The University of Exeter is one of the leading sporting institutions in the UK and boasts some of the best facilities in the South West. They are available not only to the students, but to all members of the local community.
The University currently caters for over three hundred elite athletes in their High Performance Programme, whilst also hosting a number of local leagues, and one-off sporting events.
In excess of £12 million has been invested in the facilities over the past decade, allowing them to climb the British league tables and provide a service that has supported a number of Olympic athletes.
This year, the University was placed fifth out of 165 institutions in the 2012/13 British Universities and College Sport (BUCS) ranking, a rise of two places over the previous period and, with a further £8million being spent on new facilities at the Sports Park, that is a position they are likely to maintain, if not better, next year.
The facilities are based on five sites; four across Exeter and one at their Cornwall Campus.
The Sports Park, based on Streatham campus, is a hub for the Athletic Union and British Universities and Colleges Sport events. Exeter Tennis Centre and the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Devon Cricket Centre are also based here, offering indoor playing space that is unrivalled in the region.
The new investment has already seen the water-based hockey pitch resurfaced, a new 3G rubber crumb MUGA pitch installed and six outdoor tennis courts covered.
Duckes Meadow sits just off site on the banks of the River Exe and offers nine football pitches, four rugby pitches and four lacrosse pitches.
Topsham Sports Ground, located just outside the picturesque village of Topsham on the Exe estuary, is the University's High Performance playing area. The facility has benefitted from heavy investment in the quality of the playing surfaces and provides two cricket squares, two high quality performance grass football pitches, a rugby pitch, outdoor cricket nets and a lacrosse pitch.
Two indoor sports centres complete the list; St Luke's Sports Centre, located in the heart of Exeter, and the Cornwall Campus Sports Centre, based at Falmouth.
Prior to becoming Sports Ground Foreman at the University, Kevin Byrne spent ten years working in Yorkshire; firstly at Giggleswick School in Settle and then at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield. His thirty-seven years in the industry has also included working at Reigate Priory Cricket Club, Old Silhillians Sports Club and Aston University, achieving City & Guilds in Horticulture (with sports option), an intermediate diploma and a Foundation degree in sports turf.
Kevin cites Graham Mapp at Old Silhillians as one of the groundsmen who helped him most with his career in the early days, but also remembers the late John Walker, facilities manager at Giggleswick School with fondness.
"I have been fortunate to work for some very good bosses in my time, and all of them will have shaped how I treat my own staff," he says. These include Mark Farrant, his deputy foreman, who has been at Exeter twenty-two years; senior gardener, Andy Whitehorne (32 years); arborists/gardeners James O'Callaghan and Paul Bellamy with ten and eight years service respectively; Chris Hallett who is responsible for the artificial surfaces; and newest recruits, trainee John Tomkins and gardener Derek Hall.
"We are split across four sites, plus we manage four small grass cutting contracts, so there is a certain amount of flexibility required. Generally, Mark works at Duckes Meadow, Chris at the Sports Park and myself and John at Topsham, whilst Andy, Paul, James and Derek work out of the St Luke's campus. We help each other out as necessary and the arborists can get called out to manage trees in any location throughout the University."
"I am fortunate to have a multi-skilled team and they all get on really well," exclaims Kevin, "which makes my job so much easier. Andy is an excellent gardener with a superb knowledge of all plants, and especially those around the university grounds - shame he's a Manchester United supporter. Paul is totally multi-skilled, and James is a great arborist and climber. Derek is a Kew trained gardener and a proper 'gentleman', whilst Chris at the Sports Park has recently gained his certificates in artificial turf maintenance and is our 'cheeky chap' who keeps me on my toes!"
"My deputy, Mark, has a wealth of experience at the University and is the most laid back person I have ever known. Nothing fazes him. Forty year old John came to us as a trainee nearly two years ago as a 'mature' student and has successfully completed his training at Cannington College, who have been brilliant to deal with."
"Staff training is a big part of the university's policy." confirms Kevin. "They will be sent on mandatory courses and, through the Performance Development Reviews, we recognise training that any individual may want to undertake."
The team are supplemented by work experience and college day release staff, with Gartell Construction called upon for additional pitch works.
"The soil in this region is sandy loam overlying clay," says Kevin. "It doesn't require any special maintenance techniques, just good general management. The field at Topsham has a drainage system at eight metre centres and pitches have been sand slit at intervals. We had rubber banding installed at 250mm intervals on the 1st XV rugby pitch in the summer of 2012, and this has proved to be a big success."
"Topsham is our premier site and covers around twenty acres. Here, we have two cricket squares, two football pitches, a rugby pitch and lacrosse pitch."
"Duckes Meadow takes the bulk of the winter sports and is around forty-five acres in total. There are sixteen winter pitches for football and rugby, with lacrosse also catered for. Mark looks after this field, and he also has to cover for rugby league, archery and American football too," explains Kevin.
"This site is adjacent to the River Exe and floods when wet periods coincide with high tides. There's not much we can do to stop it, so Mark simply waits until the floodwaters have receded and then rakes up the debris. There is an inefficient drainage system that links to soakaways and some of the pitches have secondary surface banding. In truth, it doesn't happen that often, but is an inconvenience when it does."
Presentation ranks very highly for Kevin and his team. "The quality of the playing surfaces comes first, but we are always looking to present the pitches and grounds as best we can," he says. "The gardens on the St Luke's Campus can be a selling point when prospective students and parents visit the University. The team are rightly proud of the campus and I am always confident that anyone can walk on to the site, any day of the year, and it will look a picture. The grounds have been put forward this summer for Green Flag recognition. I would like our sites to be regarded as the best grounds in the south-west and that is what I shall be working towards," he says proudly.
"We are trying to expand the use of the grounds to the public. It is mainly cricket where this is moving forward, but we are getting more and more enquiries for general use, and the quality of the presentation can only help."
At Topsham, grass cutting is mainly carried out with a tractor mounted set of hydraulic gangs. Kevin details that the cricket outfields are cut at around 13mm, the football pitches at 25mm and the rugby pitches at 40mm, usually at least twice a week, depending on growth. "We put down a controlled release fertiliser as we feel the pitches need it at the moment," says Kevin, "but I am starting to use seaweed based supplements too. We have just finished overseeding the pitches with a British Seed Houses 100% ryegrass mix, and we are also putting some tall fescue into the rugby pitch. We use a Vredo seeder for this which is a superb tool."
"The university puts a strong emphasis on sustainability and we have to do our bit," continues Kevin. "Therefore, I have compiled an Integrated Pest Management plan to state that we will try and protect the land in line with university policy. This generally means that we will limit the use of chemicals, fertilisers and anything else potentially harmful to the environment, and tolerate a limited amount of pests, weeds and disease.
We will only blanket spray when an area starts to look unsightly due to weed populations. We spot treat weeds as much as possible, and we treat the cricket squares with carbendazim to control worms. Our irrigation water is drawn from a borehole and is strictly monitored by South West Water, but it does tick the sustainability box."
"We have started to allow areas at the top end of the Topsham ground to grow naturally and will introduce wildflowers and other native species gradually."
All this is being achieved without a budget being available for annual renovation or machinery, explains Kevin. "Previously, I have controlled my own budgets and been able to schedule in renovations and any other work that has been identified. Here, there isn't a plan in place to do any annual renovation work. It has been ad hoc, as seen with the rubber banding, which came about because money suddenly became available last year. I know not to expect to do any major renovations yearly."
"At Topsham we decompact with our Wiedenmann Terra Spike, overseed with rye and feed. We are due to have the pitches Earthquaked by Bovey Tracey Golf Centre this summer as a return favour for loaning out our Vredo to them, but that is basically it. At Duckes we will overseed the goalmouths."
"The university will be applying to be a training venue for the Rugby World Cup in 2015, when Exeter Chiefs' Sandy Park stadium will be one of the venues. As a spin off from this, we may get some reconstruction work carried out the rugby pitch."
All this is said without any hint of frustration. "It is what it is," states Kevin, in a matter of fact way.
"The wet weather over the last twelve months though showed us that the drainage system, as it stands, is pretty ineffective, although the secondary rubber banding has proved to be successful on the rugby pitch. Like most grounds, we suffered cancellations and long periods of saturated fields, so I would like to see more of the pitches either rubber or gravel banded to help winter drainage."
"On the other hand," he comments, "with Topsham being on the Exe estuary, the ground can dry out remarkably quickly due to the winds, particularly in summer. We water with self-travelling sprinklers or static sprinklers, but the effect is short lived with the sea breezes soon drying things up. Long term, an automatic watering system on the first football and rugby would be great, but I might just be dreaming on that one!"
As for the artificial surfaces, there is, as previously mentioned, an £8 million project underway at the Sports Park. A new surface was installed on the water-based hockey pitch and a changing block and viewing area also constructed. The six tennis/netball courts have been covered with an impressive and modern looking structure. The rest of the project involves a new gymnasium, fitness suites and reception area.
Chris sweeps and grooms the pitches during the week and keeps on top of the litter, which is a major task in itself. "He had a major problem with pine needles dropping on to the pitches," explains Kevin, "but thankfully, and sensibly, permission was granted to drop the trees, so our arb lads quickly jumped on that one."
"The Sports Park is programming in an annual deep clean to the surfaces and Chris sprays all the surfaces twice a year with an algaecide. We will sometimes carry out moss killing on other tennis courts around campus as well."
As with the ongoing maintenance of the grounds, Kevin has to apply to the Director of Grounds for funds when it comes to machinery purchases. "I'm usually able to make a strong case," says Kevin with a smile. "We tend to purchase outright, and I'll usually get three comparison quotes before making a final decision, just to keep it competitive. MST and Radmore & Tucker carry out our servicing, but I also use a mobile mechanic for the two-stroke equipment, and this service may get extended to some of our other machines."
As the interview concludes, Kevin is asked what shape he thinks the industry is in? "I definitely think it is going in the right direction. The changes I have witnessed in my thirty-seven years have been remarkable in terms of the machinery now available, research into grass breeding, fertiliser compilation and available knowledge through media like the internet."
"I think the people coming in to the industry, and sticking with it, are still the same as years ago in terms of dedicating their lives to a job that generally pays low. To anyone who wishes to advance their careers, the opportunities are there, but you may have to travel to do so, or be lucky to live in an area where jobs are available."
"There are no short cuts to success, but if we can get young people interested and advertise the fact that they can work at the highest levels of sport, the profile of the industry improves. Young people can bring with them fresh ideas and enthusiasm."
"Unfortunately, I still come across people who will talk down to you once they find out your occupation, and that will probably always be the case. I believe the profile has been raised by media attention to the superb surfaces presented at professional venues across the country."
"Some of the private schools are investing big into their sports facilities, as indeed we are here. Of course, these are the exceptions as, generally, Joe Bloggs is scratching around at his cricket or football club for a bag of seed to do a repair. I meet volunteers and part-timers who do a great job on virtually nothing, and I have nothing but respect for these fellows. I like to see these boys rewarded and hope they gain the respect of club members."
"It's great to see, on the odd occasion on TV, when a groundsman is interviewed, so lets have more of that."
"On a final point, I must pay tribute to Clive Pring, the Head Groundsman at Exeter City Football Club. He has been brilliant in setting up a system whereby we swap machinery and generally help each other out. His team of Charlie Woolnough, big Dave, Joe and The Colonel have made me welcome at St James's Park and were instrumental in me settling in to the area so quickly. Charlie is a fellow cricket pitch advisor, so we communicate a lot. Likewise, Adie and Max at Exeter Chiefs, Colin Whitehall at Sidmouth Cricket Club and John Evans at Topsham St James Cricket Club. These are all dedicated groundsmen raising the profile of turfcare in the south-west.
What's in the shed?
Kubota L5040 tractors x 2
Kubota B2150 tractors x 2
Garden tractors x 2
Ransomes hydraulic 5 gangs
Lloyds trailed 5 gang mower
Allett Regal 36 inch cylinder mower
Allett 24 inch cylinder mower
Lloyds Paladin wicket mower
Ransomes Auto Certes cylinder mower
Etesia rotary mowers - several
Hayter Condor rotary mower
Weidenmann Terra Spike
Ryan Greensaire aerator
Sisis Litaminas x 2
Sisis Maxi Slit
Allman boom sprayer
Countax vacuum sweepers x 2
Power Brush 1010 artificial pitch cleaner