It's fair to say we've agonised over writing this article; the new normal is dictated by Coronavirus, and as much as we wanted to write something different (and possibly more uplifting), the simple fact is that the biggest story of the year 2020 is just too big to ignore.
Our journey navigating the last few months has seen us having to overcome massive challenges, alter our methods to fit a changing picture and, ultimately, allowed us the chance to attain some of the highest job satisfaction we've ever known. Grounds Manager David Lawrence and Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence at The Edgbaston Priory Club report.
In early 2020, we had conversations about writing a very different article. One that looked at one of the most positive aspects of the work we are involved in, namely our association with the Heart of Birmingham Vocational College and the fantastic success of the internship programme we have been a part of delivering. We wanted to tell a story of the great success our first intern has had in his first eighteen months with us and encourage anyone reading to get involved too.
Whilst that article will get written, like everybody else in our sector (and virtually the rest of the world), Coronavirus has completely altered what we can do, how we can do it, and when we can do it. Of course, this isn't meant in just a professional sense. Everyday life has changed entirely for everybody, and the trials of trying to maintain the grounds of a prestigious members club, which also hosts an international tennis event are, quite frankly, a long way down on most people's list of priorities.
Like most of the country, we spent the early part of 2020 hearing of a mystery illness which was spreading through Wuhan, China. Whilst the early presence of Coronavirus in the east was cause for concern, we simply could not imagine the impact it would go on to have. Even as the first confirmed cases were identified in the UK in late January and early February, we were still gearing up for a 'normal' season. We'd also agreed on the subject of the previously mentioned article to produce for this magazine!
Left: John Lawrence hard at work
Even as the scale of the outbreak in China escalated, and spread to other parts of the world, it was not immediately obvious that it would have an impact on day-to-day life in the UK. The obvious assumption for many of us who aren't epidemiologists was that, much like illnesses such as SARS and MERS, Covid-19 would be contained before it had a chance to have any real impact on our lives. Obviously, the ending to this story is very different, but hindsight makes critical thinking much easier.
We first began to explore the idea that Coronavirus might have an impact on our operation in early March, as the number of confirmed cases became more than a 'handful' and, sadly, deaths associated with the disease began to occur and rise. We were also following events in Italy, and were aware of the various stages of lockdown being implemented.
At this stage, with the exception of vastly enhanced hygiene procedures, things were still very much business as usual. We still had a members' season to deliver, and a major international event to prepare for. However, to fall on the side of caution, we quickly took the decision to analyse our forecast budget purchases for the first half of 2020. Whilst we hoped that this action would be an unnecessary safety net, we made the call to place orders for all the critical items we would need to continue working should there be any interruption to our supply chains. We were quickly in touch with Mark Allen at Agrovista Amenity to arrange deliveries of grass seed, line marking paint and all the other items we would need to facilitate a tennis season and maintain our grounds.
We also worked with the Lawn Tennis Association and Stuart Canvas to get our tournament rain covers on to site much earlier than normal. For most of the year, these are stored up the M6 in Warrington, where the Stuart Canvas team can inspect the covers and carry out any repairs. Whilst they were due to be with us in early April, we opted to get them delivered to site early. Our thinking was that as long as the covers were on site, we could get them installed one way or another, even if we had to lead on this ourselves.
We still didn't foresee that the tournament wouldn't happen. Our biggest concern, when arranging the earlier delivery date, was that with all the panic buying going on in supermarkets, that we might struggle to arrange the necessary haulage to get the covers delivered to site, if HGV's started to be prioritised for stocking essential services such as supermarkets. However, by the time the covers were delivered just over a week later, on 17th March, it had become apparent that the situation was much more serious than we could have imagined.
The week we had the covers delivered (w/c Monday 16th March) turned out to be the last week that we were open as a club. When we were arranging to have the covers delivered to site, the number of UK deaths was in single figures. Just over a week later, that figure had moved into the hundreds. This was an obvious indication that our season, albeit a minor concern in the grand scheme of things, was undoubtedly going to be impacted, although we still had no idea how.
On 18th March, as a club, we moved to reduced opening hours, with much of our 'indoor' operation being put on hold or moved outdoors, and by Friday 20th March, in line with the advice of the UK government, the club closed its doors completely.
At this point, our role was very clear; we still had a job to do. Whilst we had seen all our pre-planning as something which would hopefully not be needed, the bottom line was that we had carried it out under the assumption of a worst-case scenario. This meant that ultimately, we had prepared ourselves to continue working in some form, unless government advice was to stop. As testament to this, we even had plans in place for the grounds team to live on site in order to continue working, and be isolated from the rest of the population!
Realistically, at the point of lockdown, we understood that the Birmingham Classic was unlikely to go ahead in 2020. However, this was not confirmed (and would not be for another week or so) so we had to continue to prepare as if it would go ahead, just in case. On top of this, as a members club our grass court season goes on into September. If the club were able to re-open, there would be an expectation that courts would be available.
What therefore followed was an incredibly surreal week of work, aimed primarily at delivering a tournament we were pretty sure wouldn't go ahead. The weather through the autumn and winter had already put us on the backfoot, to the point that we only completed autumn renovations on some of our courts in early April.
With everything that has happened over the last few months, it is worth noting that it is easy to forget how awful the winter of 2019/20 was. Like many venues in our industry we suffered, unable to maintain surfaces which sat wet for months. We do realise how lucky we have been to continue maintaining our site and surfaces through the lockdown. We know many smaller venues and clubs will have not had this opportunity, likely for understandable financial reasons, and the impact of vastly reduced maintenance during the pandemic will only exacerbate the problems caused by the winter we've all faced. As an industry we're going to have to really pull together to support each other, and particularly the smaller clubs and grass roots venues that contribute so much to our industry, as well as sport in this country.
As mentioned above, the first week of lockdown working was incredibly unusual. We had two courts which required a full autumn renovation as they had been in play until late September, when the weather changed, seemingly permanently! We also had another three courts which required a full top dressing as we'd been unable to complete this work the previous autumn. However, to really top things off, the three courts which had received a 'full' autumn renovation also required a full over seed and top dressing to address the damage the winter had caused.
As noted in some of our previous articles, we aim to keep a winter cutting height of 12mm, as this allows better air movement through the grass sward, and also makes it easier for us to break up and clear worm casts more effectively. However, the 2019/20 winter meant that this was completely unattainable. Our first cut of 2020 saw us coming down from a grass length of around 30mm, with this extra length through the winter contributing to a fair amount of die off through damping off and disease. As such, the courts were not in good health, and we spent the first week of lockdown working some very long hours to try and get to grips with the length of the grass on our courts, and the outstanding renovation procedures.
Despite the volume of work, we also had to adjust to a new way of working, to make the workplace as safe as possible. This is a good time to point out how helpful BIGGA (British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association) have been throughout all of this. We have been BIGGA members for a number of years now and have always found the information they put out to be particularly useful. However, the practical advice they have put out throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, and their lobbying of government to attain clear advice on the position of greenkeepers and ground staff during this time has been invaluable.
Indeed, we quickly adapted documents they had created to implement our own safe working practices. This covered everything from the way staff travelled to work, to the sanitisation of equipment, keeping works vehicles to specific operators, and even allocating specific toilets to specific individuals! We needed to ensure our team felt safe coming to work; through all of this, health has been the most important factor to consider, and it was imperative that we never lost sight of this in pursuing a continued service output from our department.
During the second week of lockdown, the news we had been expecting was announced; namely that the Wimbledon Championships for 2020 had been cancelled. As a result, the rest of the grass court season, including the Birmingham Classic fell off the calendar. Whilst this was a disappointment, it wasn't entirely unexpected at this point. As we've alluded to above, we were becoming aware of the seriousness of the public health crisis and were fully expecting that the 2020 tournament would be very unlikely to happen.
As a result of this, we'd already begun to shift our mindset in the week leading up to the announcement. Firstly, if the Birmingham Classic had gone ahead, we were viewing it as a bonus, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn't really important to the situation.
Firstly, we felt a responsibility to our colleagues. Like many businesses, we've had staff who have had to be placed on furlough. We therefore felt an obligation to ensure that the site they came back to was something special. Our fear was that if we allowed the site to be anything less than what our members have come to expect, this could potentially have a negative impact on membership numbers. We're also aware though, that people build an impression of our club when they first step foot through the gates, long before they make it into reception. We might specialise in sports turf, but we're aware that we play a significant role in membership satisfaction, and the satisfaction of our current members, as well as the ability to recruit new ones, has a financial impact on the business which ultimately equates to people's jobs.
Secondly, we also felt that as a (partly) outdoor sports venue, we were always likely to be one of the first businesses to be able to open, at least in part, as restrictions were eased. We therefore saw a responsibility to our members to make sure that when we could open the gates, we had facilities for them to use. For a lot of our members, the club is their touchpoint with friends. It is the place they got to socialise; to enhance their mental wellbeing as well as exercise physically. It was important to us to make sure that when we got the go ahead to allow some activity to resume, we were ready to go as quickly as possible.
These two priorities made it easy for us to reassess and refocus when the Birmingham Classic was cancelled. As much as we love the tournament, and can't wait for 2021, for 2020 at least, we have felt as though we've had a greater purpose. As a collective our team really bought in to this ethos, and it allowed us to carry on at pace through the lockdown.
With our 'spring' autumn renovations completed on the grass courts, we then turned out attention to our artificial surfaces. The grow-in period on the grass afforded us a window to complete some pre-season works on the surfaces, which included topping up sand infill on four of our artificial grass courts, and sand dressing on our two clay courts. Throughout lockdown, we also significantly increased the frequency of routine brushing of all our artificial surfaces. The foot traffic associated with general play, along with the routine maintenance carried out by our maintenance contractors Sports and Courts Limited, is normally enough to keep the courts in top condition. However, with no members on site it fell to us to artificially keep the surface agitated. Ultimately, any stagnation of the surfaces would likely lead to the ingress of weeds, as well as moss and algae, and so we were keen to guard against this.
We also pressed on with pressure washing of the block paving around our site. In truth this had been a job we started through the winter, when the poor weather limited what we could do with our natural surfaces. Whilst our main walkways tend to stay relatively clean, owing to the foot traffic, the further reaches of our car parks, and some of the lesser used walkways were beginning to look less than desirable. The period of closure allowed us to finish the cleaning of these areas, and also to top up the sand brushed into the block paving.
Throughout the early weeks of the lockdown, we were mindful of capturing all the work that was going on around the site. There was going to be a big change in the look of vast areas of the site between the time of the lockdown starting, and when members were able to return. We even took this a step further, after a suggestion from the Chairman of the club, and started putting grounds update videos out through YouTube (you can find our channel by searching for Edgbaston Priory Grounds). This offered us a way to engage with our members remotely, and we took this one step further when, at the suggestion of a colleague, we put together a series of lawn care advice videos for our members to work their way through during the lockdown.
Despite all of this, we still had our sights on delivering a grass court season in 2020. As we headed into early May, we were becoming increasingly optimistic that some restrictions might be eased, and so we started to assess where we were with our grass courts. The renovations we had completed were growing in well, with swards thickening and courts catching up to where they should be for the time of year. However, our biggest challenge was not having the use of the tournament rain covers.
Whilst we had the covers brought to site, and we may have installed them ourselves if push had come to shove in the run up to the tournament, without the temporary staff we take on to operate the covers in the build up to and during the Birmingham Classic, it would be impractical to install and use the covers. Our three practice courts are impossible to operate without temporary staff, and whilst the five match courts can be used by our full-time team of six people, it would take us most of a day to put the covers on or off with such small numbers.
The biggest problem not having the covers presents isn't an obvious one. Most people would assume that the issue would be that when it rains, we can't keep the courts dry. In fact, the problem is that we can't keep the courts wet, at least not in the way we normally would. In a normal year, we use our rain covers to help consolidate the soil profile. We use the covers, left flat on the surface, to pull moisture up from deeper in the profile, a little bit like a roller will do. This means that we are able to consolidate the surface evenly at a depth, which creates a strong soil profile which offers good, even bounce during play.
However, being able to leave a cover flat, also allows us to trap moisture in the profile. In dry conditions, like we've experienced through April and May, we're able to irrigate the courts, and then pull the covers on to hold moisture at a desired depth in the profile. This allows us to very precisely control the drying of the courts, and therefore ensure the courts play evenly during the playing season.
This is a particularly effective method with courts like ours, which aren't constructed evenly. This non-uniform construction means that the courts don't drain, or dry evenly, and so being able to hold moisture is imperative to building uniform consolidation, and even playing characteristics across the surface. Whilst we can consolidate the courts using a roller, we don't have the same uniformity of control.
The other challenge not having the tournament rain covers presents is that we lose the ability to 'greenhouse' the courts. On a hot day, we can pull the covers on and inflate them to create a microclimate over the court surface. We've regularly recorded temperatures under the inflatables of over 40°C, even in April and May. The ability to do this in a year where we're playing catch up on autumn renovations is very useful, and so being so far behind going in to the spring this year meant we really could have done with the covers for getting new grass seed through quickly. There is only so much you can do with germination sheets!
Despite the lack of rain covers, we made the best of what we had, which included moving around a lot of germination sheets, which got us to a point where, at the start of May, we were ready to start measuring and marking in tennis courts on the grass. At the time, we had no indication that we would be able to open any time soon. However, a sense of optimism, coupled with a desire to be as ready as possible when the go ahead came, meant we were keen to press on with his work. Even with some less than helpful weather in early May, and a reduction in staffing levels whilst several of the team had to self-isolate owing to potential Covid-19 symptoms, by the end of the first full week of May, we had all of our grass courts, apart from Centre Court, marked in.
As it turned out, this was good timing on our part. As we now know, on the Sunday 10th May, Boris Johnson announced that some restrictions would begin to be eased, and by the following day, it became clear that tennis could resume, under strict controls, on Wednesday 13th May. Fortunately, our keenness to be ready in advance paid off, as the Prime Minister hadn't given us much time to prepare otherwise!
The Monday morning saw us drawing up a list of jobs that were still outstanding which needed completing prior to re-opening. We then found ourselves parked in front of our PC's (in our socially distanced offices which have been moved home for the time being!) reading through the technical document released by the government to identify anything else that we need to get done prior to re-opening.
The Tuesday priory to opening, and especially the Wednesday morning, felt strangely similar to the final days and hours before the start of our major tournament, the Birmingham Classic. We've gotten used to the last minute rush to complete jobs in the run up to the event each year, and whilst the jobs were different, for example taping directional signage to paths around the site, the adrenalin rush of working to hit a deadline was still the same.
What wasn't the same however, was the sense of achievement. Having not been able to open the site for eight weeks, it has been a genuine high to welcome members back, even if only to use the outdoor tennis facilities initially. We understand that the people who use our facility aren't just customers of a gym or hiring a tennis court. They are members of a tight-knit community, which is something we are privileged to be a part of too. Being able to deliver a facility where safely, they can begin to exercise, and more importantly socialise again, is an unbelievable feeling.
At a time when there is, quite understandably, a considerable sadness due to the loss of life we have seen because of Coronavirus, it is important to reflect on positives too. Don't be mistaken; there is far more important work going on, being carried out by heroes across our National Health Service and the Social Care sector. However, across society, we all have a duty to adjust to the 'new normal' including in our industry, and if the 'new normal' for us is to deliver a facility which allows our service users to exercise, socialise and safely social distance, then we have a responsibility to deliver those experiences. The happiness and job satisfaction we've felt, having been able to facilitate just that, for our members, and the community we are part of, is exhilarating. There is no greater feeling for us on a professional level right now, than to come to work everyday and see people, having had to be isolated for so long, now able to come together to safely enjoy sport again.
With all of that said, we do have one matter outstanding. Having marked in and opened seven of our eight courts, we just had our Centre Court outstanding. At the time of writing (19th May) we've today marked in and 'match striped' the court, and tomorrow, we'll be bringing it in to our regular rotation for use through the playing season. In a normal season, Centre would be used for the first time in the second week of June for our tournament week, and then for a very select number of member events, before being closed for end of season renovations in late July.
This year however, capacity is king. If we have more court space, we can allow more members to use the site whilst still maintaining social distancing. Whilst we'll still need to take the court out of action at the end of July to renovate in preparation for 2021, right now, every court space we have allows more people to make use of the site, and in that sense it would be criminal for us to not make the court available. Hopefully, as many of our members as possible will get the chance to enjoy the experience of playing on our most prestigious court this year, and that next year we'll be back to some semblance of normal!