Under this building site are four of the best grass tennis courts in the land. The reason for the cover up was so that a new swimming pool and changing facilities could be built at the prestigious Hurlingham Club in London. But, as Grounds Manager Peter Craig explains, all did not go according to plan
In late 2009, The Hurlingham Club committed to rebuilding its seventy year old outdoor pool complex. The old pool was leaking badly and the changing facilities, though quaint and attractive, were inadequate and, from a Health and Safety point of view, unacceptable in a club renowned for providing the very best services to its 13,000+ members.
The position of the outdoor pool provided numerous logistical problems for the would-be contractors. Access roads were narrow, both approaching the club and internally.
The club is situated in a residential area, so noise pollution was an issue, as was the constant toing and froing of vehicles.
From my point of view, the biggest concern was that the only vacant space anywhere near the site on which all the paraphernalia that comes with a 6.6 million pound building project was on the seven grass courts situated right next to the pool.
At a very early stage it became clear that there was no other option but to use the courts and, therefore, a damage limitation plan was devised.
This plan involved laying two layers of Terram membrane down over four and a half courts, and then installing around 400 tonnes of MOT Type 1 aggregate on top. This provided a five inch layer of hard standing that, 'in theory', would protect the courts from all the heavy duty vehicles that would be accessing the site on a daily basis.
I decided that it would be best to koro off all the vegetation in the area to be covered to prevent the grass from decomposing and fermenting over the estimated six months of the build; this initial timescale would give me the courts back in late April/early May 2011 and the whole of the summer to grade, level, install new irrigation, seed and maybe even use in late August.
So, on the 6th August 2010, with the stone laid and the site offices and machinery in place, the first chunk of the old pool was ripped away.
As part of the new footprint a section of the two acre lake at Hurlingham had to be reclaimed. To achieve this, an area at the end of the lake had to be dammed off and drained. This was done by inflating a large rubber dam and pumping the water out of the area required for reclamation.
The first few weeks of the project would have little or no impact on the court area as it mainly involved demolition and spoil removal. It had been decided that spoil removal would not be carried out by road due to the effect it would have on the local residents and the cost of carting 14,000 tonnes of waste away in 20 tonne loads.
The solution was to remove the spoil by barge via the adjacent River Thames and, to achieve this, a scaffold supported conveyor belt was erected. Almost as quickly as the spoil was being produced, it was being loaded on to the conveyor belt that, in turn, transferred it to a barge which, when full and at every high tide, transported the waste to a land fill site in East London. An ingenious solution to the problem.
It was around this time that the good old British weather began to interfere with the project. Just at the point where the concrete groundwork was being laid, we were hit with a long and very vicious spell of snow and sub zero temperatures which brought progress to a virtual standstill for several weeks.
It was at this stage that I realised that the chances of getting on the courts to begin renovation in late April, as planned, was becoming somewhat of a hope rather than an expectation ... and so it turned out!
As the whole block of courts had to shift three metres east of their original position, the irrigation system which was designed to cover each court separately needed to be moved. We decided to replace it entirely with new sprinklers, decoders/electrics and pipework.
We also had to completely remove a very large laurel bush from the north-west corner.
The chemical treatment store for the pool was to be housed in the outdoor pool car park which is nearly 100 metres from the pool. Therefore, the chemicals needed to be pumped through pipes running under the net line of the courts just below the pipework for the irrigation.
We removed an area of turf two metres wide running the length of the courts, and the depth of the trench was to be two metres. The trench would eventually accommodate eight pipes of different sizes.
I specifically requested that, when the trench was dug, the topsoil and the subsoil be stored separately so reinstatement would be easy but, sadly, as with many other aspects of this project, my request was ignored by the contractors.
It was around this time, in March, when my real problems began. It was clear from observation that the layer of type 1 had been unsuccessful in protecting the courts underneath and had completely disintegrated in places. Fully laden concrete lorries were becoming stuck in the mud and, on more than one occasion, unladen concrete mixers were being used to pull laden vehicles clear of the mud ... and all this on what were supposed to be playable grass courts come August!
The whole project was around four months behind schedule and, by the end of March, I resigned myself to the fact that my dream of having the summer to carry out repairs was just that, a dream.
By the end of March, the main structural work on the building had been completed and the foundation for the new pools had been prepared.
However, the weather remained atrocious, so much so that a temporary weatherproof structure had to be built to allow the pool to be tiled.
What had, by this time, been completed was the installation of most of the perimeter fencing, which was a very attractive (and not cheap) oak weaved fence. This gave us the chance to start landscaping the perimeter, part of a considerable planting and landscaping aspect of our work.
We were also getting close to the point where we could access a 1200 square metre area inside the complex to the east of the pool which was to be graded and turfed. My initial intention was to do this in-house, but the delays had been such that we were now struggling to cope with the pool work and the routine spring preparation work on the tennis, croquet, cricket, bowls and the spring gardening work.
For this reason, I called in White Horse Contractors to carry out the work. Compaction in the area was profound, so much so that even the heavy duty Blec Shakervator struggled to loosen the ground and pulled up enormous lumps of concrete on a regular basis. Lakes and Greens Ltd also installed a pop-up irrigation system prior to turfing and 140 tonnes of extra topsoil had to be brought in to achieve the desired levels, but thanks to (at last) some cooperation from the weather and great work by everyone, by mid June that part of the job was completed.
By this time, the project had fallen even further behind, and the completion date for the pool and infrastructure had now been put back to 25th July, which was now the earliest date at which we could have access to the courts.
However, things got worse. The whole idea of covering the area with Terram and Type 1 had been to protect it from damage and contamination. It had been agreed that the very last job would be to remove the stone carefully and peel the terram back to reveal a 'clean' and relatively level surface for us to work with.
What we actually inherited was any groundsman's worst nightmare. Not only had the stone failed to protect the ground below, but much of the stone and the terram above had been pushed up to a metre in to the ground, contaminating it and pushing up the underlying indigenous stone and gravel. As you can see by the photos, it was not a pretty sight. Indeed the contractors required 20 sq metres of the Type 1 to construct the car park, which inevitably had a detrimental effect on the ground below.
The consequence of all this was a considerable amount of extra time, work and related expense. Over 100 tonnes of contaminated soil had to be removed and replaced with new material and, as well as this, there was a great deal of moving of the indigenous soil to establish an even sub base. In all we had to buy and import nearly 300 tonnes of specially blended Surrey Loams GOSTD tennis loam to produce final levelling before consolidation and seeding. By the time all these problems had been addressed and overcome it was the end of August and, on the very last day of that month, koroing began to remove the dead vegetation that had been killed off with glyphosate.
We also planed off around 50mm of topsoil which we stockpiled for later use.
Another major task was to deal with the trench down the net line of the courts.
Plan A was to backfill and consolidate in May and hope that, by the following May, the grounds had firmed up enough for us to use our screw in tennis sockets. It was now clear that there was no way this would work, given the delays, so a decision was made to install permanent sockets anchored in concrete on top of Type 1 stone concrete raft. It was then we discovered that the pipework running down the net line at a supposed depth of 800mm was, in fact, only 650mm deep, further complicating an already difficult problem.
Setting the sockets in the right positions was a complicated business. The format of the courts on this site is such that we can have either four courts in play or three intermediate courts.
The tram lines of adjacent courts are shared so, in total, fourteen sockets had to be installed. As the tramlines are shared, the thickness of the lines had to be taken in to consideration, especially as the width of the court is measured from outside of line to outside of line.
We also had to make sure that the slots in the top of the sockets were facing the right way.
The measurements were triple checked before the concrete pour took place. At this juncture, the rains came back and delayed the process for a number of days.
By 27th September, the trench had been backfilled and consolidated and conditions had become dry enough for the power harrow to be used.
We also moved some of the new soil on to the north side ready for amelioration and laser levelling. The race was now on to bring in and apply 200 cubic metres of 4mm screened Surrey Loams GOSTD loam before the weather turned again.
Whilst all the above was going on, Lakes and Greens Ltd were busy installing a new irrigation system. Because the members don't take the nets down at the end of play, I had pairs of sprinklers installed either side of the net line, going head-to-head with the surrounding sprinklers so that, when on, the nets and posts do not interfere with the spray pattern. This meant a total of twenty sprinklers were required. Each sprinkler was loosely packed with shingle, prior to the final levelling work, so they could be adjusted on their swing joints to the correct level at the end of the project.
Thankfully, the weather was kind to us during the critical phase where the soil was added, and the laser leveller worked all day, every day to give us our desired finish. Sadly, due to budgetary constraints, my ideal fall on the courts which was 1:100 from south-east to north-west was not achievable, so the direct opposite gradient was set. This, I knew, would lead to future drainage issues as the fall would send the water into the south-east corner where the paths and buildings were, providing nowhere for it to drain (more of that later).
By early October, all the topsoil had been dumped, spread and laser levelled and final surface preparation had been completed ready for seeding using a ryegrass mix.
And so it was that, six months later than planned, on 11th October, the seed was sown and the whole area covered with germination sheeting. The only thing that could be done was to pray for mild and relatively dry weather in the hope that germination and some sort of establishment could be achieved before winter set in. At this stage, I left for sunnier climes in the hope that, on my return, I would be greeted with a sea of green.
Germination sheets were removed on 1st November to reveal a reasonably good take for the time of year but, as seemed to be the case throughout this project, for every two plusses there was a minus. The weather had turned very wet and even walking on the area was causing significant surface disturbance and, to exacerbate the problem, the seven plane trees to the south of the courts were now shedding their leaves at an alarming rate and, as many of you may know, a London plane leaf is equivalent in size to at least two normal sized leaves. However, undeterred, we put our heads together to work out a cunning plan.
Plan A - cling film and Tesco bags: Any attempt to walk on the area led to the sticky loam picking up on feet and wheels. However, the new grass was now well over an inch long and needed to be topped. So we wrapped all the wheels of the Honda mowers in cling film and tied plastic Tesco bags around the feet of the operators of the mowers and the leaf blowers, and tentatively managed to give the courts their first cut, bringing them down to around 25mm. Frustratingly, the weather worsened and persistent rain prevented any access for another week, by which time we were almost back to square one!
Plan B - snow shoes and Flymos: I'd like to think it was my idea, but probably not, to try using snow shoes to spread the weight of the feet and, after an internet surfing frenzy, I managed to source and order two pairs of plastic snow shoes. The ground was so soft that the wheels of the Etesias were sinking in, so I popped over to see Ian Wall at The Bank of England Club and borrowed two Flymo hover mowers. Despite the drawback of not being able to collect the clippings, this proved to be a good solution, which at least allowed us to keep the grass down to a manageable height.
It was, I have to say, one of the most comical phases of the whole project, and the sight of two of my team struggling along frogman-like trying to keep upright (and sometimes failing) will stay long in my memory. The things we do for the love of the job!
Earlier in this story, I mentioned that the fall of the area had been set from north-west to south-east rather than the ideal vice-versa. This was due to budgetary issues. The inevitable drainage issue was now beginning to cause us problems. Due to the increase of height of the path at the east end of the courts, the levels of the courts were a good 120mm below the path and, as the courts slope towards the path, all the water was accumulating at this end.
We dug a temporary soakaway and channels to feed it, and this succeeded in allowing the surface water to drain away slowly, just about giving good enough drainage to maintain a sward of sorts in the south-east corner. Later that month, a permanent deeper soakaway was installed with three lateral feeder drains to it, but we still have local drainage problems in this area which will have to be solved by topdressing.
Over the next few weeks, we continued to keep the height of cut in the region of 25mm. Ideally, I would have liked it down to at least 18mm if not lower, but conditions dictated that the Flymo mowers were the only machine we could take on to the surface, so we were limited.
At long last the weather started to cooperate and the winter of 2011/12 proved to be quite a dry one. We eventually managed to start cutting with our Honda rotary mowers and, by late March, we had the height down to around 20mm and were on course to bring the courts in to play, possibly in July.
Overall, the sward had done well, and in mid March we cut with a cylinder mower for the first time (Lloyds Paladin). On the 29th March we managed to get the 28in Matador on the courts, and this gave the added benefit of lightly rolling the surface. Over the next week or two, we slowly reduced the height of cut until we had it down to 12mm. We had applied three granular 9:7:7 feeds, but we had held off on any form of aeration to allow the structure to settle.
It was at this point that the monsoon that was the spring and majority of the summer of 2012 set in and the rest, as anyone who worked in this profession during THAT summer will know, is history.
We did manage to get the seed in the ground, but from then on we never got a chance to even think about topdressing. The conditions were so bad that the height of cut went up to around 30mm and, every time we managed to bring it down, the rain came in and up it went again.
It was late June before conditions allowed us to have proper access to the courts again and, by this time, any hope of getting the courts in to play had gone. This at least allowed me to be a bit more brutal with the courts and I reduced the height of cut down to 9mm and scarified them quite heavily. Not only did the operation remove a significant amount of organic material that had accumulated during the wet weather, but it also removed a mountain of seed that had fallen from the plane trees.
The Big John scarifier also left some lovely grooves in the GOSTD loam which provided a great bed for the seed to sit in when we oversowed. I also decided to hollow tine with 8mm tines to a depth of 30mm. My theory was that it would produce an even better seed bed and would leave a better surface for the topdressing to key in to. Although surface levels were generally quite good, they were far from perfect, so we applied quite heavy dressing to improve the levels. As well as the general surface level corrections, the trench down the net line had, as expected, subsided significantly leaving the post sockets proud in places, so this area also had to be topdressed heavily.
So, by late June 2012, I finally felt that we were back in control of the project and could begin looking forward to the day when the biggest block of grass courts in the entire club would be available for play again.
The only silver lining to what was a nightmare summer was that the use of all the other grass courts had been minimal, meaning that the loss of 25% of our grass courts had not had as big an affect on the other 75% in terms of baseline wear.
By early September 2012, the courts were just about ready for use but, ironically, that is just the time when we start closing the courts for renovation. My manager wanted me to open them as a token gesture, but much as I would have liked to say we had them in play, it really would have been too much hassle at a very busy time of year.
And so it was we overseeded and topdressed again, and tucked the courts in for the long winter ahead.
Spring this year proved to be a different type of challenge with extremely low temperatures well in to April. Not the ideal conditions to bring on a brand new sward. As ever, my fantastic team persevered and, although not as good as I would have liked (but are things ever such?), on May 4th 2013 - thirty-three months after the courts were taken over by the builders - and eighteen months after we got them back again - courts O, P, Q and R reopened for play.
Whilst proud of what we had achieved, I was disappointed that we never got the chance to carry out our work in less stressful circumstances. I know that, had we been given the summer of 2011 to carry out the work rather than the autumn and winter of the following year, we would have been able to provide a better surface.
However, we will, undoubtedly, over the next couple of years, be able to improve the courts noticeably with regular remedial work, and the feedback from the members has been nothing but positive.
The whole project has been a massive learning process for me and my team, and, given what we expected to inherit when we got the courts back, and what we were actually left with, I think we can be extremely proud of how we dealt with all the challenges we faced.