0 Do clay pipes help with drainage?

Wilmslow Pipes SteveSteve Oultram will never forget the day when a Manchester monsoon transformed the 11th fairway at Swinton Park into a huge lake, offering more recreational potential for sailors than golfers.

He has an even better memory of the following day, when the lake had miraculously disappeared and contented members were once again clipping three woods off the lush green turf.

The explanation, in Steve's words, was "the pulling power of clay pipes" and, to this day, he remains convinced that those "old fashioned" pipes create a more efficient drainage system than the plastic variety which is overwhelmingly the choice of today's course designers and managers.

Steve estimates that, since he became Course Manager at The Wilmslow Golf Club in Cheshire twenty-one years ago, he and his team have laid almost ten kilometres of clay pipes in order to maintain and extend the drainage network of the parkland course.

The pay-off, he believes, is that Wilmslow's members and visitors can play the course virtually all year round. With very few exceptions, it remains open at times during the winter when many other courses in the area are waterlogged.

Steve learned how to lay clay pipes to maximum effect when he joined the greens staff at Swinton Park as assistant head greenkeeper in l986, after graduating from Myerscough College, Preston.

"I remember a very wet day when we had a massive lake on the 11th, apparently caused by a blockage in one of the laterals of the four-inch main. We used a steel probe to locate the pipe - a little subsidence usually gave you a clue - and followed the line by gently pushing the probe into the ground a dozen or more times across the area. A little red tip of clay on the end of the probe would tell you that you'd found the pipe.

Wilmslow Pipes"Then we would dig down to the pipe and clear it with a rod if it had silted up, or cut back tree roots if that was the problem. It was not often that you found the pipe had collapsed. Usually, they were as sound as the day they were first laid, sometimes almost one hundred years earlier."

"My point is that we didn't get rid of that lake at Swinton Park by digging a hole and making a dry connection. Hundreds of gallons of water disappeared overnight because of the pulling power of clay pipes."

The greenkeepers who were Steve's mentors - he calls them "the old boys" - knew that clay pipes had to be located in the water table, at least 3ft 6ins to 4ft below the surface, in order to work effectively.

"This means that, if you are draining and maintaining your water table at that depth, you are bound to pull water down from the surface. That's what the old boys meant when they talked about the pulling power of clay pipes."

"The deeper the drain, the greater its pulling power. There's a well known principle, or equation, which states that, if a drain is only a foot below the surface it has very Wilmslow Stevelimited pulling power, whereas a drain which is a metre deep has pulling power of several metres across the surface."

"The old boys in those days learned that the deeper the drain, the greater its pulling power. They were then able to increase the width between the drains and use their clay pipes more effectively, which was very important in the days when it was all manual digging rather than mechanical."

"We spent a lot of time installing extra drainage at Swinton Park, which has heavy clay and very little top soil, and when I came to Wilmslow I automatically continued to use clay pipes for all the new drains we put in, although plastic pipes were favoured by my predecessors."

Wilmslow's committee has always given high priority to drainage and, every other winter for the past twenty years, Steve has taken delivery of about 4,000 1ft clay pipes. This year, the club has allocated a further £10,000 for drainage projects.

Steve accepts that there are good economic and practical reasons why most golf clubs favour plastic drainage systems, and why most of today's drainage contractors will not work with clay pipes.

Installing clay pipes is a labour intensive process and, on one occasion, Steve hired a local farmer for a major project involving several weeks' work.

WilmslowBut, some ten years ago the club purchased its own £9,000 trencher - for roughly the cost of hiring the local farmer for one winter - and within a couple of years it had paid for itself.

"Attention to detail is so important when laying clay pipes," says Steve. "Obviously, it's more time-consuming than when you've got a machine laying down a continuous length of perforated plastic pipe."

"Even though we've now got our own trencher, we still finish off with a manual drainage scoop to create a lovely smooth base where the pipe will sit for the next one hundred years or more. At no point will the pipe be left to ride up over a large obstruction such as a rock or big root."

"I also follow the practice of the old boys when it comes to filling the trench. We cover the pipes with a little layer of hay which helps the soil to consolidate over the top, and then cover it with a rootzone of 70% sand and 30% topsoil right up to the surface. I don't use any stone."

"In my experience, plastic pipes silt up very quickly because their perforations allow fine particles to filter through into the pipe. This is much less of a problem with clay pipes."

Steve is passionate about drainage. "When I was being interviewed for this job, I remember telling the panel that growing good grass starts 3ft 6ins to 4ft below ground, with a good drainage system."

"They asked me to explain what I meant. I said that a golf course that drains well rewards you three times over. In the first place you will be able to grow the right species of grass, the fine, traditional grasses which produce the very best of greens and fairways."

"Secondly, if you've got efficient drainage you can get your plant and equipment on to the course in all weathers and work on its presentation throughout the autumn and most of the winter, not just in the spring and summer."

"Thirdly, and most importantly, a well drained course will only be closed in the most extreme conditions, which means the members will get the value for money they expect and deserve when they pay their annual subscriptions. Golf these days is expensive, and it is just not acceptable for a course to be waterlogged and unplayable for long periods."

Like all golf courses, Wilmslow's drainage has been well tested in this dreadful summer. It has passed with flying colours.

The day before President's Day in July - the middle Saturday of Wimbledon fortnight - the course had almost a month's rain in six hours and was quite unplayable. But, it drained well overnight and, after a 5.30am inspection, the all-clear was posted on the club's website.

Another triumph for clay pipes!

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