Maintaining the grounds at the Royal Grammar School Worcester holds unique pressure, not just due to the acreage but because the school is the sixth-oldest in the world. Jake Barrow meets Sean Lloyd, Head of Grounds and Gardens at the long-established school.
The Royal Grammar School Worcester (RGS) traces its founding to the year 685, when Bosel, the first Anglican Christian Bishop of Worcester, set up a college with the aim of preparing children to follow the principles of monasticism, although it has been described as 'secular' in nature.
Lands in Herefordshire still belong to the school, but its main sites in Worcester have been in its possession since 1562.
These were purchased by 'The Six Masters', a consortium of wealthy and powerful school managers who were formed due to the Royal Charter bestowed the year before by Queen Elizabeth I. This was followed by another charter, from Queen Victoria in 1869, which officially dubbed the school 'Royal'.
Henry VIII, in typically rebellious fashion, founded a rival Worcester school in 1541 - and named it after himself. The King's School continues to be a fierce sporting and academic competitor for RGS.
One of RGS Worcester's ex-properties in the city is the Pitchcroft, which is now the local racecourse, whilst the current grounds spread over five sites at three constituent schools, comprising 76 acres.
These are maintained by a team of seven (just four of these being groundspersons), led by Head of Grounds and Gardens Sean Lloyd, 50, who has extensive experience at numerous clubs and schools, including fourteen years at RGS. "It keeps us busy", Sean said.
These included spells at Kidderminster Cricket Club, West-Midlands-based Old Hill Cricket Club, and the Dyslexia Specialist Provision Bredon School.
Sean has a foundation degree in sports turf management and Level 4 in sports turf management. Several of the team have Level 1 cricket based training and all staff undergo regular training in the use of machinery etc., including in-house workshops.
As with so many cricketing groundspersons, Sean had aimed to play professional cricket and, being a batsman (who bowled spin) of around 5'8", had to leave Worcestershire after a couple of years of attempts to break into the Pro XI.
Worcestershire County Cricket Club announced, three years ago, that they were to make RGS an outground for some of their 2nd XI limited overs fixtures as well as 1st XI games in the event of floods at New Road. In the coming season, this will include its debut First Class match, a three-day fixture against Leeds/Bradford Marylebone Cricket Club University.
With this small staff-to-hectare ratio, there are time constraints. Sean said: "I'd love to undertake all work in-house, because I think I can do it better than anyone else."
"But, it would cost too much in machinery sat for long periods of time not doing anything. So, we contract our seven cricket square renovations out at the end of the summer to Phil Day Sports."
"They're now booked in for March 12th [this interview was in February] to renovate the football pitches too, because we turn our rugby pitches into football pitches on a two-week turnaround over the pupils' Christmas break."
On the logistical difficulty often faced by schools of this size having to spread their efforts across several sites, Sean said: "There are five within 2.2 miles of each other. Logistically, that does give us work. RGS The Grange - one of our Prep School sites is 46 acres, after our recent inheritance of an acre, in Fernhill Heath [just north of Worcester]."
"We also have Flagge Meadow, which is across six-and-a-half acres, St. Oswald's, which is another six acres, the main site, which is mostly managed by the gardening staff, and RGS Springfield, which is the other Prep School on a four-acre site. That equates to nineteen football pitches in total… for now."
Although Sean doesn't contract agronomic help, he said he gets a lot of this done in-house: "When I took over here, the grounds were in quite poor condition, to be honest. The school approached me to take the job."
"We're always looking at the root depths, particle analysis etc. For one, it's easier to do things like particle analysis on the premises."
"I inherited facilities that were overgrown with annual meadow grass and heavily compacted."
"We overseed annually with rye, and think we've chased out pretty much all of that annual meadow grass now. Obviously, pitches now wear less and last longer."
"The cricket square had been rolled to death and had become corrugated. We've undergone a programme of aeration in these areas, utilising the Verti-drain, but focusing keenly on the Shockwave, which we think works well. We also slit once per fortnight."
"We're on about 28% clay on the Flag Meadow pitches, but that jumps to 90% on the RGS The Grange site, so our Shockwave use is essential there, as it allows the water to flow to a catchment pond we have, before finally meeting an exterior drain."
"The contractor who came to set up one of our three artificial pitches said they had never seen a surface which had neither filtration nor evaporation. So, we sent in wagon-loads of stone to create a soakaway."
"Because of this clay content, we began that programme, and accompanied it with a programme of topdressing. We lay about 80 tonnes of topdressing every April, and that's already paying off."
"We now have comparatively free-draining soil. I can't remember the last game we lost due to wet weather. We've lost some from snow and ice, but not from waterlogging."
"There is a high sulphate content in the square, which we also inherited and is a double-whammy, combined with the corrugation. Working with PDS Sports, we set up a programme of koroing the square to adjust levels four times in the last twelve years. This has allowed cricket to continue uninterrupted rather than approaching the problem with one hit."
"What this means is that, like many, we're dealing with two-and-a-half inches of Banbury Loam over the top of that surface which is not a bad match for what it accompanies, so we're quite lucky in that respect."
"As I say, I've been verti-draining there for fourteen years to ensure root depth, because it's vital that those two surfaces are bound together and act as one."
"We've gone, with those programmes in force, from having a very slow and low wicket to one with enough pace and bounce that they now consider it to be suitable for First Class cricket."
"I prepare the pitches for the pupils exactly as I would for a First Class game, and we plan for it to last for about four games."
"On the first day, it tends to have a little bit of pace for the seamers. On the second and third, it flattens and works for batsmen. Then, by the end of the match, it tends to offer a bit of turn and bounce for the spinners."
"That allows us to involve all the boys, regardless of how they choose to specialise. In those ways, it's quite a classically English pitch, and makes for some good cricket."
This is such a clear signal of the effort that has been put into the profile, because the square has no drainage system in place - all this 'wicking' is purely due to the healthy roots and lack of compaction.
The four-year period outlined above aligns with the period of leadership under the school's new headmaster John Pitt, previously of another prominent independent school, Whitgift School, whom Sean describes as "very progressive, very sport oriented'.
"The school is developing a new £3 million theatre complex at the main site and we are looking to construct additional artificial sports surfaces in the coming years."
"The school, because of this, has more rugby union and football teams than before his management. We also have to ensure high pitch standards more rigorously than we used to, to aid his expectations of the school's sporting excellence."
"The square has a ring main surrounding it which I designed and Phil Day Sports completed with drainage plugs which lift out to speed water removal. A drainage system is proposed for future improvements."
"With each season so short - we're probably only talking about a ten-week football season and ten-week rugby union season; same for the cricket - it's a really big deal to lose even one game," Sean says.
"Most of the sites don't have the facilities to be irrigated, but the team has begun a programme of wetting agent introduction, which has been used in combination with some new-gen slow-release fertilisers, resulting in much more uptake per unit of water. It springs very quickly after a dry spell."
"But, if we get the go-ahead to put the drainage in, the new irrigation will come at the same time, because we can then save the costs on the job fee and on having to dig up the turf more than once."
"The clay-heavy site at RGS The Grange is built on converted farmland, but I believe the site has fantastic potential."
"We have a lot of trees, typical of the Worcester area. Over the last three years, we've undergone a tree management programme in response to surveying, and we simply act upon what's recommended upon inspection."
"They're basically just useful, as since the programmes took their numbers and positions down to appropriate levels, they no longer affect the surfaces."
"Two forested areas at the two Prep Schools are used for forest schools for the younger pupils to enjoy."
"On that note, we take environmental concerns very seriously. We recently acquired a couple of items from EGO Power+, because we like to implement as many green initiatives as we can."
As the interview ended, Sean stressed that he can't complain about his job: "I just enjoy it. I enjoy the work that we do and always trying to improve the state of the place."
"That's the case right now with these trees. Originally, we had a lot of horse chestnuts around the ground, but they've all fallen away through disease."
"But, with the evolution of cricket bats, the ball now travels so much further. So, presently, we are planting seven metre high hornbeam trees along our borders to protect the public etc."
"We're in the process of getting those in the ground today. It is a bit wet out there though at the moment."
Sean is clearly very committed to his work at RGS Worcester.
What's in the shed?
John Deere 4720 tractor
John Deere 3045 tractor with 72" deck
John Deere 8700 4x4 fairway mower
John Deere Gator
Charterhouse 7316 Verti-Drain
Dennis G860 cylinder mower
Ransomes Certes cylinder mowers x 2
Auto-rollers x 2
Plus various other small pieces of equipment, including various EGO Power+ battery equipment