There cannot be many more pleasurable things to do on a warm summer's day than to visit the Isle of Wight albeit via, what is considered, the most expensive ferry crossing per mile in the UK. I am here to meet Andy Butler, the head groundsman at one of England's newest cricket outgrounds. Peter Britton reports
As a regular weekend user of the Wightlink ferry crossing to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight (or 'the Island' as we locals affectionately call it), I was somewhat surprised to see so many vehicles queued for boarding on a mid-week day.
I was forgetting, of course, that even islanders need their regular supply of crunchy nut cornflakes, baked beans, toiletries etc. and, therefore, there were all manner of vans, lorries and HGVs waiting to make the short crossing. So many, in fact, that it looked, at one point, that I might not make it onto the ferry for my allotted slot.
As it turned out, I was the second to last vehicle on, with the queue, and no doubt some frustrated drivers, still stretching out a good way behind me.
With Google maps set to direct me, I disembarked and headed for the island's main town of Newport to locate Newclose County Cricket Ground and its head groundsman Andy Butler to find out more about the man and how Hampshire County Cricket Club had chosen the venue for its County Championship Division One fixture.
As the last vehicle off the ferry, and now following a stream of commercial vehicles, I was concerned that I might be late for my 11.15 appointment, but I needn't have worried as Google did its job and I arrived five minutes early. Waiting to meet me was Andy.
The ground is accessed via some rather grand iron gates leading down a driveway to a splendid pavilion overlooking the purpose built cricket ground. I am suitably impressed, as I'm sure the first class cricketers and their entourage will have been on first sight.
Everything looks pristine and 'new' and, after offering me a coffee, Andy tells me that the ground is just ten years old. "It was the vision of Brian Gardener," he explains. "He was passionate about cricket and did much to help the sport prosper on the island. He had previously been President of Ventnor Cricket Club which was, at one time, the home of the Isle of Wight Cricket Board, but they have now relocated here, although the indoor school is still there." (See below for more information).
We enter the Brian Gardener Pavilion and sit down in the Brian Gardener Meeting Room to continue my interview. The views across the amphitheatre style ground - landscaped and constructed by Speedcut Contractors - are splendid. Its rural setting adds to the ambience.
I begin by asking Andy how he first started out in the industry. "Mum and dad were single handicap golfers at Osborne Golf Club, and they were advertising for a greenkeeper. I worked there for eighteen months, before moving on to Ryde Golf Club where I spent a further eight years. It was whilst here that I gained NVQ 2, 3 and 4 via Sparsholt College, Winchester, and I also have PA 1, 2 and 6."
"From there, I moved to the Plessey Sports Ground in Cowes looking after a cricket square, two bowls greens and a football pitch. It is now known as the Isle of Wight Community Club. I was employed there for ten years."
It was during this time that Andy, in his spare time, used to look after the lawns of a large house owned by Paul Rudling, the CEO of SP Systems who manufacture wind turbines.
"It was Paul who suggested that I should go self employed - you have the knowledge, so use it, or words to that effect."
So, after discussing the idea with my wife Sharon, I went back to Plessey to explain the benefits to them of taking me on as a contractor rather than as an employee - wages, NH contributions, holiday and sick pay, that sort of thing, and they jumped at the idea. It is a contract I still maintain to this day."
Andy lives in the village of Northwood, a few miles south of Cowes and not far from the Newclose ground, although nothing is too far on this 150 square mile island.
In addition to these two main contracts, his company - not surprisingly called Andy Butler Sports Ground Specialist - looks after seven bowls greens on the island, along with various smaller contracts and renovations for golf clubs, football clubs, large gardens and such like. He also has contracts on the mainland, one of them being the maintenance of seven bowls greens in Eastbourne. I am intrigued and ask him how that came about.
"I was asked if I would demo the Graden Sand Injector for one of the clubs and said I would only do it if they got other clubs involved. On the day, five other bowls club greenkeepers turned up and it became something of a mini-seminar. On the back of that, we got the contract to look after all those clubs and two more into the bargain. Given the austerity measures in place, the local authority was, I think, rather glad to hand the work over to us. It wasn't my intention, but it has worked out very well. I have a supervisor over there, Paul Donno, who looks after the day to day running for me."
In addition, Andy has five employees, a couple of whom have been with him for ten years. Whilst Andy spends much of his time at Newclose, the others look after the other contracts, both on the island and the mainland. "We do a lot of Air2G2 and Graden work, especially for golf clubs in Dorset and Hampshire."
Monday morning nets / Mowing on Sunday ahead of the Hants v Notts County Championship match
I suggest that it must be expensive to transport equipment over on the ferry. "It is; a 4x4 and trailer can cost £170 and this has to be passed on to the client, but they all seem to like our work and never complain. I guess that says something about my team's commitment to our work."
And does he leave them to it? "Well, yes, but occasionally I'll pop in and check on their work, The company does, after all, carry my name."
One contract recently undertaken was the returfing of 12.5 acres of lawns for a gentleman working in the 'financial sector'. We gave him the option of either seeding or turfing and, although turfing was more expensive, that's what he chose. I guess he wanted instant results. The timing was a bit difficult though as the job started at the same time as cricket renovations. We used 50% big roll; the rest was lawn turf rolls. In all, we put down over a hundred tonnes of fine soil. The work included converting a meadow to lawns. We finished the whole job just a couple of weeks before Christmas - not the ideal weather for establishment, but we were blessed with a fairly mild December. I have to say it looked fantastic when it was completed. The local turf supplier was delighted too; they'd never had such a large order!"
All the equipment at Newclose is owned by Andy, with the exception of the Poweroll County, which is owned by the club. Cricket equipment remains at Newclose in a purpose built workshop below the pavilion. All other machines, of which there are many, are stored in a lock-up facility in Cowes when not in use.
Machines are supplied by Hunt & Forest, a mainland John Deere dealer, and all carry a 5% surcharge to get them over to the island. Andy has his own grinders for cylinder sharpening and considers the Mastiff a pain compared to the John Deere's; "twenty minutes to do a JD and over two hours on the Mastiffs," he bemoans.
Nets on day 3 of the Hants v Notts game either side of the match pitch / Stuart Broad in action
Back to Newclose and I ask how Hampshire chose the ground. "The seconds have played here a number of times, so they knew the facility well. In addition, and because of the Ageas Bowl hosting World Cup matches, they have played all their home games here, as have the Hampshire Academy team. And I honestly believe we have the best square and outground in the county."
"Hampshire's head groundsman, Nigel Gray (the man who can't retire!) has visited a few times in the past, and he came over on the Saturday before the game just to check that everything was in order. He must have been happy, because I didn't see him again, although a few Ageas Bowl lads helped out over the four days."
The match lasted until 3.15pm on the final day, with Hampshire running out winners by 244 runs. The highlights were centuries from Indian Test batsman Ajinkya Rahane and the home team's captain, Sam Northeast in their second innings. "I'd have taken that if you'd asked me at the start of play," beamed Andy.
And was he nervous in the run-up to the game? "No, not at all. I know we have a quality ground here, from the pavilion, to the hospitality marquee, the outfield and the square; and you can't beat the setting either."
A mix of Newclose and Hampshire CCC groundstaff
"It was intense though and I only relaxed once the game was over. I found the experience enjoyable only then, and I look forward to hosting the county XI again very soon."
Crowds exceeding 5,000 visited over the four days, with a good number travelling from the mainland. Sadly, for all those involved in Newclose, Brian Gardener passed away in February 2015 and never saw his ambition realised.
The original square, constructed by Speedcut, comprised ten Ongar Loam pitches. Over time, Andy has added another seven by heavily scarifying and topdressing with Ongar. These are used by junior sides, often with a two matches being played at the same time. A safety net separates the two games across the centre of the square.
"We will have accommodated around seventy games by the end of this season, which looks like being the new 'norm'. A few years back, when Ventnor were relegated from the Southern Premiership and returned to their home ground, we dropped down to just thirty games. That was a fairly relaxed season for me but, of course, that affected bar takings and important revenue for the club, so I'm actually really pleased our fixture levels are back up again."
Andy is very much a family man and he fully acknowledges the part his wife played in allowing him to start up his business. "It was very much a joint decision. Sharon had a well-paid job and, with my Plessey contract secured, I knew I'd have some money coming in but, of course, I had to buy new machinery if I was going to be able to expand the business, and that would mean considerable financial outlay."
The local press reacted favourably
"In addition, she was bringing up our two girls, Mollie and Tilly, pretty much on her own as I was working seven days a week. I still do to be honest, especially in the height of summer."
"Sharon and the girls play netball, but not for the same team, so the banter between them when they come head to head can be quite amusing."
They have represented the Isle of Wight at the biennial Island Games, as has Andy at football, but his chosen sport to play now is golf. Has he ever played cricket? No, I don't really enjoy watching the game, but I thoroughly enjoy preparing the grounds. It is so different from any other sports surface preparation."
"I helped out at the Ageas for the World Cup and preferred the day we were running on and off with the rain covers. When the match was uninterrupted, I found myself walking over to the nursery ground to help out the lads working there."
What does he do for relaxation? "I like to play golf whenever I get the opportunity. We also have a large circle of friends and we will often go camping en masse somewhere on the island. Our girls still join us which, at fifteen and seventeen years of age is, I guess, something of a rarity these days."
"In a few days time, Sharon and I are off to Gibraltar to watch this year's Island Games in which they are competing."
"Oh, and my seventy-eight year old mum does my accounts. It drives her mad because I store things up and dump everything on her in large bundles."
Even working long hours family, it seems, remains important to Andy.
This article appeared in the Island Life magazine a few months before the Newclose ground opened in 2009.
Speculation was rife when people driving along the Blackwater Road on the outskirts of Newport spotted the huge mounds of soil in a field. Rumour had it that hundreds of houses were going to be built on the site of the old agricultural showground. Instead, the Island is going to have a new cricket ground with a capacity of up to 2,000 people, which has been designed so that the superb pavilion and the surrounding banks will give it the feel of a modern amphitheatre.
Businessman Brian Gardener is the inspiration behind the Newclose County Cricket Ground. He realised the Island had needed a Gold Standard ground for a long time to help the sport move forward on several fronts. For example, Ventnor Cricket Club (of which Brian is president) has won the silver division of the Southern Electric League for the past four seasons, but their Steephill ground was deemed unsuitable for promotion to the gold division.
Should the club enjoy similar success in the next couple of seasons, they will achieve promotion and play their league matches at Newclose, bringing to the Island the highest standard of cricket ever seen here.
Ventnor chairman, John Hilsum, and former Cricket Development Manager on the Island, David Kilpack, were among those who helped Brian from the start. A management committee was formed and received a setback when the first site for the proposed ground at Whitecroft was considered unsuitable by the planners.
Undaunted, Brian purchased the old showground at Blackwater. The team then worked closely with planners and permission was eventually achieved. Brian said, "There was bound to be a lot of negotiation because this is a major sports development on the Island, but I'm delighted that we were able to agree on a way forward."
Thousands of tons of earth had to be moved so that archaeologists could examine the site, and the main road outside the ground had to be widened. Brian, who is one of the trustees, donated the field and provided part of the funding. More came from the National Sports Foundation and the England and Wales Cricket Board also provided guidelines on planning the ground and pavilion.
Members of the public will be invited to join the Friends of Newclose County Cricket Ground - which is a registered charity - and it is hoped to attract corporate sponsors. Brian emphasises that people are welcome to come to the ground to see cricket and to use the restaurant and the bar in the pavilion which will have a main lounge and dining area, a kitchen, umpires' room, scorers' room, committee room, offices and stores.
Games will be held several times a week during the season with games in the evenings for adults and juniors.
The Isle of Wight Cricket Board achieved minor county status last year and, when Newclose is finished, it will become the only minor county in Britain to have its own county ground. The intention is to stage minor county matches at the ground within a few years.
Organising the work is a full-time job and there's still a lot to be done on the site before the ground opens for the 2009 season - but Brian Gardener's dream will soon be realised.
He's been coming to the Island all his life and has owned property here since the early 1990s. Brian has been fascinated by cricket since he was eleven-years-old and he was already a good organiser when, with a few friends, he formed the Wimpeyonian Cricket Club (named after the Wimpey estate where he lived) in Isleworth in the early 1950s.
"In those days, there were no facilities for playing cricket," Brian says, "and you were lucky if you owned a cricket bat." He made a cart of an old box from his grandmother's florist shop with wheels from an old pram and used it to carry their gear to the local park. The cart, fitted with shelves, was their 'pavilion' with score cards made from florist funeral cards and his sister helped to sell jam sandwiches and lemonade to raise funds for bats and composition balls made of cork.
They played two innings 'test' matches with the adjoining council estate boys and their dads acted as umpires. Brian picked up the rules of the game from 'Play the game' books and television, but says cricket has always been in his blood.
Asked if he wished he had played cricket professionally Brian said "It would be a fanciful idea, but I do wish I had played more cricket at club standard." But the boy who played cricket in the park with his friends in the '50s can say that he has realised another dream. It's taken four years to achieve but Island cricketers can now look forward to playing on a Gold Standard cricket ground.
What's in the shed?
Poweroll County roller - 8/9 years old
John Deere 2320 compact tractor
John Deere 1026R compact tractor
Sisis TM1000 scarifier
Charterhouse 7212 Verti-Drain
Graden (tractor mounted)
Blower (tractor mounted)
Toro 3300 Workman with topdresser
Graden sand injection
John Deere Aercore 800
Sisis Auto Rotorake Mk5 x 2
Toro 3250 with Thatchaway units
John Deere 3245C ride on rotary mower
John Deere2653B triplex mower x 2
John Deere X748
Toro Groundsmaster 3500
John Deere X155R lawn tractor
John Deere 220B pedestrian greens mowers x 12
Weibang rotary mowers x 5
Ransomes Mastiffs x 2
Poweroll County (owned by Newclose)
Linemarkers x 4
Billy Goat vacuum/blower
Bernhard Express Dual 4000
Bernhard Anglemaster 1000