Joe Cooper's life at Milton Abbey School has evolved into much more than being a groundsman, and it's a position he treasures. It's not hard to see why, when you can work in beautiful surroundings in the peaceful Dorset countryside
Milton Abbey School occupies one of the most picturesque sites in Dorset, if not England. As the school's name suggests, the grounds are dominated by an impressive abbey, and the later added gothic style house.
It is fortunate, for pupils and visitors alike, that the abbey escaped the fate of many monasteries during the time of their dissolution in 1536. It is perhaps even more fortunate that Capability Brown was later commissioned to sculpt the land, as it is a truly stunning setting.
The Headmaster is Gareth Doodes, the school's seventh since its foundation in the 1950s, who took up the post in August 2010. He is currently overseeing new building works for when the school becomes fully co-educational later this year.
Milton Abbey is a 'small' school in terms of the number of pupils - just under 300 - but has a big heart and big ambitions, all concentrated around the Abbey. Manned by a full time Anglican Chaplain, the school meets three times a week for chapel. There is a daily Eucharist, Compline on Wednesdays, and evening pray regularly through the week. The Abbey choir sing on major school occasions.
Whilst history records that the original church was founded in the 10th century by King Athelstan of Wessex, that three Monarchs have visited the site, and that various Lords, Ladies and Barons have occupied the house, this lowly serf is here to meet up with the school's Head Groundsman, Philip (Joe) Cooper.
Joe has been at the school 'man and boy'. During his twenty-two years service, he has been instrumental in developing the sports grounds to the excellent condition they are in today.
He has a team of five to assist him. Brian Pitman is the Deputy Head Groundsman. Lee Mitchell, Chris Prior, Chris Oram (gardener) and Nigel Everetts make up the rest of the team.
The grounds accommodate one senior football and rugby pitch, two grass hockey pitches, one lacrosse pitch and one floodlit, all weather pitch for multi-sports. In the summer, the school provides three cricket squares and a 400 metre grass athletics track for summer sports day.
The sports pitches and outfields are soil based, having a 300mm depth of natural soil overlying Dorset limestone bedrock, so they tend to drain very well. The sports pitches are mown weekly between 25-30mm, depending on time of year, using a Toro triple cylinder mower.
Every year, Joe renovates the winter sports pitches, usually scarifying, vertidraining, topdressing and overseeding them. He is governed by a tight budget, so not all the pitches get the amount of topdressings he would like; he often has to prioritise which ones get topdressed. Sixty tonnes per pitch is the norm.
The staff take pride in the presentation of their pitches and currently use a spray jet linemarker for best results, marking on a weekly and/or fixture basis. String lines are used at all times.
In addition, there is a nine hole golf course, designed by Peter Aliss in 1972, that wraps itself cozily around the abbey. It is here that the best views of the building can be had, along with some magnificent old cedar trees, all of which appear to watch every shot played!
Brian is in charge of maintaining and presenting the course. It is available to 150 local members all year round, who have access every day from 8.00am until 12.30pm, and at weekends. Afternoons and evenings are reserved for the pupils.
Greens are mown daily in the summer months and kept at around 5mm. Tees are mown twice or three times a week to 12mm, and fairways are cut at 15mm once a week. The rough is also cut weekly. The school have invested in a Toro 5500 fairway mower and Toro 3100 Triple cylinder mower to maintain the course.
Joe, Lee and Chris Prior look after the cricket facilities. The main square has seven wickets, of which four where relaid two years ago, digging out to a depth of 100mm and replacing with new Ongar loam. Joe and his staff carried out the work themselves and have been very pleased with the results, which has led to Dorset U17s now regularly playing on the square. Dorset U10-U18 also use the cricket facilities three time a week during the summer.
The setting for the sports pitches is breathtaking. Not only are they very well presented and have good playing surfaces, the combination of the golf course marrying into the winter sports pitches and general landscape areas must make it one of the most idyllic sports facilities I have visited.
Due to its rural location, the school is able to offer pursuits that others may not. These include horse riding, clay pigeon shooting and its own pheasant shoot.
With a traditional approach firmly rooted in the countryside, the school has recently developed its own farm project, keeping pigs and sheep, rearing pheasants for its shooting days and growing produce. The vegetable plots provide a learning resource for the students to have a go at growing, with the successful crop being used by the school kitchens. The entire school sits down to a formal meal twice a year with food that is solely produced from its own grounds.
Over the years, Joe has acquired a lot of skills developing and increasing the diversity of the school grounds. He has always been interested in animal welfare, so the recent move into farming makes the job, for him, even more interesting, even though it is a lot of additional work, as the animals need attention every day, come rain, shine, Easter or Christmas! Joe and the team have already had success breeding pigs and sheep.
The school also runs a stableyard for pupils who want to keep their own horses.
During the summer months, the abbey is also a popular venue for weddings, so the gardens and grounds must always look their best. Chris Oram, the school's gardener, is responsible for maintaining all the shrub and flower beds. Every year he designs new bedding schemes, buying in plugs and growing them on in their own polytunnel.
Joe continually looks at ways to improve the grounds and has a good working relationship with both the bursar and headmaster. Between them they ensure the school remains one of the best environments for those who attend the school. As with any independent school, the presentation of the grounds, the quality of the playing surfaces, along with the ambience of the site, play an important role in its identity and success.
Towards the end of my visit, Joe took me to the top of the abbey; over 300 tortuous steps up a stone spiral staircase, to where the views were simply breathtaking. He also showed me around the school and inside the abbey, which was equally impressive, with some very fine sculptures, stained glass windows and architecture. We even went into the Kings Room where large portraits of past British monarchs were on display.
Joe must have one of the most diverse jobs in our industry. It really has become a way of life for him and his family; they also live on site and feel very much part of the school. In fact, you could say he was as happy as a pig in ...
What's in the shed?
New Holland TC40 Tractor
Agriport Topper finishing mower
John Deere 855 tractor (in need of replacing)
John Deere Pro Gator with topdresser attachment
Toro 5500 fairway mower
Toro 3100 triple cylinder mower
Ransomes Mastiff 36" cylinder mower
2 x Lloyds Paladin pedestrian cylinder mowers
Ransomes Super Certes pedestrian cylinder mower
Honda Pro Rotary pedestrian mower
Hayter 56 mower
Various Stihl blowers, strimmers and chainsaws