prepare for the event, but all renovations are done in-house.
Left: All set for Speech Day
"You live off your renovations for the next year, and I love that side of things. It's a big part of why I do my job and a chance to make your mark for the coming season. After that, it's just a matter of day to day maintenance. In my opinion, a lot of clubs outsource their renovation work to ensure they have someone else to blame if things go wrong. The school have always supported suggestions/decisions I have made and never questioned what me or my team do. I know I'm lucky in that respect and it gives us all the freedom and confidence to work in a comfortable environment."
One of the gardeners has been at the school for twenty-five years but there has been quite a big change of staff since Andy started due to retirement and change of skillsets required. Andy continued: "We used to have a separate team of gardeners and groundstaff who used to have different break times which created a strong divide between both teams. One of the things I wanted to do was bring it all under the same team and have one department. The mess is ferocious for banter (as I'm sure it is in most workplaces), but it's a family and very much a team spirit atmosphere which means they are all willing to go the extra mile by coming in early to do whatever is required. Recently, that's been a lot of salt spreading and I really appreciate all the hard work they put in."
"Last year, I used twenty bags of rock salt and, for the past three years, I've had two tonnes sat in the yard doing nothing. This year, I've used ten tonnes which is slightly different and meant the team have had to work extra hard in this area. I recently looked at the weather over the last six months using Greencast and it transpired there's been one dry week since July. The amount of rain wasn't much different to the previous two years. However, the year before, we had ten dry weeks which explains why it feels like we've worked on wet pitches since we carried out renovations. We have young grass on most of the pitches as we have quite thorough renovations, this then struggles with 20-30 hours per week of usage if it's not had an opportunity to dry out and establish."
"Sport England recommend that an undrained pitch has 2.5 hours usage per week; ours are used on average twenty-five hours per week so it's proved really difficult. This year, we've had to call off nearly 150 grass sessions of sport and, when you compare that to the previous year when we didn't even reach double figures, the stats speak for themselves. December and January we didn't have a machine out on the fields for nearly eight weeks, as it was too wet. We couldn't verti-drain pitches and get them as aerated as we would usually. Somehow though, we've still managed to play over a thousand sessions of sport so far."
Andy continued: "I've recently bought a weather station to determine exactly what's happening on site. It sends a signal every half an hour and reports all the stats, including rainfall, wind-chill, temperature etc., and this will help greatly in planning and also to build a trend pattern. It predicts the weather really well, which is also helpful. Around the pitches, I've also installed SoilSCaPE which gives me the soil temperature at 10cm depth, as well as moisture values for each playing surface. These, along with the weather station, have taken all the guesswork out of it and enabled me to build a good picture of what's happening in and above the ground which aids fungicide selection."
"One of the major issues we've been dealing with over the last six months, given the loss of products, is worm control. I've tried various other methods of control that are just not as effective, and is a concern with the effects on wildlife. Because you're used to seeing a total solution, it's about changing your mindset to a long-term solution and start spraying products earlier than you usually would in order to discourage the worms before they appear."
"When I was at Christ College, the soil pH was 4.6 and I had the worst worm castings I'd had anywhere which was surprising, but it also proves that worms will adjust to whatever soil conditions they're faced with. Increasing the sand content doesn't work on clay pitches so there needs to be a solution soon. However, in my opinion, I think until it starts to affect football league clubs, I don't think anything will be done, and most of them are on sandy rock-hard pitches so I don't think it will happen."
"The good thing is that the beast from the east seems to have calmed things down, for now. September was particularly bad, and we tried Downcast, but it only seemed to give a slight reduction on the casts. Cricket squares this year will no doubt prove difficult to prepare, but we need to be forward thinking. When it gets to two or three years down the line without any control, the situation will be worse than it is now, so something needs to be done."
Worms aren't the only worry on the site. "Badgers are a big issue for us on one part of the site, as they burrow under the trees and cause them to collapse at certain times of the year. They live underneath the gas main and dig up from there which causes leaks but, luckily, they don't tend to come onto site too much. We had Natural England come in who confirmed they're a very healthy colony, so that's nice to know!" Andy laughed. "We know there are thireteen sets, so I'm sure they have a lovely time."
Squirrels also do quite a lot of damage to trees by stripping the bark and they have a habit of chewing through new goal nets. "We recently replaced six nets and the very next day they were all chewed through which is odd as they didn't touch the old ones."
Left: green waste area, right: View down to the River Severn and boathouse
Given the many trees on site, there are a multitude of birds and wildlife, including woodpeckers, and there is also an apiary and a couple of wildflower meadows.
Green waste is all composted on-site, which includes approximately thirty tonnes of cardboard in a dedicated area, so nothing leaves the grounds. It's all reused on flowerbeds and to build areas up and Andy and the team are currently developing the waste site to include a wildflower bank which should mask it nicely.
Other future plans include the purchase of a new GPS linemarker which will see a big reduction in man hours that it currently takes. Instead of three guys going out to set the pitches up, it will only require one, for a shorter period of time. Andy said: "Marking a lacrosse pitch is currently three hours work… with GPS one person can do the same job in half an hour, so it's a no brainer. We use MAX-LINE Platinum Pro marking paint which is the best fluid I've ever used."
Other improvements will include a drainage project which would see the biggest improvements in the pitches for over fifty years. The pitches haven't had any major renovations since the first team pitch was built ten years ago and Andy has taken them as far as he can. "It would be nice to start a programme of levelling all the pitches and putting drainage in. Hopefully, the Bursar and Head of Sports will understand that we wouldn't have lost so many sessions if the pitches had drainage."
"Each pitch needs to be as good and as hard wearing as possible. Our pitch usage goes up every year, however, the amount of pitches available goes down. It will be a massive step forward."
I'll be making a return visit to keep an eye on progress and to keep doing it for the girls.
What's in the shed
New Holland TN75
New Holland Boomer
Kubota 3030 x 2
Ride on mowers
John Deere 2653b x 2
John Deere 7400
John Deere X950
Kawasaki mule 4010 x 2
John Deere Gator
Dennis Premier x 2
Dennis G760 x 2
Dennis FT510 x 3
Lawnflite rear roller x 4
Honda rotaries x 4
Autoroller AR4 x 2
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 7316
Koro 1.5 Field Top Maker
Sisis Auto Rotorake MK5
Graden pedestrian scarifyer
Sisis Quadraplay x 2
Major Swift mower
Amazone Groundskeeper 150