Warwick Independent Schools Foundation has embarked on extensive improvements and modernisation known as its Project One Campus. Due for completion next year, Grounds Manager Duncan Toon has been overseeing the installation of new sports facilities.
We chose a good date in June to visit Duncan Toon, Grounds Manager at Warwick Independent Schools Foundation: it was exactly one year since he took up the role. The Foundation is going through a dramatic period of change, which is impacting on the grounds and sports facilities, allowing modernisation and improvements which will be needed to cater for 2,300 pupils when the Foundation completes its Project One Campus in 2020.
King's High School is to move from its Smith Street location in the centre of the historic county town to new purpose-built buildings currently being constructed on the Myton Road campus, bringing it onto one site with Warwick School, Warwick Junior School and Warwick Preparatory School.
Pupils will benefit from new state-of-the-art buildings, playgrounds and playing fields, connected by interlinking pedestrianised tree-lined walkways and set amidst landscaped courtyards.
Duncan's first task has been to establish and equip a new grounds team, which will oversee and implement improvements to and maintenance of the enhanced facilities.
Previously Deputy Head Groundsman at Birmingham City Football Club training ground, Duncan has brought a fresh approach, using turf and soil condition data to help plan pitch usage.
"I'm known as the 'no man'," he jokes. "There is tremendous demand on the facilities and we have to manage them carefully to control wear and, most importantly, ensure quality, safe playing surfaces for the pupils. By gathering data such as Clegg hammer and moisture meter readings, I can work closely with the sports coaches to achieve this, whilst ensuring that pupils get to play sport year round."
Extensive cricket facilities include the Main Square which backs onto the school buildings
To cite an example, pitches became very hard last summer and being able to show a Clegg hammer reading of 211 to the rugby coach helped him to make an informed decision to cancel a fixture.
Significant investment in upgrading existing pitches and developing new facilities has been key and is ongoing.
Behind the historic buildings sits the Main Square rugby pitch which takes on the role of cricket outfield in the summer; the Junior Square incorporates a synthetic wicket and its 1.5ha is the only part of the grounds so far to have a primary and secondary drainage system.
"This area was formerly tennis courts, but the school wanted to extend the sports field, so it was re-levelled and drained. Unfortunately, the secondaries were installed during the heatwave and opened up, so it had another 200 tonnes of sand applied. But the final results are excellent - we didn't lose a match on it last winter."
The heatwave which gripped Britain in the first few months of Duncan's tenure proved fortuitous, as he explains.
"We were trying to water from two taps which have a maximum of 1.5 bar pressure, so it was a struggle even to use the sprinklers we had. The conditions strengthened the case for a proper irrigation system and we now have a borehole with a licence for 20,000 litres/day, which we would like to increase. Investment was made in a new set of travelling sprinklers, and I'm looking at a new sprinkler head design."
Warwick School grounds in 2018, showing the development of the new King's High School buildings adjacent to the Banbury Square
Benefits extend beyond maintaining playing surface conditions in dry spells.
"I wanted to be bold with renovations from the outset, but it wasn't an option without irrigation," he says. Currently supplied via a network of plastic pipes, permanent pipework is the next addition.
A new 3G rugby pitch, installed by SIS Pitches, was completed in January 2019.
"The 3G is very popular - even in summer it is used for cricket practice, with 150 pupils using plastic stumps," comments Duncan. "It means that we can guarantee pupils are able to play, regardless of the weather, although pupils do alternate between synthetic and natural surfaces."
There's no doubt that the 3G is the centrepiece of the sports fields, with its pristine surface and smart surround in Warwick School's bright blue colours. Grounds Supervisor, Garry Delday, is now focused on the synthetic pitches, maintaining the 3G after every 10 hours' play.
SIS supplied a small tractor and brush, but Duncan has added a SISIS Osca which is used fortnightly to decompact the infill. Keeping on top of debris is vital and the Osca also helps bring small seeds, such as sycamore, to the surface for easier collection.
The new 3G pitch has proved popular for a range of sports, and offers the opportunity to rest natural turf pitches as well as ensuring sport can take place year round / Cricket nets sit cheek by jowl with the Halse Pavillion which has completed the school's indoor sports centre
"The carpet should have a 15-year lifespan, but it's good to know that the school has already budgeted for its future replacement. Educating staff and pupils about looking after it, such as wearing the correct footwear, has also been part of our job."
Two Tiger Turf hockey pitches have multi-sport use, which will come in handy when new tennis and netball courts are being developed during summer 2019. Eventually, the new area will also feature a multi-use pavilion for the neighbouring rugby and cricket pitches.
Planned for the heart of the developments is a larger grounds shed, where the equipment, which is currently spread around the campus, can be housed in one place with a modern washdown.
"This will make a big difference," comments Deputy Head Groundsman, Matt Barnes. "Not only for improved security, but also convenience, saving us having to walk across the grounds to get tools for simple tasks like mower adjustment."
Due for renovation later this year is the floodlit rugby pitch. To tackle its undulations and waterlogging, the surface will be stripped, 200 tonnes of sand spread and the pitches laser levelled before another 200 tonnes of sand are applied.
Soils are relatively easy with the sandy loams drying quickly, allowing the team to get on and mow after rain.
With prestigious fixtures on a frequent basis - mid-June saw sixth formers play a men's side from the MCC, for example - presentation is a priority and this has been factored into some of the new machinery purchases. Clippings from the triples are blown and collected in the new Gator for disposal, and the SISIS flexi brush is also used to tidy up the surfaces.
Two battery-powered Infinicut mowers allow for mowing to continue around classrooms / Tom Cullen, operating the new five-gang Toro Reelmaster 3575-D fairway mower, is also the school's landscape gardener as well as assisting the grounds team
To tackle the hard conditions last year, Duncan engaged a local contractor to verti-drain pitches monthly.
"The first time, the tines only went in 7.5cm! We have since seen a major improvement in infiltration and tines are going down to 28cm. We've now invested in a Charterhouse Verti-Drain 2220 and, as it is a high-speed machine, it could treat the whole site in two days if necessary."
He has been particularly impressed with some new purchases: "We bought four Dennis Pro 34R rotary mowers which are excellent for rugby clean-ups, and they are also proving their worth on the cricket pitches - after hosting the Edgbaston under-12s, the clean-up took less than half an hour on two squares. The Infinicut battery mowers give such a fantastic finish and have low noise levels, which is important as we have to avoid noise close to exam rooms. With the Infinicut, we can still carry on and prepare pitches."
In an ideal world, he would like to move to more pedestrian kit, but with limited resources and the workload being as high it is, adding a five-gang Toro Reelmaster 3575-D fairway mower to the existing 3100-D triple has been essential.
A suite of battery powered tools from Husqvarna means that strimming, hedge cutting, tree work with a pole saw and leaf blowing can all be carried out with minimal noise.
Seen from the Main Square, the Halse Pavilion offers a 25m swimming pool, fitness suite and gymnasium
"There's a huge difference compared to a petrol blower, for example," comments Duncan. "Operators tend to use the kit for no more than four hours, so one backpack and one portable battery covers all the tools, as long as they remember to put them on charge!"
A new approach to fertiliser takes account of the generally good soil and aims to be organic where possible, with the impending purchase of a 600l Team Sprayer allowing the use of biostimulants.
"We're looking at slow release products so that we're not constantly having to be on the pitches; the sprayer also gives us a lot more options where using granular products would be restricted by a lack of irrigation," comments Matt.
An extensive overseed was carried out last summer, with five pitches also getting winter mixes. "We'll overseed again during the renovations," comments Duncan. "I'm looking to trial four seed mixes and four feeds between the two pitch areas that get the same amount of wear to gauge the differences. I'd love to have more trial plots, but time is the issue - it should be easier next year."
He is also continuing to gather data on turf wear: after looking at the rugby pitches this year, cricket will follow.
Duncan has recruited a team with a broad range of skills. Scott Danter started on the same day as he did last year, and brings experience as a cricket club groundsman, although he admits that learning to care for winter pitches has been a "steep learning curve".
Scott Danter, seen using the 3100-D triple, comes from a cricket club background, and admits that getting to grips with winter sports has been a 'steep learning curve' / Duncan inspects a wicket - pupils get experience of high profile fixtures so standards must match up
"There's so much to get to grips with, such as aeration, and how to get the best from our new borehole. This winter we will also have new machines to get used to, but we are keen to do as good a job as possible."
Matt came from another school, and comments that, while he had to cope with sports fields on several sites in his previous role, the demand for pitches is greater at Warwick School.
"It requires a lot more planning to find slots for maintenance, but the improvement to facilities and the investment in machinery is very good for morale. We no longer have to rely on contractors so we can get jobs, such as verti-draining, done at the optimum time."
Grounds and Landscape Garden Assistant, Tom Cullen, splits his time 50/50 between the two areas and comments: "We're benefitting from the investment in equipment and the new team so we can push forward for higher standards. You have to take the highs and lows - we can be working for a whole week to prepare for a cricket match and then it can be called off!"
Charlie Seager, who has worked at another prestigious school and also had a spell outside the industry, agrees: "Groundsmanship is a job where you want to get on and do everything to the highest standards, so it can be frustrating when we are rained off, although there's always plenty to do!"
"I'm very lucky to have a team that is so passionate about the job and that takes pride in what they do," says Duncan. "There are eight hectares of natural turf, a significant task for a small team, and I would like to recruit some apprentices as I believe they could learn such a lot from the rest of the team."
New planting schemes include a lavender bed in the school's blue and white colours / The Waterfall, another new area of landscaping, complements the Warwick Hall behind, the school's prestigious performance venue
Everyone feels the pressure from the sheer volume of pupils wishing to use the facilities, he admits.
"In every year group, every single boy plays rugby, and the sports facilities adjacent to the new King's High building will have greater use once they become more accessible to its pupils as they move to their new building on site. Generally, every pitch is in use every day and we have to be able to rest them sometimes. The 3G certainly helps to take the pressure off, but it's important to work closely with the coaching teams to get the best out of the pitches."
Plans are constantly evolving as Project One Campus progresses; currently, pupils use the sports fields for breaks, with proposals in place for a new play area which will alleviate another cause of wear. One sports field is in temporary use as staff car parking during the King's High School construction and is likely to be converted into a synthetic pitch in the long term.
The team is also responsible for the gardens, all mucking in to tackle projects on wet days.
"I'm aiming for impact and low maintenance so plan to replace some of the established flowerbeds over time. We've just planted a new lavender bed showcasing the school's blue and white colours in the main courtyard, and I'm looking at replacing a planter on the front circle lawn with a topiary depicting the county symbol of a bear and ragged staff. In time, we hope to have more resource available for the lawns as well. It's a challenge and there's lots of pressure but that's a positive, driving us forward to deliver of our best," he says.
The main entrance - Duncan is considering swapping the planter for a topiary depicting the county emblem of a bear and ragged staff
A sense of history
Dating back to 914, Warwick School is the oldest boys school in the country, and moved to its current twenty hectare site on Myton Road in 1879. With King's High being established in the same year, the Foundation was born, and now comprises Warwick School for boys from 7-18, including Warwick Junior School (7-11s) and King's High for girls from 11-18, incorporating Warwick Preparatory School which is co-ed from 3-7 with girls continuing from 7-11. Project One Campus will see all the schools together on one site for the first time.
Recent developments include the Halse Pavilion, completing the Sports Centre with its 25m swimming pool, fitness suite ad gymnasium, and Warwick Hall, completed in 2016 and providing an impressive events venue.
Project One Campus will deliver a new school for King's High, including a Sports and Technology 'wrap-around' built onto the existing Bridge Sports Centre, a shared Sixth Form Centre providing study and social space for King's High and Warwick School together, and a purpose-built, high-tech Music School for Warwick Prep and King's High.
The buildings will offer additional venues for events outside of school hours. The project will also enhance the available sports and play facilities and divert parking and traffic flow to the edge of the site, improving safety and the ambience of the site.