Popes Mead Bowls Club goes back to 1918. Its original site is now a TGI Fridays in Crawley, whilst Its home these days is very prone to flooding. Yet, it is the finest bowls surface in Sussex and hosts the county's championships. Neville Johnson went there to meet Norman Kennard, the man at the helm, in every sense!
Norman Kennard is a pretty decent golfer; played off eight in his younger days and came second in a national competition for his age group recently - that age group was the over eighties! His real forte, though, is in the world of bowls. He's in his second year as elected President of the Popes Mead club, but in his umpteenth as its greenkeeper. The day I'm there, he's dressed for his duties as the former because the club is hosting a ladies inter-county league match between Sussex and Berkshire.
The move from the town centre to its Willoughby Fields site just south of Crawley in 1997 came about after lengthy negotiations with the Town Council and a developer. A deal then said to be worth £1 million - effectively a freehold swap - included the building of a handsome new clubhouse and two new greens, one traditional grass, the other an all-weather ProMaster, on out-of-town, previously council owned utility land. Interest from the deal's cash surplus has since been used to help maintain the club's facilities.
"Managing two grass greens would be arduous and very costly, so we decided our second would be an all-weather green," said Norman, who was very much involved in these negotiations.
Popes Mead members - and there are about 120 of them - still prefer to bowl on grass rather than the all-weather green, but they saw it as an investment for the future, and it does guarantee them year-round outdoor bowling in all but exceptional circumstances, which Norman would soon recall. The two greens are regulation size 40 yards square and approved and registered for national standards.
Looking across the immaculate setting as the ladies representing Sussex and Berkshire prepare for their league encounter, it is hard to imagine how anything could ever be otherwise.
Norman quietly admits he prefers the job of greenkeeper to his Presidential duties as he dons his jacket and chain of office, before walking to the centre of the green, mike in hand, to say a few words of welcome and hand the green to those representing the Sussex and Berkshire teams. The six-rink match gets under way and forty-eight ladies do battle for twenty-one ends.
That job done, he's back in greenkeeping mode and refers to the River Mole, out of sight on this lovely summer's day, yet a constant near neighbour. Most of the time the Mole is a friendly, trickling tributary of the Thames, flowing north some fifty miles to Hampton Court.
Willoughby Fields is not too far from the where the Mole rises at Rusper, near Horsham though and, if there's ever what the Met Office refer to these days as 'a rain event', the trickle quickly turns into a torrent. There had been flooding affecting the greens back in 2000 and now and again water has intruded since, but nothing like it did last Christmas Eve and twice more in January and February. They were the worst storms in forty-five years.
"Flooding is a concern that's always in the back of your mind here, but we always get over it and manage to carry on bowling," said Norman. "There's nothing that can be done about it, except perhaps putting a six foot wall around the whole site. The water would probably still get through even then. We just have to except that, once in a while, the club becomes part of the River Mole."
Recent watery engulfment was clearly exceptional. The Gables Nursing Home, across the road from the Popes Mead club, had to be evacuated and those living there moved to safety by boat. Every picture tells a story and he shows me some taken at the time by the local press. Norman indicates the level the water reached. It seems unreal on this lovely summer's day.
For viewing, rather than as a flood resistance measure, the clubhouse was built a metre higher than the greens, so it escaped the surging Mole: not so Norman's adjacent equipment shed. His impressive kit armoury had to be rescued and subsequently given a professional once-over. All was fine and fit for duty, he was happy to be told.
The origina l construction of both greens incorporated excellent sub-drainage and this aids the drying out process considerably. Any surface water drains to receptor tanks that pre-date the club and are close to the site and adjacent to the river. This takes out any silt and muck and discharges clear water back into the Mole. It can only do this when the river level itself has receded, so the Mole always calls the tune.
The level of the Mole did recede pretty quickly and, astonishingly, three days later, the day after Boxing Day, Norman was mowing the green. But there were other consequences, of course.
It seemed to Norman to be firmer than ever. He spoke about this to his agronomist, Mark Wilton, who has been advising him and supplying the club with materials since the club was re-sited at Willoughby Fields. If ever he has a query, or something to do with the green he doesn't recognise, Mark is contacted. It's a relationship that has worked well year after year. Norman values what Mark says. A cubic metre of water weighs a ton, he reminded Norman. There are 1500 square metres of turf on the green, so there had to be 1500 tonnes of water sitting on it.
There had been massive compaction. Norman says he will be on the case come the autumn and has already made arrangements for a contractor, Mark's brother Peter, to do some serious aeration via a Graden machine as soon as the fixture programme is fulfilled.
Norman's biggest concern for the grass green was the potential influx of unwelcome seed. Scarifying had to be a post-flood priority. His difficulty this year was that it was so consistently wet right through February into March and the green under further water from time to time. He just could not get on it to do much work. Also, he noticed that the floodwater was much muddier than in previous floods and the silt residue unusually thick. When the floodwater subsided, both greens were covered.
Normally, as soon as the all-weather green is free of surface water you can bowl on it, but this year because it has flooded three times, there have been exceptional difficulties. Norman doesn't like play on the grass green in April, so it is the all-weather that is used for early season fixtures, but this year the residue from floodwater was not conducive to bowling at all and the thick layer of silt inhibited drainage, even though it is laid on porous Macadam. Professional jet washing sorted out the surface to the tune of £2000.
ProMaster greens are made in Australia and the one at Popes Mead has a rubber-cushion backing that gets it as close as possible to the speed of a grass green. Ironically, Norman says, it has to be watered occasionally to keep it up to speed. It is sand-filled with sixteen tonnes of it across the whole surface. A section had been lifted and badly rucked by the force of the Christmas floodwater and it was all hands to the pump to get this put right before a final over all jet-wash. No matter how they tried, they just could not get it back into position, so they resorted to undoing one of the surface seams and using a leaf blower from Norman's equipment shed. Forty members then helped painstakingly tread the surface down.
Damage was also caused to the edging of the ditch structure in one or two places and this has yet to be repaired, but otherwise Popes Mead's all-weather is looking and bowling well.
All of the upkeep of the club's greens and the surrounds is done on a voluntary basis. Mentioned particular in dispatches were Les Buck, who does all the ornamental bedding and shrub care, Aubrey Biles, who keeps all the non-playing surface grass in trim, and Alf Bridges, who looks after the flower baskets, which looked magnificent on this summer's day.
Norman says it was as Chairman of Green at nearby Ifield Golf Club where his liking for fine turf care began. He took careful note of what head greenkeeper there, Steve Hayes, said about this and that and learned much about turf culture skills and routines.
The green was built by Leicester firm Two Counties, who continued to maintain it for a couple of years. They did a reasonable enough job but, not being on the spot to deal with day-to-day issues, it wasn't very practical. In 2000, Norman took up the greenkeeping mantle and has been in charge ever since. He says he has tried to retire, but the truth is he loves doing it, and clearly does a marvellous job. He is quick to point out that he does have a lot of help - what he calls his greens team.
A club member will sweep the green every morning without fail to rid it of dew and debris. On three days a week during the playing season, it is mowed down to 4mm, sometimes 3.5mm, again without fail. It's a routine that is set in stone and works. Norman does all the out of season mowing, usually to 10mm. A John Deere 220A and a Dennis FT510 are his tools of choice for all greens cutting. The latter with its verti-cutter cassette and a trusty Sisis Rotorake took care of the toughest ever spring clean-up ahead of the green's first serious bowl of the season, a county match on 30th April against Berkshire.
Norman organises and directs the greens team during the playing season from April to the end of September. Over winter, he lets them off and does all the work himself. The club is totally self-sufficient in greens care. He will enlist the help of members when spiking or scarifying is called for, and club chairman, Ted Cousins, now does all the aeration using a Groundsman machine.
Come late September, when the season is over, Norman will enlist and get the support of a body of members for autumn renovation work. This year it's going to be a bigger operation than usual thanks to the Mole.
"Some get uneasy about what we do to the green, but I think I've pretty much convinced them that it's the right way of going about things," said Norman. "I guess it's understandable when you see a smooth fine turf surface being dug up. Hollow tining, deep scarifying and sweeping away the debris can look like damage, I suppose."
When I compliment Norman on the state of his green he simply says; "we put six tonnes of sand on it, topdress it, re-seed it with Johnson's J Green mix of fescues and bents, and feed it with granular Impact Vitalise 16:5:16 in the spring and top up with liquid Fusion Bio Green 15:0:12 during the season. It's a lovely green and needs careful nurturing. I really enjoy it."
Also in Norman's annual care recipe, and tucked away in his impressively kept shed, are Chipco Green, Heritage or Instrata for disease control and Magnum wetting agents to fend off dry patch. He takes personal care of all necessary spraying. He says there are no major problems, just occasionally a little Fusarium and, more commonly, Dollar Spot.
The club estimated that, altogether, there was about £5,000 worth of damage caused by the Mole's recent intrusions. The flow was obviously quite extraordinary because it carried some of the club fencing the length of the adjacent Crawley Rugby Club pitch.
"The wife of one of our members is a life member of nearby Horley Football Club which had applied to Sport England for help from its Flood Relief Fund," said Norman. "She suggested we do the same, so we did, providing all our bills and estimates. I'm delighted to say that we received £2,000 courtesy of Sport England and this has been a big help."
"Despite the winter floods, it is bowling as good as ever and, if you can't bowl well here, you can't really bowl. Those competing in the County Finals here in August will tell you the same," he said.
Norman thinks it's the best green in Sussex and, with the wetting it has had to endure, it is hard to argue otherwise.