The All England Jumping Course at Hickstead is one of the premier horse jumping competition facilities in the world. This year it hosted the Longines Royal International Horse Show for the sixteenth consecutive year.
2007 has already proved a very challenging summer for the groundstaff and the Hickstead Derby was held in the wettest conditions the organisers have ever known.With the addition, last year, of two all weather polo arenas the Head Groundsman, Julian Harris, certainly has his work cut out.
The Royal International Horse Show celebrated its 100th Birthday last month at Hickstead.
The show, which began life at London's Olympia as the glittering highlight of the 1907 society season, is owned by the British Horse Society which 'inherited' it from its forerunner, The Institute of the Horse and Pony Club, when the society was formed in 1947.
Only the two World Wars have interrupted the show which, in its lifetime, has been held at Olympia, the White City Stadium, Wembley - both inside and outside on the football pitch - and the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham.
Since then he has expanded both the showjumping and showing schedules to the point where Hickstead's six arenas now sustain a hectic six day programme. The eight-nation Samsung Super League with FEI (Great Britain) and the unique Ford Ranger Eventing Grand Prix are international classes proving immensely popular with audiences, together with the long-established Longines King George V Gold Cup and Queen Elizabeth II Cup.
Douglas has had a lifelong interest in show jumping having been Chairman and President of the British Show Jumping Association of which he is currently Honorary Vice-President.
In 1960 he opened the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead, incorporating in its International Arena a number of permanent obstacles. Over the years this has become the leading centre for British show jumping. As well as the Royal International Horse Show it is also home to many other prestigious events in the national and international calendars including the Hickstead Derby, the British Nations Cup and the Schools Show Jumping championships.
Hickstead is very much a family run business with several of Douglas's children actively involved in the organisation and maintainance of the site. His sons, Edward and John, are Show Director and Company Accountant respectively. Edward manages the day to day running of the site. Elizabeth, his daughter, is the Organising Secretary who, along with other family members, is responsible for the considerable event organisation.
Hickstead is regarded as one of the world's leading competition facilities providing a wonderful experience for both riders and spectators alike. The site is set in 100 acres of Sussex farmland.
The site, in total, comprises seven grass arenas, two all weather polo fields/practice areas and a cross country course. In addition there are other areas that are mown regularly to provide space for car parking, horse stabling, trade show sites, an air strip and public thoroughfares
During an event, the stabling areas have to cater for up to 1000 portable stables, the build up and take down alone is a huge operation. Over 200 trade stalls are erected on site, along with camping and caravanning areas, all of which have to be fenced and signposted.
Edward employs eight full time groundstaff to help him. His Head Groundsman is Julian Harris who has worked at Hickstead for 25 years.
The main grassed areas are cut with several sets of trailed gang cylinder mowers whilst the cross country course is cut with rotaries. The maintenance regime for the main arena is relatively straight forward; a regular programme of feeding, weeding and aeration is carried out and mowing with trailed gangs, cutting at 28mm 2-3 times per week. Prior to a show, the main arena will be mowed with a Toro triple to improve presentation. Granular fertilisers are applied during the growing season, tending to use agriculture products such as 20:10:10 NPK ratios.
The outside areas are cut 2-3 times a week to a height of 50mm. This ensures the grass remains easy to cut whilst, at the same time, reducing arisings.
The soil at Hickstead is predominantly a clay loam. Last year over 5000 linear metres of primary drainage at 5 metre centres were installed in the main arena to improve surface drainage. Bearing in mind this summer's wet weather it was a timely investment. Edward said that the new drainage had definitely saved the DFS Derby event.
Eight compact tractors and thirteen Groundhog ride on buggies provided by JCB Groundcare also helped as they were able to operate in the extremely muddy conditions during the build up and take down of the June show.
Whilst presentation is important, particularly for teleivsed events, the priority is the safety of horses and riders. Julian and his staff walk the arenas daily to check for potential problems and to repair divots. With over 1500 horses performing in the wettest conditions the venue has ever known it was not surprising that they had their work cut out this year.
After each day's events Julian and his staff will replace all divots and topdress any holes with a course grit washed sand, and remove any horse dung from the surface. Once these tasks have been completed Julian restores levels with a Cambridge roller however, with over thirty fences in the arena, there is little chance of carrying out any other tractor maintenance operations during the shows.
Hickstead runs two main shows, one at the end of June, The British Jumping Derby, and the other at the end of July, The Longines Royal International Horse Show. Both events attract in excess of 15,000 visitors.
This year, as a consequence of the bad weather during the June event, many of the traffic areas suffered extensive damage, which Julian and his staff had to reinstate. This involved a programme of cultivating, harrowing and overseeding with a grass mix of perennial rye and clover.
Once the main shows are over Julian begins renovating the arenas starting with a decompacting programme using a vertidrain and his recently purchased Imants linear Shockwave aerator. Topdressing is applied to the take off and landing areas of the fences, plus any other areas that require it. These are then oversown with a perennial rye mix.
The wet weather also meant that the famous hill feature, The Derby Bank in the main arena, suffered extensive wear, resulting in the need to returf - not an easy task on a near vertical incline! Rolls of turf were layed in place and fixed with wooden pegs, which will be removed once the turf has established.
During the winter months the staff are kept busy with work on the all weather surfaces using a specially designed all in one rake, harrow and cultivator to maintain the surfaces before and after play.
Other winter tasks include the repairing and painting of all the arena fences, together with the ongoing upkeep of ditch lines, fences and features around the site. Leaf clearance and tree mainenance is another of the winter jobs for Julian and his staff.
As with any major international sporting venue, the ground and surface conditions have to be of the highest standards. Horses might not put the same demands on the turf's quality from a time point of view compared to golfers, cricketers and footballers, but the damage is deeper and more widespread. The after care is probably more demanding than in any other sport, and the Bunn family, and their groundstaff, can be justly proud of what they have achieved in maintaining Hickstead as one of the leading show jumping venues in the world.