The finishing touches were being applied to Durham University's expansive new Sports and Wellbeing Park when I met up with Playing Fields Supervisor Paul Derrick and his team to discover the challenges of tending two large sports sites.
Paul Derrick, Playing Fields Supervisor
Adding to the plethora of pitches, natural and synthetic, is a £32m health and wellbeing centre, complete with indoor cricket hall, 12-court multi-use sports hall and gym. A wellbeing trail snakes from Durham centre to Maiden Castle on the city outskirts, part of a sport and health strategy the university is promoting.
The university's 2017-2027 masterplan identified Maiden Castle as "capable of absorbing further concentrated development". Delivery of new facilities would allow it "to compete sustainably at the highest levels of British university sport" whilst also "supporting increasing overall levels of student, staff and local community participation in sports and physical activity".
The rise in Durham's student population, and consequent upsurge in demand for sporting provision, has brought fresh challenges to Paul and his team of two as the fixtures calendar burgeons.
Paul has worked here twenty-eight years, leaving the then Leyland Vehicles sportsground after Daf acquired the manufacturer. "Lancashire Football Association bought the pitches but we lost the cricket ground - the team played in the Northern Cricket League," he recalls.
Paul left school at sixteen, starting work for the Central Lancashire New Town Agency before a stint at a tree nursery. "They sent me to Myerscough College on a four-day block release course in Amenity Horticulture," he explains, "but I was keener on sportsturf management although I was not a player as such."
The new sport and wellbeing centre
"My brother-in-law worked at Leyland and tipped me off about a vacancy there after the groundsman just upped and left one day. They really threw me in at the deep end as the college hadn't prepared me for sports turfcare."
One early mishap is still sharp in Paul's memory. "I remember the two crown green bowling rinks had a worm problem. I applied Chlordane, which was permitted in those days, but I overcooked it, miscalculating the dosage, and the grass turned yellow."
"I learned a hard lesson that day. But, you know what, after that we never had a worm problem in all the eleven years I worked there," he smiles ruefully.
"By April 1991, Daf had acquired the site and they planned to build houses on the ground, but a problem occurred and nothing happened."
Word got around about Paul's turfcare prowess and High Wycombe Cricket Club approached him to fill a March-October position as head groundsman. "I bumped into my interviewer in Antigua ten years ago when I was following the England team's tour of the West Indies," Paul says.
The Durham University opportunity appealed to Paul more though, partly due to the upheaval in moving south to Buckinghamshire. "As all my family lived locally in Leyland, I decided to take up the post here."
The grounds team's job has intensified and increased in Mark's time at the university grounds, he notes. "Maiden Castle has changed beyond all recognition from my early days. Facilities were pretty sparse then."
"In the early 1990s, Durham had 4,000 to 5,000 students - that's risen to 17,000 today, with plans to rise to 21,000. I lived on site up the hill until the university changed its policy and they rented it out, so we moved away offsite to Spennymoor."
"The grounds never opened on Sundays or even weekends. We've moved to a 24/7 schedule now - with club, juniors and students football training round the clock."
That's not all. "Durham Women's FC is to make us their base," Paul reveals. "The FA visited recently to accredit the facility." Another sign of how the university is shaping provision to match demand.
Maiden Castle's outdoor provision first included a sand-based hockey pitch installed in 1989, three grass hockey pitches - two of them later replaced with water-based synthetic surfaces, 3G pitch, a cricket square, rugby pitch and three football pitches on the bulk of the site.
Included in the latest improvements are a new 3G pitch, upgraded hockey pitch, more grass playing areas and dramatically expanded car parking to meet stiffening demand.
The way we were - early aerial shot of Maiden Castle provision
Maiden Castle, so named because of its position in the shadow of a hill once topped with a Roman fort, lies next to the river Wear - peat in the water creating a distinctive dark chocolate colour - a naturally tranquil setting turned into a thronging sports hub humming with humanity most of the week, particularly on Wednesdays when British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) fixtures devour the peace.
"This is certainly an atmospheric place," Paul ventures, "with a sense of history helped by our location so near the hill. It's sheltered too; 10% warmer here on average than our other site - the Racecourse ground."
The bridge spanning the river takes you from the main site to more provision - two rugby, two lacrosse and two football pitches. American football is a growing phenomenon here and has switched from a natural pitch on the far side of the river to a floodlit synthetic playing surface.
"We had a right palaver transporting bleacher seating over there for matches," says Paul. "That's all changed now with the new designated playing area this side of the Wear."
"Did you know the game is named because the length of the ball is twelve inches - a foot?" I didn't, but it's one of those engaging slices of trivia you take forward."
Flooding has presented a double-edged sword, whilst helping create a fertile, alluvial soil profile, Paul says. "The river has come onto the site twice since I've been here - the last time eight or nine years ago."
Looking across the pitches to the shed / Paul mowing the Racecourse Ground pitches
Maiden Castle's main rugby pitch hosted a visit from Shenkyo University in the early 2000s. A tree commemorates the game, recording that 'rugby creates lasting friendships'. "The first 15 play here," says Paul, while Durham City Rugby Club use two other pitches for their first, second and junior fixtures."
Lacrosse is particularly popular with both women and men - Durham acting as a regional hub for the sport - played mainly on 3G as well as the two grass pitches, with a team coach on hand.
We're standing on the sports centre upper tier, courtesy of the facilities manager, who guided us here to gain a more panoramic view of the grounds. The upgraded four- and six-lane athletics track gleams bright brick red in the sunshine, enclosing a sward of green that has also undergone recent change. "The old grass football pitch has given way to a new 3G surface," Paul says, "to cater for the level of demand."
As if reading my thoughts, Paul adds: "Just trying to keep up with grass growth is a challenge. The warm, wet weather encourages growth almost all year round." Over in a quiet corner of the grounds stands the shed, where I'll later meet Paul's colleagues - assistants Rob Taggart and Stephen Brown.
Rob Taggart and Stephen Brown, the longest serving member of the team
A contractor's van stands outside, evidence that I've chosen the day when Paul's supplier services the machinery.
Another major challenge presented itself to further stymie the team's efforts to keep pace with the university's turfcare programme. "It came to a head a few years ago," says Paul. "I started to experience problems with my hands. I had it checked out and was diagnosed as suffering from white finger and carpel tunnel syndrome. I'm on medication now."
"We all use our hands so much in this job, including pushing mowers around. You have to be so careful as issues can build up over time, almost without you being aware of them."
Fortunately, the university acted swiftly to alleviate the problem, Paul notes. "They added vibration meters to the machinery, introducing a points system that imposed a threshold on how much time we spent using it."
Noise assessment forms help ensure the team works within safe vibration limits
Fitted to mowers and hand-held kit, the meters allow the team to record accurately their exposure. "The national health and safety threshold is 400 points a day, but the university has erred very much on the side of caution and imposed a limit of 100 points," Paul says.
The protective measures have introduced a welcome control to prevent risk of overexposure to potentially harmful whole body vibration. "We fill in forms to record weekly equipment use," Paul explains, "then submit these to the estates department."
However, the safety code has impacted the team in another way. "The limit is low enough to bar us from some machinery after only half an hour's use," Paul adds.
"The old Ransomes Mastiff and Dennis machines we were using all day have been replaced with newer machinery and we have discussed battery-operated kit with the HSE. The team completes the basic maintenance, with external contractors coming in as and when we need help."
Cold weather rarely interrupts fixtures these days. "We use vacuum dried salt from a local dealer and applied from a fertiliser spreader at notch 4, but we last had cause to use it three or four years ago, usually when a big game's on."
"The temptation with the 3Gs is to run the tractor and snow plough over the surface if necessary, but this can damage the pitch and takes off so much rubber crumb."
"One winter, several years ago, we cleared snow this way as we were under pressure to ensure the match went ahead. We lost a host of fixtures that year but nothing recently, except a couple of days when 'The Beast from the East' bit us. That said; December and January can cause problems before the sun has any power in it."
Pauk with trusty Lloyds Leda gang mowers in tow
The cricket season starts the third week in April and there's play almost every day until the third week in June, when summer term finishes. "Finding time to prepare wickets is the challenge," says Paul.
"The sun is your best friend at this time of year and I have to think ahead and prepare wickets early in May - exam season. After that, we can be staging up to three Twenty20 games a day, starting at 10.00am, then 1.00pm and 4.00pm."
"Two weeks before a fixture, we designate a wicket - water, roll and scarify it then cut with a Dennis, fitted with the appropriate cassette, preparing a little bit each day, all the time praying for decent weather." The artificial strip also comes into play, staging the inter-college Twenty20 match."
Paul's original team of three assistants shrunk after one of the groundsmen took voluntary severance two years ago, leaving him short of a cricket specialist.
"You can't just go to the job centre and pick one out," he says resignedly, "so we decided to hire in one for twenty hours a week, starting last year." Beckenham-based self-employed specialist Andy Pierson was selected. "My priority was to be able to let him crack on with the job and he performed brilliantly."
But good peripatetic cricket groundsmen are in high demand. Andy also works on North East Premier League Division 1 club Sacriston Colliery Cricket Club and Philadelphia Cricket Club, near Washington. "I wanted to bring him in again this year but he was unavailable," bemoans Paul.
Dramatic entrance to the new centre
The university is a community of sixteen colleges and most of them have some form of sports provision, but none on the scale or scope of Maiden Castle. Collingwood College, for example, boasts cricket nets - "for their use only" - and extensive botanic gardens. "A bequest from alumni. One even runs a mini golf course," Paul notes.
"The grounds team used to maintain them, particularly the tennis facilities," Paul recalls. "Durham Archery Club was one of the earliest tennis clubs in Britain," which sounds counter-intuitive until you research back to the mid-1800s, when the two sports often sat side by side."
"The grounds and gardens department have a huge task. They're a different section - we come under sports. There's just not enough time in the day for a single department to tackle everything."
Several 'extracurricular' turfcare duties sit in Paul's lap - his remit including Durham Cricket Club ("we cut their outfield twice a week") and Durham Rugby Club. Also, the team tends two more rugby pitches since acquiring land at Shincliffe, with the club as sitting tenants.
As a university ECB groundsman of the year, Paul's passions are the ten strip square at Maiden Castle and the eleven at the Racecourse. "Money was pumped into improving the cricket provision several years ago and I was able to start a rolling programme of wicket improvements at the Racecourse," he says. "Umpires mark us for pitch quality, so keeping standards high is important."
Skyline view of the new 3G pitch and athletics track
Synthetic pitch provision is something of a necessary evil in Paul's eyes. "We've sacrificed grass surfaces on the altar of artificial, but I accept that this is the way forward to raising intensity of participation. In an ideal world, how much better to have natural turf."
Sports surface manufacturer and contractor SIS Pitches recently resurfaced one of the hockey pitches they installed in 2007, complete with a vibrant purple and green colour scheme and perimeter fixtures to create a colourful focus for what is a highly popular university sport.
The new pitch perimeter tree planting has created a softer setting for sport, which "looks good on an architectural plan," Paul points out, "but is not necessarily practical from a maintenance stance," and may add to day-to-day duties on and around the synthetic areas, he fears.
"We sweep them daily to clear any rubbish and debris, then use the purpose-built John Deere X300 compact tractor to dragbrush after every ten hours' use. Pop-up sprinklers flood the hockey pitches before a game - essential as the short carpet fibre can feel a little like Velcro when dry.
"The FA come in regularly to check 3G ball bounce, and we always stress the need to wear studs for synthetics as flat soles flatten the pile and reduce the lifespan of the surface; a flat profile wears the whole length of the fibres. You have to hire boots to even tread on the pitch, that's how highly we value correct maintenance."
Aside from that, their upkeep is "pretty routine", Paul adds. "Touching up the penalty spots on the 3Gs occasionally, which stage first team college football, is the only other task really."
As efficiencies have come in, the four full-time staff and summer part-timer aiding Paul when he arrived in 1991 now number two. "Lad" Stephen Brown had joined in 1976 straight from school, training up at Houghell College. "He maintains the cricket squares and practice wickets."
Robert Taggart works mainly at the Racecourse ground, preparing pitches and cutting Durham Cricket Club outfield, football and rugby pitches.
"Joe Simpson worked here for a year to give us a hand - an enthusiastic amateur putting his hand to gang mowing mainly".
Paul reports to facilities manager Laura Green, also liaising with head of sport Mark Brian when occasion demands. "My weekly events meeting with Laura covers private bookings, college sport fixtures and cleaning priorities, whilst the facilities meeting airs any issues or problems."
"On such a dynamic site, with so much activity, the team needs to know which pitches to focus on and when," Paul explains. "With a compact team tending two sites on this scale, we have to turn our hands to everything."
EU Directives have kicked in to further challenge the demands of the working week. "The 39 hours when I started here have been reduced to 35 and is a flat rate, with no overtime." Added to that, the university's two sports sites are geographically close but require road access between the two."
The expanded car parking capacity at Maiden Castle has resolved what had been a "massive" traffic co-ordination issue, putting the site in a far stronger position to manage the huge programme of indoor and outdoor sporting activity.
With the likes of Darlington FC, amongst others, training on the 3Gs, keeping the customer satisfied is a key priority. "First, second and junior teams were looking for top-notch training areas and we could provide them," says Paul.
Mondays and Tuesdays are both manic for the grounds team as they prepare for the Wednesday BUCS games. "We're mainly harrowing in winter - one to one and a half inches for football and two to three inches for rugby."
"Mondays we usually spend replacing divots from weekend fixtures, then Tuesdays, marking out. I prefer transfer wheel dimple markers."
"Wednesdays we dress the pitches. With all manner of festivals and tournaments, we have goals galore. Checking nets and dragging lacrosse goals [no wheels on them] takes time, and having to squeeze eight, five-a-side goals on to one pitch is a task in itself. When so many local schoolchildren play at Maiden Castle, the logistics of ensuring they cross the river safely is challenging."
Machinery budgets are tight, so maintaining the existing fleet in good order is critical, says Paul.
"We have to duplicate machinery for each site - two cricket rollers, two Lloyds Leda 3 gangs - they were here when I came; indestructible and still going strong - two harrows and two compact tractors."
"Our Kubota L5030 diesel tractor hauls the Wessex RMX 240 roller mowers. We sold the large Dennis and Mastiff walk-behinds as they took three and a half hours to cut a cricket field and we had reached our 100-point limit before we'd finished and that meant we couldn't use another machine that day."
"By using gangs in the cricket season, we can mow in the morning to give each eleven the same playing conditions if we run several games."
"We box off cricket squares but not the rest as there is simply too much acreage. We're cutting pretty much all year, right up to the Christmas break; then it's straight into the New Year programme, but snow and frosts can strike in April or even May. After using the harrows for winter pitches, we top off with the Wessex if the weather's mild."
Flat sheets and mobile covers serve the team well for Maiden Castle. "Our three Water Hogs are quite effective at removing water off the sheets."
"Two Ransomes Auto Certes cylinder mowers cut the cricket squares, whilst the Dennis 21" mower removes organic material when the thatch control reel is fitted. I like the Dennis as it's simple to use and needs just one power unit."
With no ride-ons, the team use the sturdy Lloyds gangs for mowing the large areas year-round.
Servicing has caused Paul issues over the years, mainly through unreliability, but not since he brought in Shorts Turf Machinery, a local specialist that arrives at the end of June and again at the end of February or early March to check and repair, including cylinder mower grinding the gangs and replacing mower bottom blades. "They deliver the personal touch and provide a quality service - just what we need."
Paul identifies the restrictions on machinery the point system imposes.
"Forty minutes on a leaf blower, with backpack and you're done for the day. Ten minutes with the SISIS Auto Rake takes you over the limit."
One man and his dog
Once Stephen has cut the cricket square and practice wicket area, he's done for the day. Neither Rob nor I am allowed to use hand-held kit. Contractor Turf Care spike the squares down to three inches, depending on compaction levels, so that's a big help. Another contractor handles hedge trimming."
Disease outbreaks are, thankfully, rare due to the sites' favourable setting. "Our Barenbrug dwarf perennial rye is hardy and germinates well. A touch of red thread strikes occasionally, but nothing to speak of. We seldom, if ever, suffer any fusarium outbreaks as the climate is drier and cooler so we don't really need to spray fungicides."
"When worms proved a problem one year, we brought someone in to electrocute them," Paul reveals. Newcastle United were training here at the time [1993-1997] and Peter Beardsley asked what was going on. When we told him, he looked genuinely shocked. We swept them up afterwards to sell on as bait."
Crows are "the big culprits", Paul adds. "They're clever and follow you around, digging. A few years ago on the cricket outfield, they caused massive damage rooting out chafer grubs and we had to reseed and topdress."
"Last year, little maggots infested the Racecourse ground. A quick spray ended the problem, with no impact on the square thankfully. Round-up treats fencing bases. Moss isn't an issue but can take hold on the artificial surfaces."
Paul prefers quality when choosing his fertiliser. "I've applied Evolution microgranular slow-release for several years. I find it works better in cooler weather - not the cheapest, but good. The autumn/winter feed for football and rugby we apply in October or November, then the spring/summer feed in April, with a July top-up if necessary."
"We apply across the squares, outfields and practice areas about four times a year - October, December then March and through the season."
The Racecourse Ground
A short drive takes us from Maiden Castle to the Racecourse ground, approached from Durham centre's high ground, with its Norman cathedral, mediaeval castle and prison overlooking, one of the most attractive sport settings I've witnessed.
Paul knows the back roads well enough to avoid the single track thoroughfare that wends its way through Durham's ancient marketplace, costing drivers £2 for the privilege of enjoying one of the first toll roads in Britain.
The entrance road curves down to the classically cream and green clubhouse, looking across to the cricket square in front and a rugby and two football pitches to its rear, fringed by the river Wear. The racecourse is long gone but this is home to university first eleven cricket.
We walk across to the square, relaid in 1989 by industry doyen Keith Boyce, now lying fallow until next season, and gaze across to the escarpment overlooking the fine stretch of green sward.
"This is the only sportsground in Britain where you can include a cathedral, a castle and a prison in a single photograph," Paul states. "A favourite spot with photographers."
The cricket festival held here for so many years has given way to Durham Miners' Gala. "The all-day jamboree attracts 20,000 people. Labour leader [at the time of writing] Jeremy Corbyn spoke at it recently," Paul reports.
Last job of the day for Paul at the Racecourse Ground
Durham CCC played their first four-day game here (against Leicestershire) after election to the county championship in 1992, and also practised here. "I recall then head groundsman Tom Flintoff flitting from ground to ground while the club was building the Riverside Stadium."
"They installed our scoreboard and practice wickets, before playing their last game at the Racecourse in 1995, when Ian Botham played for them," Paul says.
Paul applies four or five bags of topdressing a season to the square, repairing wicket ends as needed. "I prefer Surrey medium loam as it's easy to work, but have left the original heavier Barbary loam in place on one of the strips."
"If you start mixing different loams and layers, the pitch can absorb ball bounce differently and can develop unevenness. You end up with a Liquorice All-sorts. My message is; always be consistent with your dressing."
Such an open 20-acre site can create security issues, Paul explains. "We've suffered problems here - people coming in, worse for drink, removing things and causing extensive damage. One year, a small roller was found dumped in the river. This is an alcohol-free zone now."
Here is also home to St Cuthbert's Rowing Club. "In its 170-year history, there have only been two years when rowing has been cancelled - five years ago and this year," says Paul.
Chatting in the period changing rooms transports you straight back fifty years, when a hook and a bench seat was all you'd expect by way of provision, along with a line of chilly-looking open showers. Quintessentially quaint in its own way. "I relax here to eat my lunch," Paul notes, "usually home-made sandwiches."
"I've enjoyed my time working in this beautiful environment, with, frankly, very little interference. You can't say that about many jobs, can you?"
Time to Ieave Paul, mounting the Trimax Striker 190, ready to speed-mow the turf in warm, bright sunshine.
A wave of nostalgia washes over me at what is such a classically English sporting scene, too seldom seen now, swallowed up in the country's relentless race to intensify provision and boost participation.
But as songstress Joni Mitchell wrote: "Something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day."
Images © Speedmediaone
What's in the shed?
Two sets of Lloyds Leda 3 triple gangs
Wessex RMX 240 roller mower - "due for replacement after 10 years as showing signs of metal fatigue"
Auto-roller 2 tonne at the Racecourse ground. "We hire in a 2 tonne general roller for Maiden Castle as the existing one is broken"
John Deere X350 lawn tractor - for maintaining the synthetic pitches
John Deere 1026R compact utility tractor
Ransomes Auto Certes petrol mowers x 2
Dennis 21" mowers with cassettes x 2
First Products Aera-Vator - "oscillating tine system that prepares the soil surface while aerating up to 9cm depth"