Standing tall and proud inside England's last-remaining operational toll village lies an independent school rich in tradition. Tom James returns to the London suburbs he once called home to unearth the secrets of Dulwich College's longstanding sporting prowess.
We drive through bustling, cosmopolitan South London, past the former site of that magnificent Victorian glass monolith, the Crystal Palace, once perched atop the highest point in these parts, whilst bypassing the sporting hub that housed some of London 2012's finest athletes, in search of our destination.
The leafy oasis of Dulwich, a place I once called home, seems forever a lost world in the sprawling suburbs of the capital.
As we approach the toll, pay the £1 charge, and enter the village proper, it's soon apparent that, within the confines of arguably South London's most exclusive neighbourhood, little if anything has changed in the twenty years since I last trod this wonderfully English throwback to an age so much more green.
Dulwich is said to be the only village in the UK still operating a toll, a last bastion in a London now as culturally rich as any of the world's great cities.
Just up the South Circular road lies the gated group of luxurious townhouses that numbered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among its occupants.
We progress slowly to the heart of the village, passing acres of sportsfields until the Italianate red brick buildings suddenly loom into view, surrounded by tree-lined avenues running along their four corners.
Dulwich College remains one of the most prestigious educational institutions and it's easy to see why, with nearly 400 years of history mortared into the walls of the imposing main buildings, designed by master architect, Charles Barry. "Dulwich College - Founded 1619" the entrance sign states matter-of-factly, though elegantly picked out in rich colour.
Encasing the school are immaculate lawns, ornamental gardens and as good a first cricket square as I've seen on my many visits reporting for Pitchcare. Little surprise then that sport is one of many pursuits that Dulwich College excels in, with cricket and rugby fighting for supremacy, but both wielding equally enviable reputations, as I'll soon find out.
The Dulwich College site is spread over some seventy-five acres, with additional sportsfields and facilities scattered across the village. A walk round the area soon reveals the characterful corners of the college's provision, each with its endearingly-styled pavilion.
The main campus houses the historic original buildings (along with some more functionally designed later additions such as the prosaically named 'Science Block'), along with an impressive array of natural and synthetic playing surfaces, including four cricket squares, full-size sand-filled synthetic pitch and a three-quarter-size sand-dressed one.
The Shackleton Building however, betrays an Antarctic connection - the HMS Endurance's lifeboat - the James Caird - in which explorer Ernest Shackleton and a select group of his crew crossed the Antarctic Ocean to bring rescue to the remaining members of his crew left on Elephant Island after their failed bid to reach the South Pole in 1914. The James Caird is now a permanent exhibit in the college cloisters.
The Trevor Bailey Sports Grounds nearby are home to three more cricket squares and two rugby/football pitches. The Tankfield Sports Grounds include yet another cricket square and two football/rugby pitches (the site is so-named after the grounds were used as a water storage depot for local fire brigades during World War II), whilst the final 'outground' - Ellerbank - houses Dulwich College kindergarten, a nursery and three rugby pitches.
A monumental scale of sporting provision - one whose management rests in the hands of Head of Grounds, Paul Purnell, as affable a character as you'd wish to meet, notwithstanding his pressing deadline to ready the site for Founder's Day the next morning.
Readers may recall our interview with former England international Ed Smith, in which he hailed Tonbridge School's cricket outfield as the best outfield he'd ever played on, second only to Lord's.
It's some praise then for Purnell and his team that, during a recent visit by Tonbridge's first team, cricket master Andy Whittle labelled Dulwich's square "the best on the independent circuit" - a ringing endorsement from a man who is used to hosting matches played on some of the finest cricket provision in the sector.
Praise indeed, but Paul's not the kind of grounds professional who'd allow such comments to go to his head. The 47-year-old celebrated his twenty-second year at the school in January, so I imagine he's received many an accolade in that time.
Starting his working life as a gardener at the then Greater London Council, the born and bred Londoner moved to the Royal Parks in 1984, where, at Regent's Park, he first acquired a taste for groundsmanship.
"When I joined, it was still under Royal Parks management, so it was a nice place to be," he tells me. "They'd started preparing some sports pitches soon after I joined, just cricket and football. I remember asking the foreman if I could mark up a football pitch. 'You'll get really mucky,' he told me, but that didn't bother me and, from then on, I knew this was the business for me."
Paul qualified initially as a gardener with a City and Guilds, before later taking his National Technical Level 3 and a Level 5 Chartered Management and Leadership course whilst in his role as an assistant groundsman at Dulwich College.
"I started under Don Soathey, then, eighteen months later, David Smith, who left after only a year," explains Paul. "I applied for the head of grounds position, not thinking I'd get it and, in all honesty, not really being ready for it, but they chose me and I started life as head groundsman in 1993."
"Sometimes, you can't be as well prepared as you'd like but, ever since my early days in the job, I knew I wanted to be successful, so I put my all into the new role."
Both cricket and rugby jostle for bragging rights at Dulwich. Both boast an impressive retinue of ex-professionals, including cricketing greats such as Roger Knight and Trevor Bailey, along with current stars like Surrey's Chris Jordan and Durham's Ruel Braithwaite.
On the rugby side, Harlequins and England flanker Nick Easter and England prop Andrew Sheridan are just two of the most recent top-fight players who learned their craft at the college, and the school's team of 1997 gained national prominence for their seven-year unbeaten school record. "The Dream Team," as Paul dubs them.
Trevor Bailey is perhaps the most celebrated sporting Old Alleynian, captaining his school at rugby, cricket and hockey in his time there, an honour bestowed on only a handful of students in the school's history - one warranting the award of the white blazer for his achievements, which was returned to the school last year when his wife donated it following his untimely death in 2011.
The year 2019 will be a landmark year for the college as it celebrates its quatercentenary. The school plans to honour its 400-year history with the 2019 masterplan, which will see works completed and new additions made around the main campus to build on an already sterling reputation.
Sports provision will be at the heart of the improvements, with several key projects to be set in motion. One of the sand-based synthetic pitches is planned to be upgraded to a 3G installation, whilst major works on the second wicket are in the pipeline to re-level the undulating surface and install new drainage to counter the continually shifting London clay foundations.
"There's a 16ft difference from the top end to the bottom on the second square ground, which is probably our biggest issue with cricket here, and is in need of improving if we are to reach the standard I believe we can reach," Paul explains.
"Periodically, the clubhouse [where we sit chatting] can flood when we receive the kind of deluges we've suffered recently, so it's vital we rectify the problem for that reason alone," he adds.
Paul has recently called in his longstanding weed management contractor ALS to quote for levelling the second square outfield by koroing, power harrowing and laser grading in a bid to create the level playing field that he so wants. "Whether we do the work in-house or contract it out, we have to finish it in the two months during the summer when the school is closed, so we have a tight timescale," he explains.
"Currently, we don't gain as much use of the artificial pitches or the athletics track as we could," Paul continues. "There would be plenty of scope with a 3G pitch and we're looking into the viability of one at present."
"It would present a great addition for the school and also, as a community facility, it would prove very popular and mean it could pay for itself over time. The initial outlay aside, the longer-term maintenance costs of running synthetic pitches are almost as much as those of natural grass - people still don't realise this," Paul stresses.
"Those who believe synthetic offers a cheaper alternative and is a replacement for real turf are mistaken. Maintaining synthetic pitches is still groundsmanship, but in a different guise. You need knowledge and training, just like you do for grass."
Plans are also afoot to redevelop the college's athletics track, to convert it into a straight 110m track for sprint training and long jump events. The current 300m circuit fell short for consideration as a 2012 training venue, Paul reports rather sadly.
We only have to look to Spain's FIFA Euro 2012 footballing success to see that good coaching, youth development and investment in premier facilities are at the heart of sporting achievement.
This is clearly something Dulwich holds dear. "Many of our coaches are former professionals, and often ex-England internationals. John Embury is just one of the latest to be involved for a term here, while Bill Athey is a full-time coach," explains Paul.
"The sports masters have forged strong links with the international scene, so it's often a case of recruiting the services of someone new each term, to specialise in a certain aspect, whether that be bowling or batting. Surrey firsts will also often train here, which is good for the school, and shows that the quality is where it should be."
As school cricket squares go, Dulwich is one of the country's top ten. Across the four sites, Paul and his ten-man team nurture eight cricket squares, and synthetic strips at three of them, sixteen on the perimeter of the first square alone. The first square, which takes pride of place in front of the school buildings and stately pavilion, was re-laid some twenty years ago, with no less a personage than Harry Brind hired to help lay the Gostd loam-based wickets.
The second square, to the back of the pavilion, was re-laid in similar fashion a few years later, yet it is this one that causes Paul and the team the biggest headache, thanks to the unpredictability of London clay.
The Colts square and the Lower School square make up the final two of Dulwich's cricket offering on the main campus.
It takes the full complement of staff to keep on top of the ever-growing workload at the college and its satellite grounds. Paul heads up a dedicated, and, from what I witnessed, a passionate group of professionals that includes deputy head of grounds, Bob Churcher, three cricket groundsmen - Steve Dyer, Michael Davison and Jonathan Lake - two trainees, the most recent being Bob's son Tom, and Robin Lane, who looks after the athletics track and rugby pitches. Paul's pavilion attendant, Tom Hegerty, helps oversee many of the functions and events that are frequently staged here. "We host lots of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and corporate functions; probably about fifty a year now," says Paul.
"There's a week's turnround at the end of the rugby season in preparation for cricket and we shut down cricket in mid-August until pre-season, when the programme of functions and corporate use of the cricket continues apace."
Dulwich College may be one of the most prestigious schools in the UK but, like so many others in this economic climate, it has to cut its cloth accordingly. With a grounds maintenance team as strong as this one, most work is conducted in-house - and, so far, with great success.
"In 2010 we began the process to dramatically reduce build-up of thatch on five cricket squares," reports Paul. "We were quoted £5,000 for the job but, by doing it ourselves - koroing five squares, reseeding and topdressing - we kept costs to under £2,000."
Over two years, some 16mm of thatch was taken out, 8mm in the first year, and the process repeated in the second, reducing it to a manageable level. "Thatch is very much under control now, at 1-2mm," Paul adds, "which is the general build-up over the year, and nothing that the Graden can't deal with. Controlling thatch can be a real nightmare in cricket, so we're fortunate that we've now got it under control."
Paul has demonstrated his financial nous in other aspect of turfcare too, showing himself to be in a strong position to talk figures and budgets with the other heads of department.
A 2010 machine addition saved the club £9,000 on the new purchase price, for example. The John Deere 7700, the school's second biggest item of turf machinery amongst, what is, a huge fleet of ride-ones, walk-behinds and handheld equipment, was a result of Paul keeping his ear to the ground and pouncing on a good deal.
"The machine was earmarked for Chelsea FC's training ground, having been on trial there for a few months," he explains. "When I got wind of it going on to the market I leapt at the chance of getting a £25,000 machine for £16,000 - it's one of the best on the market."
The five-reel 7700 now takes care primarily of the second cricket square, with the daddy of the fleet - the Toro 6700 seven-reel mower occupying the most important job of all, the firsts cricket square.
Not one to pick favourites, Paul speaks highly of both machines, yet reveals his hand when I press him. "We have a big John Deere fleet, so it would be easy to say that we favour their machines. Brand new, with new blades, I'd favour the 7700, but I've always felt Toro blades last longer, which is partly why I use the bigger 6700 for the first square," he reveals.
For Paul, his biggest concern with the grounds is less a result of individual issues, whether that be drainage, undulation or thatch, but rather one of workload and demand.
Paul forms part of a close-knit family of South London and surrounding area groundsmen, including heads at Tonbridge, Caterham, Whitgift, Alleyns and Colfes, which are all committed to keeping in close contact, sharing ideas and expertise with each other, and regularly meeting up or emailing to stay abreast of the industry's most pressing matters.
The overwhelming sentiment at present is that time constraints and an ever-mounting demand on pitches has become their single biggest challenge. "In my time here, I've witnessed a threefold growth in fixtures," reveals Paul.
"When I started at the school, we held about 100 sports fixtures a term. Now, we're up past 300 for cricket and the same for rugby alone. Last season, we clocked up 305 official cricket fixtures, beating our previous record, and making us, officially, the site that plays more cricket than anywhere else in the UK."
"It's recorded in Wisden. From the under 8s to under 18s, we run forty-seven teams in total, so, as you can imagine, turnaround on the wickets has to be faster than we'd like ideally. On any one cricket day, we can have as many as seven games in the morning and nine in the afternoon, both junior and senior. On average, we stage forty games a week, including outside lettings, of which we have four regular teams and a handful of casual clubs using the facilities at weekends."
Pressure of match schedules means any work that Paul does contract out has to be squeezed into a small window of opportunity. "We've worked with ALS for twelve years now and, in that time, the way they conduct the weed management programme has had to adapt as the number of matches played here has increased.
Fixtures dictate when they can come in and spray the grounds - usually the May and October half-terms. They're in at 5.00am to do some of the work, then I open up the rest of the grounds at 6.30am for them. It works well."
In the long-term, it's evident that Paul feels there's much he can still do to improve the quality of his playing surfaces, such as to remedy (at least in the short term) the undulating characteristics of the main campus site. Until then, a strict maintenance programme must continue if the team is to deliver the excellent surfaces players have grown accustomed to.
"In preparation for the winter season, we start vertidraining in October and usually stop in early March, depending on the severity of the weather," he explains. "We do quite a lot of earthquaking and 'Gwazai-ing' as well to help introduce air into the clay foundations. Preparations for the cricket season take more time and planning, and we base those around our annual soil analysis, which can change from year to year."
Readying himself for the 2012 season, Paul recruited the services of Maxwell Amenity, which undertook the detailed soil analysis that has become so crucial to successful summer maintenance. Factors such as pH and nutrient levels were measured, alongside cation exchange and magnesium levels. "I never swear by these tests, but they do offer a good guide to work to and helps us buy in the right materials," says Paul.
That said, sometimes things don't work out how you'd expect. "Two years ago, we had a big fertiliser spillage, which, at the time, thought would kill the grass. In fact, the grass there outgrew rival varieties for three seasons. It just happens that analysis sometimes isn't spot on and you have to try again next year. The results from this year were largely positive - we have a well-balanced soil with a slightly high phosphate level, so a low pH fertiliser has been selected alongside the suggested seed varieties."
"For the last two years we've been using Bar Extreme and British Seed Houses A5, alongside some of the longstanding grasses. Uptake has been good, and they cope well with the rigours of the job here."
Paul tries to work ten days ahead of fixtures, especially at first team level - five to seven days for junior levels. Sometimes though, having things run to your own schedule just isn't possible, and that's more often than not the case for Paul and his team.
"We've had to add new squares just to keep up with demand, including three pitches on the Colts square - two with Gostd loam and one with Ongar. This has given us greater capacity along with gaining the Trevor Bailey pitch a decade ago, but we're still faced with the problem of having to play back-to-back fixtures, so we aren't afforded the luxury of time to prepare. Through April to July we play as many as seventy games a week."
"Of course, the Head of Grounds role is not what it used to be and there is much more requirement today for management than the old style hands on involvement. Lots of paperwork; everything from risk assessment to appraisals which, of course, is necessary but I sometimes yearn for the old days and still love getting my hands dirty," explains Paul.
Paul is cheery in his management duties though, and one of its upsides is that men in his position are increasingly taken a good deal more seriously at board level and are able to talk to heads of department on level terms and carry greater weight when negotiating budgets and decision-making on provision.
Despite the challenges, he feels positive that the industry is moving in the right direction. "The wage structure is strong here, and in the independent schools market generally, and good wages attracts more talent, which can only be positive in bringing in younger grounds professionals into the business, which at present poses real problems for all of us."
Lack of interest at youth level is becoming a well-worn story in these pages, and Paul is certainly vehement in his belief that something has to be done, and fast, if the industry is to become more appealing for youngsters as a profession worth pursuing.
"Part of the problem is the erosion of the old fashioned manual skills that guys of my generation grew up with," says Paul. "Coupled with that is the problem of access to training. There's nothing in the area here. The closest site is in Hadlow, Kent. If young people are to become involved in the industry, exposure needs to be greater and access easier. None of the governing bodies are doing enough at present."
Fortunately, Dulwich does have promising young talent on the books - Paul's most recent addition to the team, Tom Churcher, Bob's son, who is already showing that he has the mettle to go far. "Tom has a great attitude and works hard, two attributes that will stand him in good stead for this or any other job for that matter. He trained first as an electrician, but couldn't find full-time employment in that field, so we took him on full time after he had worked here part-time."
The status and responsibility of groundsmen in Paul's position is on the rise, as knowledge of the challenges of the role become better known. At Dulwich, the culture is very much one of joint decisions and consultation, with Paul consulted in many of the issues affecting the vast sporting footprint.
"It's a three-way relationship where sport is concerned," explains Paul. "I liaise with both the director of sport and the individual sports masters when it comes to fixtures and cancellations. You have to do what's best for the long-term health of the pitches which, in bad weather, will mean postponing fixtures."
"We play so many games here that just one fixture played in very poor weather can have a great impact on pitch quality, so sometimes you have to weigh up what's best for the greater good. I'm happy that we have the sort of relationship here that allows dialogue."
Accolades aside, Paul still aspires to emulate standards at another independent school that Dulwich regularly competes against. "Tonbridge has it just right. The grounds are immaculate and I want to achieve that level here."
London clay does not make life easy, but Paul is determined to keep Dulwich at the very top and is proud of the standard of his wickets. "You have to plough in money to make it work and the ground is never going to stay flat forever, so it naturally costs more to maintain than schools of a similar standard - we just have to live with that. We may not have the advantages of some of our competitor schools and, because of the size of Dulwich (with pupils from Infant to Sixth Form), we certainly work our grounds as hard here if not more so than any other school, but we have one of the best school first XI wickets in the country, and we reckon we can give the others a good run for their money."
Paul is certainly happy with his lot, and what he has achieved in his last twenty-two years at Dulwich, amid an ever-swelling schedule of fixtures. Yet, stress aside, it's the moments like those he spent with the record-breaking rugby team of '97 that make it all worthwhile, and throw up some of his most memorable moments.
"I remember one fixture, against Tonbridge as it happens, when first team captain Tim Dux asked me if he could get into the away dressing room to leave them a note."
On a sheet of paper, pinned to the dressing room wall, read: 'If rugby was a game played in Heaven, be prepared to meet thy Gods'. It's something that stuck in my head after all those years, a great memory to have from such an epic team."
Reluctantly heading home on a warm, windy summer's afternoon, I gaze once more across the first square, with its sharp sunlight and shadows, at the match now nearing its climax - half expecting Tom Brown himself to scurry across the sportsfield as he did in David Lean's unforgettable film of those schooldays.
A precious few hours sheltered from the hubbub of the modern world.
What's in the shed
Allen 218 pedestrian mower
Allett Supershaver wicket mower x 2
Allett c20 square mower
Allett Tournament square mower
Allett Supershave pedestrian mower
Allett Shaver 20 pedestrian mower
Autoroller 4ar - 1965
Autoroller 4ar - 1971
Greentek MMR multiroller
Double Quick D06 tractor mounted aerator
Ford AC412T tractor (old digger)
Greentek GB8 tractor-mounted brush
Hayter Harrier 48 pedestrian mower x 2
Hayter Harrier 56 pedestrian mower x 2
Hayter Harrier 56 24in pedestrian mower
John Deere 2520 Digger
John Deere TE Gator utility vehicle
John Deere 4110 tractor
John Deere 2520 tractor
John Deere X740 ride-on mower
John Deere 2320 tractor
John Deere E-Gator multi-use vehicle
John Deere 2653a three-reel mower
John Deere 7700C five-reel fairway mower
John Deere 3320 tractor
John Deere 2520 Di Deck rotary cutting deck
John Deere X740 Deck rotary cutting deck
John Deere 4110 Deck rotary cutting deck
John Deere 2320 Deck rotary cutting deck
John Deere 2520 Tr Deck rotary cutting deck
John Deere 2520 200CX tractor-mounted front bucket
Kioti DK551C tractor
Lawnflite Pro445KR pedestrian mower
Ransomes 180 three-reel mower
Ransomes Super Certes pedestrian mower
Ransomes 213 three-reel mower
Ransomes Certes wicket mower
Sisis STR1812 Trio Autorake
Sisis CMB/1 Combirake
Sisis VSE/1300 tractor-mounted seeder
Sisis ARR/4 auto-rotorake
Sisis ARR/5 auto-rotorake
Sisis CR combirake
Soil Reliever SR-72 aerator
Stihl blowers, strimmers, chainsaws x 25
Stihl TS400 angle grinder
Sit-down road sweeper
Toro 6700D seven-reel mower
Trojan TR trailer
Victa PRO 550 pedestrian mower x 8
Victa Mulch 550 pedestrian mower x 2
Wessex IT trailer