Something 'green' stirs amongst the ancient woodland of Epping Forest, as a popular multi-use golf club reaps the rewards of organically managed soil biology. Greg Rhodes interviews Chingford Golf Course's Head Greenkeeper Gary Speller to find out more about the management practices at this green oasis of Greater London.
Less than half an hour's train ride east from London Liverpool Street station lies a beautiful 18-hole golf course, laid out on land offering peaceful, scenic walks with a twist of history thrown in.
Royalty rode across these acres in Tudor and Elizabethan times, when Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I galloped through the oaks and beeches of Epping Forest. Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge still rises among the trees, a historical reminder of the days when deer were the riders' quarry. A Royal link with the land remains - his Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester is the official Ranger of Epping Forest.
Managed by the City of London Corporation (CoLC) - as part of its stewardship of Epping Forest - the Chingford Golf Course comprises two returning loops and plays a maximum 6,342yd par 72 to challenge players of every standard.
Not one golf club but three, in fact, have adopted the holes as their home. Royal Epping Forest Golf Club (REFGC) established a nine-hole course in 1888 and members still play here today. Over the years, they have been joined by Chingford Golf Club and Chingford Ladies Golf Club.
Officially the oldest golf club in Essex and the only one in the county with royal attribution, it is also one of the few royal clubs playing over land with commoners rights, along with the Royal & Ancient at St Andrews and Royal Montrose.
In 1901, the CoLC took responsibility for managing the course, and public play at Chingford was regulated for the first time with the introduction of annual season tickets.
William Dunn Jr, the course's first professional, came from a famous family of golf course designers. He expanded the course to 18 holes, extending it from Hawk Wood to Warren Wood, and across Rangers Road towards Barn Hoppitt. In the late 1920s, the then Captain of West Kent Golf Club, R.E.B. Overton, was behind a number of other modifications to the course. These modifications were completed in 1928 with the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Charles Batho, hitting a ball off one of the new tees. Sir Charles had played his first game of golf on the course twenty-five years prior. In the late fifties, CoLC moved the entire course to the west side of Bury Road with Les Gowers, the course golf professional at the time, designing the new layout with a change to the 1st and 2nd holes in the 1990s.
The Chingford Golf Club was formed in 1923 by a group of local tradesmen who could only join the existing private club as 'artisans'. Today, a busy social and competition calendar keeps the greenkeeping team busy ensuring golf is on hand year-round to golfers. The Brock Cup, for example, maintains the memory of Walthamstow Golf Club following its takeover by Chingford, which also includes an independently-run ladies' section.
Historic it may be, but tradition lives alongside innovation here. An early adopter of soil biology, it has taken root across the course, which reaps the benefits of the investment in a natural approach to disease control and turf health under an evolving environmental programme which Head Greenkeeper Gary Speller runs.
The only concession is winter tee mats for the par 3 holes.
"We enjoy high usage here and are open throughout the year - summer is particularly hectic," Gary confirms. "Although private members and the public all play here, there's no conflict, just friendly rivalry. Pay and play is very popular and loyalty schemes or yearly subscriptions are also available for the public. Add to that the clubs and it creates a diverse demographic, in contrast to many private clubs."
Only a couple of minutes' walk from Chingford station, the course draws a healthy catchment from the capital. "CoLC runs its own golf society, which also plays here," Gary says, "creating even greater diversity of use."
Employed by CoLC, Gary keeps strong communications with his line manager, CoLC open spaces management and the club chairmen. The City has other golfing interests locally, Gary explains, with Theydon, Loughton and Woodford Golf clubs all having agreements with us to play golf on Forest land.
Its sporting offer also stretches to Wanstead, with provision of some forty-five natural football pitches. The national game has played its part in Gary's life. Born and bred in nearby Walthamstow, he left school in 1988 to take up an apprenticeship at Abridge Golf and Country Club in Essex, gaining Levels 1 and 2 in Sport Turf Management at Writtle College.
A switch to the Spurs training ground and main stadium as deputy head groundsman followed in 1999, but his stay proved short-lived and he left in 2000. "I wanted to return to golf," he explains. "There's more variety of work, different heights of cut across the course and differing areas to manage, creating more challenges throughout the year."
"I'm perfectly happy here," the 48-year-old confesses. "My key target is to maintain a course free of pesticides, fungicides and insecticides."
"It's a challenge though", he adds, "with the move to natural organic turf management, it will take several years to begin the process of weaning off chemical application. We want to find another way of controlling disease and pests, but it takes time to evolve. We did have to spray a fungicide on the course twice in 2017, but that was all we applied. Over the first few years, the biosystem stabilised and became more self-reliant, although we still apply organic materials to keep everything ticking over."
"It's all about improving what you have rather than spraying chemical to tackle disease," states Gary, summing up Chingford's environmental stance. "The aim is for the course to fight disease naturally with help from the biological products we apply."
Last summer's scorching heat delivered its own problems as fungal disease took hold in the prolonged dry conditions. Gary and his team placed wetting agent down to help the soil retain as much moisture as possible.
Gary, accompanied by his three-strong team, runs a tight ship at Chingford and soldier on with machinery and maintenance that many a greenkeeper would baulk at. "Epping Forest is a charity and we do have a tight budget to work to. The manual pop-up irrigation system was installed more than thirty years ago, however our machinery is kept up to date with the relevant machinery checks carried out." he says.
Machinery maintenance is addressed in-house, with the whole team chipping in. "We're all learning grinding skills," Gary says, "so that there's always someone on hand to do it."
But back to Gary's career path. After leaving Spurs, he joined Crewshill GC in Enfield as an assistant, where he rose to deputy then head greenkeeper.
Meanwhile, he was qualifying in Level 3 Sports Turf Management at Oaklands College, St Albans. After taking up the Chingford Golf Course head greenkeeper's post in 2010, Gary continued qualifying, completing his PA 1 and PA 2 spray certifications, as well as those for tractor driving, loading, trenching and mini-digger operation.
He leads a small team of two greenkeepers including Paul Routledge who joined seven months ago, arriving from council-run Picketts Lock Golf Club in the Lee Valley. "His arboricultural skills are extremely useful," Gary notes, "he is qualified to handle a chainsaw and can help cut back overhanging trees as well as using his Level 2 greenkeeping qualifications day to day."
"When you are such a small team, you have to mix and match duties," Gary stresses.
Another member of the Sports Operations Team is apprentice Tim Stone, here since October 2017, a former Royal Marine with experience of maintaining sports pitches. Doesn't Tim fall outside the usual age-range for an apprentice? "The CoLC is an equal opportunities employer," Gary states. "Age is not a barrier to retraining for a new career and we select the best candidate for the job from applicants. Tim is very fit, as you'd expect from his naval background and has the stamina to put in the hours."
Emphasising the skills mix required of a tight-knit team, he's on day release to Capel Manor College, Enfield for his Level 2 Sports Turf Operative qualification.
Gary also employs casuals too. Ron Penny, retired, worked on the golf course for over twenty years until 2012 "Casual staff are used to cover holidays, rest days and to help at weekends too. Ron is an asset given his long history of working for the CoLC at Chingford Golf Course."
Along with golf demands, Gary's work commitments spread to the CoLC's Wanstead football provision and wider sports operation team. Forty-five natural turf pitches sprawl across three sites, mostly full-size playing surfaces and some smaller ones for junior or mini football. "I step in when necessary," he explains. "the Team Leader there, Paul Poupoutsi, and I work together to support both sports operations, covering for each other, sharing staff and helping work through operational issues to reach the best solution for the circumstance."
Maintaining a woodland site can attract wildlife issues, but Gary's grateful for one small mercy. "The course has just four bunkers on it," he reveals, smiling, leaving the team free of many of the animal intrusions that courses with more sand traps can fall prey to.
Gary has immense pride in his job, if only for one good reason. "The golf course is my CV. If I had to move on, any prospective employer would look at my last course as proof or not of my competency." Happy here, he seems unlikely to want to move site.
"I like to keep the presentation of the course as high as possible, but the conditions do not always allow us to deliver the perfect result."
The history and status of Epping Forest ties the team on some aspects of their work. Deciduous poplar and oak dominate the area - some of the latter date back to medieval times - creating a huge task in autumn to collect fallen leaves. "We get support from the arborists who work for Epping Forest too, they are highly skilled tree surgeons who undertake the more complicated tree management on the course."
With his ever-present eye on disease outbreak, Gary has introduced a programme of removing some of the shrubbery that lines the greens and foliage overhanging them. "It makes for better airflow and allows more natural light on to the course, especially in winter months," he reports.
At the back of the 8th green, the vegetation proved particularly challenging. "We removed some hawthorn and rose hedging last year and, as a result, are fusarium-free, so that's certainly helped." However, the team must steer the saws clear of oak saplings sprouting up around the course," he adds. "We must always remember that we are just one part of the wider Epping Forest landscape, which is such an asset for Londoners."
Gary returns to turf management. "One of my first priorities after I arrived was to trial organic methods - applying a few different products and fertilisers in the hope of introducing a more natural growing environment."
"In 2011, we sprayed full brew compost teas on the greens and soon started to see an improvement. Over the years, that process has continued. We apply twice monthly with different products to help the biology in the soil."
The sward features predominantly Poa annual meadowgrass, but Gary is overseeding with bents this year, then fescues next to create a more balanced grass mix.
Because of the popularity of the course, the team strives to stay ahead of the first tee times - spiking, sanding and cutting before the day starts in earnest.
Like many courses largely unchanged from an era well before the development of beefier drivers, Chingford needs extending on some holes to keep golfers challenged. "I want to make the 18th into a Par 5 to create a strong finish to the course," Gary says. "A new tee is up and running, but we have to consult the Forest's Head of Conservation, Dr Jeremy Dagley, and his team with any plans to remove trees as the Forest is a protected site of historic interest."
Managing cut heights last summer proved a complex task, especially at the height of the heatwave when temperatures soared. "Normally we fluctuate between 5mm on greens, 10mm on tees, a more sustainable height of 18mm on fairways and 45mm for the rough."
As the course is a public open space, does Gary have to pepper it with 'Keep off the Grass` notices. "No," he states decisively. "The public know what they should and shouldn't do by and large." That said, he has witnessed some eyebrow-raising scenes in his time here. "One year, I spotted a family picnicking on one of the greens from which I had to point out to them that they were sitting in a position dangerous to themselves. We also have to move people on who have chosen the fairways for a spot of sunbathing."
He has occasion to read the letter of the law if visitors persist in flouting the rules. "Paragraph 28 of the Epping Forest Acts by-laws state that no-one is allowed to interfere with the playing of lawful games on any portion of the Forest set apart for such games," states Gary, clarifying the position.
At other times, blessedly rarely says Gary, the public stray well beyond the bounds of reasonable behaviour. "Someone once drove a quadbike across a green, badly churning up the surface and one of my team found it at 8.30am, just as play was getting underway. The Forest is open access, including the course, so it is difficult to prevent deliberate vandalism, if someone has a mind to it."
Although locals and players are quick to support the protection of the course, highlighting vandalism more widely is the last thing Gary wants. "Copycat incidents can occur if we publicise such things in an effort to deter people," he says. "Our colleagues, the Forest Keepers, are charged with by-law enforcement on the Forest, so we do call them to assist on the course when needed."
While free from badger damage on the course, other wildlife makes its presence felt. "Foxes do their bit on some of the greens, and crows ripped up some surfaces searching for leatherjackets. I think they left disappointed, thanks to the hot, dry summer."
The course itself is not included in the Forest's Site of Special Scientific Interest designation, but Gary and the team are sparing with certain maintenance tasks. "We avoid strimming the ditches because of the Great Crested Newt population and take due care when building tees in case we encroach on their habitat." Again, Gary contacts the Forest's Conservation Team for advice before taking appropriate action to resolve issues arising.
Epping Forest boasts its own herd of Longhorn cattle, which graze the woodland pastures "Cows have been known to stray on to the course," Gary says, "but it's not an issue for us and is less frequent now we have our invisible fencing approach."
"We work in balance with nature as much as we can," Gary stresses. "The naturally grassy areas we leave uncut to encourage flora and fauna." Gary keeps a close watch on regulations governing the application of chemicals and runs a proactive stance on the issue. "The rest of Europe tightly controls use of chemicals, so I believe it's best to be ahead before we are forced into compliance. That's one of the reasons we focus on organic turf management for disease resistance and control."
What's in the shed?
Toro 3250D Greensmaster
John Deere ProGator x 2 - one fitted with a Gambetti sprayer
John Deere 7700 fairway mower
John Deere 8800 rough mower
John Deere 2500B greens mower now fitted with tees units
John Deere 2500E greens mower
Kanga Kid mini loader
Trilo leaf blower
Trilo leaf sweeper
Toro ProPass topdresser
Strimmers and blowers
Unit and blade grinders
John Deere 3045 tractor