"We work with the indigenous grasses that have adapted to the conditions of the maritime exposed south facing site, rather than interfering with the natural ecology by trying to introduce industry standard grasses"
Tim Parker, Head Groundsman, Royal Hospital School
They say it is better to travel in anticipation than to arrive in hope. When I travelled recently, it was late spring and most of the country was caught in the midst of an unseasonal drought. I was expecting nothing but brown parched fields at my destination, so I didn't arrive in hope, I arrived in Holbrook instead, to meet Tim Parker, the Head Groundsman at the Royal Hospital School (RHS), which was a green oasis, and that was without using water.
The Royal Hospital School is a leading independent full boarding and day school for approximately 700 pupils. It was founded in 1712 as part of Greenwich Hospital, a 'charitable institution for the aged, infirm or young'. The school moved to its present site in the heart of the Suffolk countryside in 1933, because a bigger campus was needed to meet the increasing demand for places at the school.
The school is located on the peninsular of the river Orwell and the Stour estuary, meaning it can be very windy and exceptionally cold in the winter months. From the school, you can see Harwich on the far side of the Stour estuary, and the cranes of Felixstowe port on the other side of the Orwell. The whole site is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the view to the Stour estuary and Shotley peninsula should be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), especially in the winter when the wading birds on the mud flats take flight and give spectacular aerial displays before they settle down for the night.
The site is approximately 200 acres in size, and comprises roughly 100 acres for buildings and surrounding grounds, and 100 acres for sport, of which five acres account for non-turf sports areas. These areas include a parade ground, a tarmacadam hard court surface with six tennis courts and six netball courts, and a floodlit, full size sand filled artificial hockey pitch that doubles up as a further nine tennis courts in the summer months.
Tim Parker was born and bred in Guildford, Surrey. Sports mad, he left Read School in Cobham with five O-levels and decided to go to Merrist Wood Agricultural College to do the National Certificate in Agriculture, during which time he worked one day a week on a farm in Farnham, Surrey. After completing his National Certificate, he then worked a further two years on farms in Chichester and Bury St Edmunds. This was followed by another stint at Merrist Wood to achieve the National Certificate in Farm Management.
Tim then took over the running of his uncle's small family farm in Woolpit, Suffolk, remaining there for twenty-three years. At the age of forty-seven, it became obvious to Tim that the farm's small size meant it was no longer a viable business, so it was let to seed specialists, Nickerson, who took over the farm for plant breeding purposes.
Being sports mad, Tim played representative cricket and a good standard of rugby throughout this period. He also looked after the local village cricket pitch at Woolpit, gaining a reputation as an exceptional groundsman, due to the fact he had brought the once brownfield site up to county standard. It was this reputation that helped him secure the Head Groundsman position at Victory Ground, Bury St Edmunds.
When the Head Groundsman's position became available at the RHS, Tim applied as it was the natural progression that he sought. He was offered the post and started in October 2003.
The groundstaff consists of nine full-time staff (including Tim), plus two minibus drivers who help out when they can. Their service record suggests that working at the school must be an enjoyable experience. Longest serving member of staff, Adrian Willis, has worked at the school for forty years, whilst the most recent full-time member of staff, John Burbury, has been at the RHS for six years. Minibus driver, Doug Beech, is the newest member of staff with one year's service.
The sports surfaces have four dedicated staff, which include Tim and his charge hand, Alan Hinton, who also carries out all the maintenance and repairs on the machinery as the groundstaff's mechanic. The remaining five full-time staff carry out the maintenance operations on the gardens and surrounding grounds.
All the staff have a wide range of experience and skills. Indeed, it was through carrying out her work experience at the RHS, whilst studying for her landscaping qualifications at Otley College, that Claire Hayes found herself employed at the school. Claire was initially recruited to oversee the headmaster's walled garden, as it needed someone with her experience and skills to manage the garden efficiently and effectively; to not only maximise the yield of the vegetables grown in the garden, but in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.
Unfortunately, a change of management direction, beyond Tim's control, meant that vegetable production in the walled garden ceased, and the garden was laid to lawn. As a result, Claire was amalgamated with the groundstaff, and has been at the school for seven years now.
Currently, there is no Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme for the staff, although this is under review. They do receive on-the-job training and, between them, have the requisite certificates - PA1, PA2, PA6 and chainsaw certificates - to ensure all maintenance operations can be carried out. Any specialist operations however, such as tree surgery, are contracted out.
As you might expect, being called the Royal Hospital School, the school has its own staffed medical facilities, so there are plenty of certified first aiders on site. At the moment the groundstaff work fixed hours, but a change to flexible hours to make the maintenance operations more efficient is under consideration.
The sports surfaces at RHS are split across the three school terms. In the Michaelmas term there are nine rugby pitches, six football pitches and four grass hockey pitches to be looked after. The spring term then sees a seven-a-side pitch for rugby marked out, and four rugby pitches converted to football, taking the total for football pitches to ten. Summer term is predominantly athletics and cricket, with a 400 metre grass athletics track, plus javelin, long jump, high jump and 110 metre hurdles.
Additional sports surfaces include a bowling green and a nine hole golf course, part of which incorporates the main playing field. Unfortunately for the school's golfers, this means that, for health and safety reasons, some of the golf holes have limited use if any other sports are being played on the field.
For cricket, there are four grass squares with eight, seven, four and thirteen strips respectively, with no overlapping outfields, such is the size of the site, plus two single artificial wickets. Three of the squares are for school cricket; the main square, with thirteen strips, was professionally constructed for 1st team and representative matches.
In October 2003, nine of the thirteen strips were dug out to a depth of six inches (150mm) and infilled with GOSTD from Surrey Loams Ltd, under the supervision of Total Turf Solutions (TTS). The remaining strips and the other three squares are managed with Ongar loam.
All major renovations on the cricket squares are carried out at the end of the playing season in accordance with ECB guidelines, using GOSTD and Ongar loam where appropriate. Only quality dwarf perennial rye grass is used on the squares, and in the football goalmouths.
The squares are rolled with a Benford double drum vibrating roller, without the vibrating function engaged, so that it is just a dead weight that rolls across the surface. The height of cut on the squares for match play is 3mm, and the school has invested in a cylinder grinder to maintain the quality of cut, which Tim says has helped tremendously.
Indeed, Tim's favourite piece of equipment is the Dennis 510 twenty inch cylinder mower that he uses for the fine mowing of the cricket squares.
Late July/early August sees the RHS host the now famous U12 and U13 minor counties cricket festival, with county sides from as far afield as Cumbria and Staffordshire taking part in competitive residential cricket.
As the ECB Pitch Advisor for Suffolk, Tim has no excuses for poor pitches. To his credit, the cricket pitches looked in great condition, in spite of the drought conditions at the time of my visit in early June. This fact is all the more remarkable as there is no dedicated irrigation supply.
In truth, the only service supply to the school is mains electricity. They have no gas or water supply, instead relying on oil fired boilers for heating, and a bore hole for potable water, sewage, and irrigation. The bore hole water is filtered and stored. Tim hasn't had any problems with water restrictions to date, as water consumption for irrigation purposes is low; only the cricket squares and bowling green are irrigated. Other irrigation options, however, such as grey water use and modern irrigation methods, are under review as it is felt that the present system in not sustainable.
Beating the weather
This year, there had been no significant rainfall between late February and early June, making 2011 the driest spring and early summer experienced at the school. However, it was noticeable that the non-irrigated playing fields were a healthy green; not the parched desert look that many fields I passed on my way to the RHS had. Tim puts this down to maintaining the indigenous grasses which have adapted to the conditions of the maritime exposed south facing site, rather than interfering with the natural ecology by trying to introduce industry standard grasses. He cites regular cutting with a good quality of cut as the secret to the sites superb presentation and visual impact.
The playing fields are mown using a John Deere tractor equipped with a large Progressive triple rotary mower with rollers fitted, which means the fields can be mown all year round. A Jacobsen fairway mower is used to mow the cricket outfields, although Tim is considering changing this for a smaller rotary mower with rollers, due to the cost of maintaining and running the Jacobsen.
The soil texture at the RHS is predominantly sandy silt, due possibly to the close proximity of the maritime coastline. This means the site is very free draining and ideal for winter sports and, as a result, Tim doesn't feel the need to verti-drain too often given the free draining nature of the sub soil.
The school doesn't have its own weather station at present, but is looking into the possibility of purchasing one. This will provide an additional tool to help Tim make more informed decisions in the management of the unique environment. In the meantime, he currently uses the Pitchcare website for weather forecasts, as well as local weather reports.
The school is reputed to have eight miles of hedging, although Tim admits he hasn't measured it to be sure, but agrees there is a lot! It is all cut by hand using double sided hedge trimmers, as it is impossible to use tractor mounted equipment because a large part of it forms the boundaries of the gardens of staff housing. The outlying hedges that do not form part of the main school campus are the only exception, where it is possible to use tractor mounted equipment. It is mostly a mix of yew and holly, plus some mixed hedging around the Headmaster's garden. Cutting it back starts in August, with the aim to finish in early January.
The school attracts an assortment of wildlife, mainly because of its location. Wildlife that can be seen includes oystercatchers, redshank, various gulls, egrets, and little owls, as well as the usual squirrels, foxes and rabbits. Within the current management plan for the grounds there is no specific wildlife stewardship scheme, save for a few owl boxes that have been installed, and some measures that have been taken to control foxes and rabbits. But the site is quite diverse and large, providing a wide range of naturally occurring habitats, so there is no need to manage the wildlife at present.
There is a surprising number and variety of trees on the site given its open field appearance. Holly, oak, beech and lime are all in abundance, providing additional wildlife habitats. The tree population was boosted further in 2005 when ten acres of school land was planted with mixed woodland species by the school's pupils. The wood, adjacent to the school and now known as Prince Wood, was previously a poor stony tract of land that was not suitable for crop production. The planting achieved an 80% success rate and is well on the way to becoming an established wood.
Pupils from the RHS are generally renowned for their musical talent. This was more than ably demonstrated by the school's band, which was invited to play at the England v France Six Nations Rugby match at Twickenham earlier this year (which England won 17-9). The band led the singing of 'Jerusalem' and the two national anthems.
However, RHS pupils have also found success on the sportsfield, with many representing their counties and regions across a variety of sports disciplines. Success at national level has also been achieved.
Jonathan Ilori, a year 13 pupil, is one example. Jonathan won the Under 20 (U20) Triple Jump at the South of England Athletics Association Indoor Championships, with a personal best of 14.92 metres, for which he became ranked number one in the U20 category nationally. Jonathan has also made his international debut as part of the England team at the National U20 Championships, winning a bronze medal in the Triple Jump.
Another sporting success from RHS is Reece Topley, the son of former England and Essex cricketer, Don Topley, who has recently been signed up for Essex's 1st Xl; a remarkable feat for a seventeen year old schoolboy. Reece hasn't just been playing, he's been taking wickets galore, including a five-for in a county championship match against Middlesex at Lord's a few weeks ago and 4-23 against Sri Lanka in a touring game.
All things being equal Reece is set to become one of the hottest prospects in English cricket, thanks, in part, to the skills of the RHS cricket coaching staff ... and no little talent!
What's in the shed?
John Deere 5100R tractor with front loader, forks and bucket.
JD 4300 tractor
Jacobsen 405 7 gang fairway mower
Progressive triple roller mower.
Trimax 3 metre roller mower
JD Roberine 900
JD 740 with 54in deck and hi- tip clamshell collector
JD 740 with 48in deck and powerflow collector
Dennis Premier 36in diesel with roller seat
Dennis 510 with 9 blade cylinder
Ransome Super Certes Bowling Green mower
Ransome Certes Greens mower
Allett Aztec with 24 & 20in 10 blade floating head units
Etesia ride-on mower/collector
2 tonne Benford 1.2 metre double drum roller
3 x John Deere Turf Gators
E-Z-GO utility vehicle
Sisis 5m outfield brush
Charterhouse 2.5m slitter
Various Hayter/Honda professional pedestrian mowers
4 x Tanaka hedgecutters
5 x Tanaka strimmers including smartfit with pole and hedgecutter attachements.
3 x Stihl handblowers
2 x Stihl backpack blowers
Usual array of hand tools
Cylinder and bottom blade grinder
2 x Fleet Combis
Fleet, Gator mounted, fastline unit