In 2010, St James Senior Boys' School took over the site of the former St David's Girls School in Ashford, Middlesex. An ambitious refurbishment programme has enabled the school to have its own sports pitches for the first time and, with the opening of the North Field Project in 2016, Head Groundsman Steve Fidler has plenty to occupy him
The school was built in 1857 to house the Welsh Charitable School, becoming the Welsh Girls School in 1882. A further name change came in 1965 when it became St David's Girls School. By 2009, pupil numbers had dwindled and the school was forced to close. At the same time, St James Senior Boys School had outgrown their riverside site in Twickenham and were only too pleased to move in. An ambitious refurbishment was still going on when the new site opened in September 2010 but, for the first time, the school had its own sportsground with a new cricket square and rugby pitches, as well as a small artificial hockey pitch.
Steve Fidler has been Head Groundsman at St James Senior Boys School, just one and a half miles south of Heathrow Airport, for just over five years.
In this question and answer session, he discusses his day to day work routine and talks about a new project coming to fruition in the spring of 2016.
Pitchcare: How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position?
Steve Fidler: My cricket club, Hampton Hill, needed a groundsman just at the time I was looking for a new job. I'd helped out in the past, so thought I would give it a go. I also managed the club's bar for the four years I was there. I moved to NPL Sports Club (originally the Sports & Social Club of the National Physical Laboratory) in Teddington and worked there for seventeen years, in two spells. I left to take up the position here at St James in 2010.
What training and education did you study?
I completed the National Diploma (NDT) in 1997, having studied at Norwood Hall for three years. I have also attended many short courses, seminars and conferences over the years and still try to improve my skills and knowledge at various courses when I can.
Was there one person who inspired you?
No one person, but so many people were prepared to help and advise in my early days in the industry.
Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else - for example a bursar, facilities manager or committee?
I compile and manage a grounds budget each year which goes to the school's Bursar for approval. Monitoring takes place during the year with regular meetings with the Deputy Bursar and Estates Manager. Capital items are put before the Bursar case by case, with me providing a written justification for each item.
What additional staff do you have?
I have just taken on an apprentice, twenty year-old Jack Higgs, to help cope with the extra workload. I have been the sole groundsman for the last five years!
What additional help do you get (part time, consultants, agronomists, contractors etc.)?
We have employed a part-time gardener, Warren Carr, one day a week during the growing season, and agronomist Noel Mackenzie of Sportsturf Consulting Ltd has acted as a consultant on our North Field project. I get occasional help from the estates team during busy periods and use several local contractors to carry out deep aeration, some of the renovations and any major tree work.
How would you describe the soil profile?
Most of the area is on gravel, hence the large amount of water surrounding the site, including our own lake. The soil on the main sportsfield is a sandy loam, which is quite stony below the surface.
Does it require any special maintenance techniques?
The field drains pretty well, providing we keep the top open. The new field will almost certainly be different. It has proper drainage and 300mm of very sandy soil. I'm expecting it to need a higher fertiliser and water input than the existing pitches. Drainage has been installed on the new pitches with the outfall running into our lake.
Are your pitches used by the community or hired out to outside agencies?
Not at the moment, as the school has needed the whole area. Community use may be a possibility once the new pitches have established.
What is the total acreage and how is this split up?
Thirty-two acres, with just under half being natural turf sports pitches. There are a further two acres of other grass areas, four acres of woodland and a five acre lake. Hard sports surfaces make up another three acres, with the remaining three acres taken up by buildings, roads and car parks.
We have a small, sand-filled artificial turf hockey pitch which is also used for tennis in the summer and a playground all year round. There are five further tennis courts on tarmac and four artificial cricket nets.
A sports hall is top of the school's wish list when funds allow.
Tell us about your weekly/monthly maintenance regimes
Maintenance routines vary with the seasons and the school terms. Rugby is played throughout the first two terms of the school year, with the second half of the season mainly spent taking part in and training for the many 7-a-side tournaments. The school also plays football during this period.
With the growing season extending well into autumn once again, we are still cutting most areas twice a week as I write this in mid-November.
We cut the sports areas with a tractor-mounted Major roller mower which gives a great finish. When we are pushed for time, we will use our Kubota zero-turn, ride-on rotary which can be slightly quicker. I would like to move to a ride-on cylinder mower should the funds be allocated.
Aeration, in the form of a Sisis Maxislit, will take place weekly, in conjunction with a Sisis Quadraplay to ensure the best possible presentation. I employ a local contractor, SJK, to carry out deeper aeration at least twice a year.
I have found a combination of Verti-drain and Imants Shockwave to work really well in keeping compaction at bay. I am currently looking into the feasibility of hiring equipment to carry out the deep aeration in-house. It becomes more viable with a second sportsfield to look after. We mark out the rugby pitches and training grids weekly.
In addition to the sports pitches, we have several ornamental lawns and grass areas to look after and, at the moment, we are fighting a losing battle with leaves. Once things settle down a bit in December, we concentrate on pruning shrubs and trees around the estate. Any major tree work is carried out by another contractor, Cedarmist.
I am currently reviewing the latest tree survey, carried out last spring, in order to put some of the recommendations into action. I also need to finalise the planting scheme around the edge of the North Field to act as a windbreak and added security. The viewing bank also needs some form of natural barrier at the back.
As growth begins again in the spring, cricket becomes the main focus, with pre-season rolling starting on the two squares in early March.
Renovations take place during the Easter holidays, with the pitches and training grids overseeded and sand-dressed. I used a seed mix containing Tetraploid and creeping ryegrass this year, with encouraging results. The sward has continued to thicken up right through the autumn.
I have been using a growth regulator, Primo Maxx, for the last two years, in conjunction with a much improved fertiliser programme. I started using controlled release fertilisers in 2014 and have been very pleased with the results. I have been able to halve the number of applications and achieve steady growth, rather than a flush every three months or so. I use a liquid fertiliser every three or four weeks in the spring and early summer to top up the nitrogen levels.
The cricket season at St James is quite short, but fairly intense, with matches or practice taking place on the square most days in May and June. Having the second square will help spread the wear. I use a 20" Allett to cut the pitches and square and scarify using a Sisis Combirake to get as much grass off the pitches as possible.
A 400 metre athletics track is marked out around the outside of the field for the summer term.
Where does presentation rank?
Very highly. The school regard the grounds as a shop-window for existing and prospective parents. It's visible from the road (and the adjacent railway track) and is the first thing they see when they come through the gates.
Are renovations affected by budgets?
Renovations are allowed for in the annual budget bid process. I try not to be taken by surprise by any sudden price increases.
Are they affected by outside pressures - for example, concerts, corporate events, summer camps?
Not really, we try to keep the Easter holidays clear for the main renovation period. The timing of Easter can provide a challenge if it is particularly early.
How have changing weather patterns affected what you do?
The main change seems to have been warmer autumns, meaning an extended growing season. I think I cut the cricket square at least once every month last winter. I made a couple of applications of Primo Maxx in September this year to slow things down a bit. The autumn growth does mean that pitches are recovering extremely well after use.
Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required?
Yes, particularly in respect of the fertiliser programme.
Artificial surfaces - what ongoing maintenance/refurbishment is carried out?
The artificial hockey pitch is brushed as often as possible, with an annual renovation carried out by a contractor. I carry out weed and moss control as necessary and keep the areas clear of leaves.
Are you working on any special projects at the moment?
We have just completed a major project to turn an ex-landfill site into natural turf sports pitches.
The North Field Project was part of the school's development programme when it first moved to the Ashford site in 2010. That it has taken five years to come to fruition is due to a variety of reasons, most of them associated with the previous use of the land as a local authority landfill site. Issues with the clay cap over the landfill material and soil contamination problems all had to be surmounted before the process of constructing sports pitches could begin.
After several false starts, the school employed the services of Noel Mackenzie of Sportsturf Consulting Ltd to act as consultant on the project. Noel commissioned further surveys and soil testing to ascertain the extent of the problem and, eventually, agreement was reached between the school, the local authority (Spelthorne) and the Environment Agency on a scheme that involved importing 300mm of topsoil over the entire 2.2hectare site.
At the end of 2014, six companies took part in the tender process, with north-eastern company Cleveland Land Services (CLS) being clear winners. The school worked with CLS to finalise the scope of the work and, in March 2015, the governors gave the £0.5 million project their blessing.
Approximately two-thirds of the site had been drained during one of the earlier attempts, with 100mm drains laid at 5m centres. The problem with importing such a large amount of soil was that it took the drains that much further from the surface. It was imperative that the imported soil was as free draining as possible to connect the surface to the drains, now 750mm below the surface.
Several soils were investigated and we settled for a Bourne Amenity soil which contained 15% compost. It was at this point that the school had some good fortune. One of the governors had close ties to Rosslyn Park Rugby Club, who were taking up their Roehampton pitch to replace it with a new 4G artificial surface. The soil being removed was almost exactly as specified by Noel Mackenzie and the school could have it for just the cost of the transport. Within a couple of days of accepting the offer, over 200 tipper trucks had arrived and the school had approximately a third of its needs at a very advantageous price.
Work continued through the second half of the summer term, sometimes at odds with the exams being taken by the older boys. CLS completed the drainage work and started transporting the soil across the site. Work was stepped up as soon as the boys left for the summer holidays and, by mid-July, all of the soil was in place and the correct levels achieved.
The work included a six-pitch cricket square in the middle of the ground. The square was constructed with 125mm of Surrey Loams' GOSTD 125 and seeded with a perennial rye grass cricket mix. The rest of the field was sown with a bespoke seed mix containing 40% Perennial Ryegrass, 40% Smooth Stalked Meadow Grass, 15% Slender Creeping Fescue and 5% Browntop Bent.
With the site expected to drain well, irrigation was a necessity on the new pitches. A 16,000 gallon tank will feed an Orma Leader 40/120 travelling irrigator, set up from one of the seven outlets situated along one side of the ground. The speed is variable and will allow the whole field to be watered over a 24-48 hour period. Supplementary irrigation can be applied using static sprinklers.
The new field will effectively double the turf area used for sports pitches at the school, with two full-size rugby pitches and some training areas in the winter and an eight-lane athletics track alongside the cricket ground in the summer term. A viewing bank, some 4m high, runs along the entire eastern edge of the field.
The growing in period is going well with the grass thickening up nicely following an application of Sierrablen 15:5:22. Aeration will take place during the winter to strengthen rooting, and a couple of sand dressings are due in the spring, along with some overseeding. The school envisages the field to be in use at the start of the summer term in April.
What other projects have been undertaken in recent years?
One of the first tasks when I arrived at the school in September 2010 was to reconstruct the cricket square. It had been laid a few months before, using a totally unsuitable soil and then turfed in order to make the grounds look better for an imminent wedding! We stripped the turf back, using a Koro Field Top Maker, and introduced thirty tonnes of Surrey Loams GOSTD 125 into the top 50mm before seeding. The work was carried out late in October, but we managed to play on the square the following season.
I have also relaid the cricket net run-ups and an area of ornamental lawns known as The Quad.
Do you employ a health and safety officer?
One of the teaching staff has special responsibility for Health & Safety with weekly meetings of a Health & Safety committee. There is an annual external audit of safety procedures.
How do you purchase machinery - e.g. outright, 5 year replacement deal, second-hand etc?
The school had very little equipment in 2010 and I have spent the last five years adding to the fleet. Some of the larger items were purchased second-hand, but all have been bought outright.
Purchases were made from local dealers, including Ernest Doe, Lister Wilder, Synergy Products and Turf Machinery Engineering. I will always shop around for the best value and try to get the right machine for the job.
Are there any new pieces of kit that have significantly helped improve your playing surfaces?
I purchased a 6-metre boom sprayer two years ago and it has proved invaluable. It has meant being able to embark on a programme of growth regulation and liquid fertilisers. It's also been used to apply a wetting agent, liquid iron and for weed control. Being able to carry out spraying in-house gives me a much better level of control.
Do you hire in any machinery (inc. operator if required) for specific tasks?
Yes, deep aeration equipment, overseeding and topdressing are either carried out by a contractor or by using hired equipment. I have also hired a woodchipper on occasions to recycle tree prunings.
How do you undertake pest and weed control?
All carried out in-house using the tractor-mounted, 6 metre boom, 200L sprayer; a 25L pedestrian 1.5M boom, battery operated sprayer and a knapsack sprayer. I hold Pesticide Application certificates 1, 2, 6A and 6AW.
We don't suffer from specific disease outbreaks any more than expected.
One problem in the last couple of years has been Canada geese, and we are planning a cull in the spring.
How important do you consider the local flora and fauna?
Very; we have a tree survey carried out every three years to ensure they are healthy. A lot of the trees have group preservation orders on them. The lake brings its own environmental issues and we take extreme care not to contaminate the water with any fertiliser or pesticide treatments.
Whilst we don't have an environmental policy in place, some of the tree work we have carried out has come under the auspices of the local authority, and we have worked with them and the Environment Agency on the North Field Project and also employed an environmental consultant as part of the feasibility study on the project.
The planting scheme around the North Field will be designed with wildlife in mind.
What would you consider to be the state of our industry?
Pretty good on the whole. I have just returned from the NEC and most of the exhibitors I spoke to were experiencing improved sales. The main threat seems to be the rush to convert to 3G/4G surfaces.
It looks like moving Saltex to the NEC has been a good move and the growth of the awards will help to promote the industry. We also need to make the most of major international events like the Rugby World Cup just gone and the upcoming Cricket World Cup.
Thank you for your time.
What's in the shed?
Ford 1920 Tractor with 2-tonne tipping trailer
Kubota ZD28 Ride-on, zero-turn rotary mower
Major roller mower
Allett C20 - 20 inch cylinder mower with brush, scarifier and sarrel roller cassettes
Sisis Auto-rotorake Mk V
Hayter Harrier 48
Stothert & Pitt tandem cricket roller
Billy Goat leaf vacuum
Stihl backpack blower
Stihl battery operated strimmer, hedgetrimmer and chainsaw
Team Sprayer - 6 metre, 200 litre, tractor mounted
1.5 metre pedestrian sprayer
Polaris Gem Utility vehicle
Groundsman 460 Aerator
Servicing is carried out by Turf Machinery Engineering.
Steve's wish list includes a ride-on triple cylinder mower, a new tractor and irrigation to the existing sports pitches