Queen Ethelburga's Collegiate, an independent day and boarding school, is set in a 220 acre estate at Thorpe Underwood, North Yorkshire in rolling countryside. Of particular interest, especially to those in sports turfcare however, is QE's dedicated Sports Village, recently completed in 2016. David Mears went to investigate and met Grounds Manager Ben Grigor.
Grounds Manager Ben Grigor
Bernard Grigor, known to all as Ben, was appointed Grounds Manager with responsibilities for the 42 acre outdoor sports facilities at Queen Ethelburga's in September 2016 and has played an important part in the rapid development of the new grounds department, a division of the estates department.
Asked about his entry into the industry, Ben commented: "I fell into it initially. I needed a summer job, so went to Crow Wood Golf Club near Muirhead, Scotland." Working in the greens department at the club obviously appealed to Ben and he was offered an apprenticeship there in 1997. He recalled that the work and training was intense and much was expected of him; good career development experience!
Three years later, he went to Mount Ellen Golf Club, a few miles away, as first assistant, gaining more experience. Ben credits his intense apprenticeship at Crow Wood as the reason he secured the position - and at just twenty-one years old! He spent four and a half years there and then returned to Crow Wood as Deputy Course Manager in 2005. In 2008, an opportunity beckoned and Ben made the move to Rangers Football Club, initially as Deputy Head Groundsman at Murray Park and then, in 2011, with the same title, at Ibrox Stadium. He spent nearly eight years with Rangers and acquired additional skills.
In 2014 and gaining additional and varied experience, Ben spent the next two and a half years in management positions with Souters Sports, SIS Pitches and Greenfields UK. This is where he honed his knowledge and skills with the development, production, installation and maintenance of natural, hybrid and synthetic sports turf systems. With such valuable experience and knowledge, together with his SVQ, NC (National Certificate) in Greenkeeping and other competency certificates, he was able to secure the position of Grounds Manger at Queen Ethelburga's.
I asked him "Was there one person who inspired you?" Ben replied; "Hard to say. I think there must be two." He said that his dad, who worked for Glasgow Parks Department, inspired him with stories of his work and the characters he worked with. Ben found this so interesting and the camaraderie was appreciated. The other person was Stephen Hogg, Course Manager at Crow Wood. "He gave me so much responsibility and encouragement. He demanded a high standard of work. This ensured professionalism was maintained and a first class greenkeeping facility. Stephen certainly gave me a strong work ethic and he knew how to get the best out of me!"
"Queen Ethelburga's was a great opportunity." said Ben. "Nothing was inherited, so I was able to start from scratch to build a team and department. Along with adding workshop facilities and machinery, I was able to bring my wish list to life!" Asked about budgets, Ben answered: "I had my responses all ready for questions on my kit list, but there weren't any, except why did I need a Dymo labeller!" So no issues with budget then.
Drone shot showing the variety of pitches
The facility and staff
QE's publicity states: 'The outstanding range of high quality facilities on campus enables us to deliver the wide range of sporting activities that we have on offer so successfully'. They claim what they offer is unique; a dedicated Sports Village. Nothing could be truer and it needs to be seen to be believed. This includes a four-lane synthetic cushioned running track and over thirty acres of grass and 3G artificial pitches outside, a 25-metre swimming pool, triple court sports hall, 100 station fitness suite and free weights centre indoors. There are also a number of specialist studios used for; martial arts, wrestling, dance, gymnastics, table tennis, cycling, archery, fencing and boxing.
This impressive facility now is a far cry from its modest beginnings. QE's history began with a school opening in Harrogate in 1912. The school, under the new ownership of the Martin family, moved to its present location, Thorpe Underwood Hall, in 1991, became independent and was renamed Queen Ethelburga's Collegiate. A huge investment programme ensued. More recently, an £80m investment has been made in the new Sports Village, new boarding houses, new classrooms and other facilities.
Queen Ethelburga's is co-educational and has 1600 pupils listed, 1200 of whom are borders.
I met Ben and his team in their new "sheds", if that's what you can call such a splendid facility. It was built mainly by QE's own Estates Department after initial steelwork etc. had been installed by outside contractors. It was designed in-house and is sympathetic to the area, being built in the style of typical farm buildings with low brick walls and timber cladding; they are most impressive!
The New Sheds At Queen Ethelburga's
The team are obviously proud of their facility and intend to keep it in fine fettle. It's the only sheds I have visited in my career where the staff change into slippers or house shoes before entering the very well-equipped mess room! All sit around a large communal table to eat and they have a microwave, cooker, hob, large sink, dishwasher, fridge/freezer, etc. I was offered a bacon sandwich or more if I wished and a mug of tea or coffee; most tasty and welcome. I'd give them a five star rating! Ben's office is adjacent, and the storage and machinery sections follow.
So, who does Ben have on his team to maintain the sports grounds and what are their backgrounds?
The team comprises:
- Ian Dunnabie, two and a half years at QE with twenty-eight years greenkeeping and football club experience.
- Mark Harrison, two years at QE and came from Hull City FC. He has football and latterly rugby league experience and also seems to be the sheds' chef; he certainly knows how to turn out bacon butties!
- Alistair Lamond, joined in August of 2018 and brings greenkeeping experience with him.
- Greg Croasdale has been with the team for two years and came from The Grove Golf Club in Hertfordshire. All his experience is greenkeeping.
- Matt Teasdale, joined QE's team six months ago - has greenkeeping and football experience at Rockcliffe Hall Golf Club and Darlington FC.
- Josh Harrison, joined nine months ago as a trainee and, at sixteen, is the youngest member of the team. He has embarked on a distance learning programme.
The QE Grounds Team l-r: Greg Croasdale, Ben Grigor, Mark Hayhurst, Ian Dunnabie, Mark Harrison, Alistair Lamond, Matthew Teasdale and Josh Harrison
We were joined by Mark Hayhurst who has responsibility for the gardens and estate grounds and another team. Mark has been at QE for over twelve years and has a wealth of knowledge on the estate and its history. Mark, third from left on the team shot, has a close working relationship with Ben and his team and, on occasions, the teams help each other on large jobs necessitating greater numbers. The whole estates department, however, numbers over one hundred and includes builders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and those with other skills, ensuring that QE is pretty well self-sufficient. As Ben said: "One of the philosophies of QE is that 'The Team' should be able to do everything in house!"
Ben's team, therefore, require little extra help normally as, mentioned above, the Estates Department can be called on for this and advice. They have access to individuals on site responsible for Health & Safety, HR, environmental matters, etc., and there is even medical facilities for pupils and all staff. From an agronomy standpoint however, Ben said that ICL have been particularly helpful.
The soil profile is generally loamy in the surrounding area, but renovation work on pitches has meant changes by the addition of other materials. Ben enlightened me: "We wanted to create higher performing pitches, especially as there was winter saturation; not enough fixtures and training lessons were being held! We went to iTurf for advice and they made recommendations based on work carried out by Premier Pitches."
"The work involved removing 5" of native soil to expose existing drainage. We added primary drainage and gravel banding and then replaced the rootzone. We went for 80% sand, 10% peat and 10% topsoil." Ben explained that they had previously been given permission to half stitch (SIS pitches) but now, having followed the advice of iTurf which has worked so well, this is unnecessary. "The pitch is performing so well now and probably better than a fibre pitch" said Ben.
During renovation work / Linemarking for senior football
"We now have much better understanding of pitch profiles here. We need balanced aeration and I guess we were overdoing it. Linear aeration now takes precedence." remarked Ben. Another investment, proving indispensable, is full Rain Bird irrigation systems now operating throughout the facility, maintained in house, but serviced at regular intervals by Carrick Sports. These are controlled by computer or mobile phone app. "Very handy if a teacher strays on to a pitch without permission!" jokes Ben.
Another, and most impressive addition, are the huge lighting rigs. These floodlights (they tell me there are 101 stanchions!) incorporate state of the art LED technology. This makes HD filming possible as light levels are infinitely adjustable ensuring optimum light at all times.
"We use standard cricket covers" says Ben, and added "We can't use germination covers or frost sheets as the strong winds preclude their use! Careful scheduling is especially necessary when spraying! This presents limited opportunities to spray well." The winds have caused gazebo and marquee issues from time to time. The water table is quite high at QE and flooding can and does happen from time to time. Shade is not really an issue on such an open facility, but winds can cause excessive dry-out.
There are a number of artificial surfaces in the Sports Village: 3G and rubber crumb for football and rugby; all to FA, FIFA and WRU accreditations. There are also traditional sand-based and modern water-based hockey pitches; constructed to international standards.
Apart from the pitches, other facilities include six MUGA's for netball, basketball, tennis and volleyball. There is also a full size, four lane and cushioned, synthetic running track. All are maintained by the team.
Presentation is not paramount ... but follows good practice!
The pitches, cricket square and other facilities are hired out; particularly during the summer holiday period. Professional football clubs often need a first class facility; "We've had well known football clubs ring at the last minute in desperate need of a training pitch!" said Ben. Rugby, hockey and netball clubs also use the facilities, along with those attending summer camps. An example of the variety of external hirings and how QE can attract "big names", is exemplified by the fact that, on 2nd March 2019, the Leeds United Pulcino D'Oro Tournament was held at QE; the first time in England. This comprised sixteen teams at youth level from Leeds United Football Club and included Newcastle, Doncaster Rovers, Hamilton Academicals, Preston North End, Sheffield United, Notts Forest and others from clubs around the country. Commercial hirings are important to the collegiate and bring financial benefits for further investment renovations, etc. in the school and facilities.
I asked about the importance of presentation. Ben replied: "Presentation is not paramount; we pride ourselves in following good practice. We ensure that we achieve a first class playing surface; we will not compromise!" Presentation usually follows!
All in the team are given a specific area of responsibility (changed yearly), i.e. cricket, rugby, football, or synthetics (football, rugby and hockey).
Ben stresses; "The team pull together and everyone has to be able to carry out all tasks. Some with specific interests or abilities can lead however."
Renovations are not really affected by budgets but by commercial use and hirings! These affect timings and workload. "In the case of Summer Camps, all is well known and planned well in advance however."
Twenty20 cricket under floodlights
As for weather patterns and their effects, Ben says that, as you can't rely on the weather, it is sometimes difficult to plan and have a precise schedule. Work is no longer governed by the time of the year. For example, when I visited, Ben said that they had been seeding in the sun the previous week (w/c 25th Feb). Renovations seem to be being carried out now earlier than before due to changing weather patterns. As Ben remarked: "This helps us, should there be a sudden influx of unexpected event bookings!"
QE's big project was that mentioned earlier; the upgrade to a higher performing pitch which entailed removing soil, adding new drainage, gravel banding and then replacing the rootzone. "The experiment with the first one has been a success, so we now need to repeat the work and upgrade the other grass pitches" said Ben. He would also like to install a hybrid pitch.
Most work is carried out in-house with help from Mark Hayhurst and his team and/or the estates department. However, if outside contractors are required, Ben usually turns to Carrick Sports, Premier Pitches or SIS.
Rain Bird system in action / Looking from the MUGAs and basketball area over the senior grass and sand based synthetic and athletic running track to the pool and gym
Training, Education and H&S
It is a requirement that all staff are fully compliant with current legislation. Ongoing training takes place and the team were awarded Level 1 Cricket Pitches: Renovation certificates recently, for example. All the team, with the exception of Josh the trainee, have spraying certificates and hold necessary academic qualifications.
Josh has been with the team for nine months and, as Ben remarked: "He's a hard worker and has aspirations. All seems good so far but, as with many young folk, he needs to improve his communication skills!"
There is a health a safety officer employed by the collegiate, backed by a medical department. Ben's team are all first aid trained and there are defibrillators located around the huge site.
Machinery is all purchased outright (everything was new when the department was opened just over two years ago) and were purchased from Russell's or Cleveland Land Services in the main. Strangely, and although Ben sent his machinery wish list to many main suppliers, some may not have realised the magnitude of purchase power the collegiate had and missed out! QE are not loyal to one manufacturer. Ben insisted that the machinery should be site specific, needed to be robust, user friendly, and had longevity. All of the machines perform well but, as Ben says: "Outstanding results are due to staff diligence!" Servicing is carried out in-house or by Russell's.
On the question of a machinery wish list, Ben smiles and says: "This may sound corny but my wish list was met when we started!"
Charterhouse Verti-Brush and Toro in action
Pests and Diseases
All pest and weed control is carried out in house, with worm control probably being the main issue. QE do suffer with rabbits, but they are kept under control and they are not a particular nuisance at present. Canada geese visit and as Ben says; "No real problem with the actual birds, it's their droppings!"
Ecology and Environment
Local fauna and flora is important to Ben and the whole estate. All is well managed and encouraged. I could not help noticing the vast planting of colourful Primulas around the site. When I mentioned this to Mark, he told me that they plant 20,000 bedding plants twice a year!
The collegiate has a strong environmental policy in place throughout all departments and does work with local agencies and the Environmental Agency. There is an environmental consultant for each department. Recycling is a given!
With ecology and the environment in mind, and apart from the bedding plants programme, there can be seen rainwater harvesting and water saving initiatives (through the drainage system and into the irrigation facility and with a dedicated machinery wash-off). Composting is carried out on site and the estate features a special sewage plant. Bird boxes too are evident.
About Our Industry
Ben believes that our industry has advanced much in the last ten to fifteen years, with technology now to the forefront. He is pleased to see that a number of prominent grounds managers have succeeded in putting a spotlight on the industry! As to being undervalued, Ben has no complaints at QE, but does recognise that that is not the case everywhere. He feels that the situation is improving, but adds: "You have to put your case forward!"
To raise our profile in the industry and beyond, Ben says that youngsters must be encouraged, in the best environment and with the best training. A more positive environment would be achieved by not keep trying to protect your job but doing a good job!
As we wound up, Ben's closing statement was; "The most important thing here is my boys! The department is what they make it. Relationships with other departments is important and there is a great atmosphere."
I could not agree more!
What's in the shed?
Kubota L4240 II tractors x 3
Kubota G23 II ride-on tractors x 2
Toro 3575D Reelmasters x 2
Toro 1000 Greensmaster
Kubota Pro mowers x 4
Dennis G860 cylinder mowers x 2
Stihl backpack blowers x 3
Stihl brushcutters x 2
Billy Goat vacuum
Toro SR72 ProCore
Toro 648 ProCore
Sisis Rotorake 1000
GKB broadcast topdresser
Amazone Smartcut Scarifier
Kubota trailers x 2
Hardi 400l sprayer
Hand tools, linemarkers, fertiliser spreaders etc.