0 Security conscious at Ardingly College

Ardingly College - set in the small village of the same name four miles north of Haywards Heath - was originally founded as St. Saviour's School in Shoreham in 1858, whilst the Rev. Woodard searched for an appropriate larger location. Following three years scouring the south coast, the 196-acre Saucelands estate, at the southern edge of Ardingly village, was found and duly purchased in 1862 for the princely sum of £6,000.

Gothic Revival architect Richard Carpenter was tasked with the design of the buildings and, after eight years of planning and construction, the college finally had a permanent home, officially opening to students on 14th June 1870.

Today, the college occupies a 227-acre site situated in what is now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Ardingly is quite a different animal now than when Woodard founded it, rooted in his charitable ethos, and is now one of the most sought-after schools in the UK, with an alumni including Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow, a host of Sussex cricketers past and present, including Ben Brown, Toby Peirce, Paul Phillipson and William Blackman, and the latest hot prospect, F1 driver Max Chilton.

The sporting - and particularly cricketing - reputation is strong here and, like many of its public school counterparts, the days of schools closing their doors during the holidays are over. Ardingly's sports facilities are in high demand both within the UK and abroad, with international schools and professional sports clubs hiring the site for use in the summer and Easter holidays particularly.

As such, the work of the team of grounds professionals on site is crucial to ensure the college can deliver what the pupils demand and maintain the growing business of outside hire.

Matt Blunden, Head of Grounds and Security, may still only be thirty, but 2013 marks his twelfth year on the staff, climbing the ranks from apprentice at eighteen. Matt also continues the Woodard theme of youth and, akin to James Cowie at Lancing College, it was a family influence that acted as the catalyst for his interest in groundsmanship.

"My grandfather was a keen gardener. I'd help him out on weekends and holidays. He gave me the bug," recalls Matt. "I studied on day release at Plumpton College whilst at school and then for an NVQ in decorative landscaping and sports care, landing a job with a local contractor soon after, before being offered an apprenticeship here at Ardingly."

Once again, it was the variety of the multisports environment that drew Matt and continues to do so for the new apprentices coming through. "I like being a generalist; this post allows you to master many different aspects of the job and makes you a more rounded professional," he explains.

"I like my staff to be multi-skilled too. We carry out plenty of tree surveys and landscaping, in addition to the usual stuff, and it contributes to making us better groundsmen." Also, following a donation of thirty acres of woodland by the Stevenson Clarke family, at nearby Borde Hill Gardens, the team's remit has expanded further to include more forestry maintenance.

In August 2011, Matt was offered the new dual position, following his five-year tenure as assistant to predecessor Neil Whitford, which means he now lives on site in a cottage that comes as part of his security role.

"Living here allows me to juggle some of my family duties with the job," he explains. "I walk the grounds with my two dogs and check the whole estate daily, which means I can monitor everything from a maintenance perspective, whilst also alerting me to any pressing security issues."

As the college grounds are bordered by farmland on most sides, there's often crossover in duties between Matt and his neighbours. Local farmer, Andrew Elliot, is in regular contact with Matt and his team, and the extra hands are a Godsend when the need is pressing or in extraordinary circumstances, evident in the last two years with heavy snow and ice blighting travel to and from rural locations like Ardingly.

"Andrew helped out with gritting and clearing snow this year, and especially before we purchased the Kubota RTV eighteen months ago," explains Matt. "No exaggeration, that machine saved our skin. "We simply couldn't deal with the heavy snow, which was a concern as the school never closes and has to be accessible at all times for students and teachers. The Husqvarna snow plough works brilliantly on all surfaces and the camouflage print creates a bit of a stir when it's in action," he continues.

Where the budget is concerned, Matt works to a five year plan, giving himself the best opportunity to launch successful bids to the bursar. "We all sit down together in April and work out what needs to be spent and where. It's a real team effort here, I like to involve everyone in the process," he adds. "This year, we're looking to have all six tennis courts repainted and replace the free-standing nets, whilst the biggest spend probably will be a new washdown area, which would allow us to recycle the water we use."

"We're now researching which brand would be best - it's a reasonable investment so we have to get it right." On the turf machinery side, Matt applies similar long-term planning. "If we know roughly what will need replacing in advance, it better prepares the bursar and means we are more likely to be successful with capital bids," he explains.

"This year, we're hoping to replace the Honda rotary mower and purchase a new salt spreader, in anticipation of another cold and icy winter."
Matt considers one of their best recent additions to be the Massey Ferguson tractor, which has cut mowing time substantially since its arrival. The increase in sports at the college meant mowing was taking up to a day and a half to complete, Matt tells me. The introduction of the Massey has cut this to half a day, freeing up two-thirds more time to devote to other aspects of the job.

The sports pitches are scattered across the whole 420 acres, with some kept separate for prep school use. There are three 'zones' on the site, catering for all senior sports and prep school activities - the focus being cricket and football.

Nine Acres (contrary to its name) covers thirteen acres and includes nine pitches - three rugby, five full-size football, one girl's lacrosse pitch and, at the main part of the school, there are three cricket wickets. North Fields includes one rugby, four mini football, and three rounders squares. Finally, the Upper Field is home to the prep school sports pitches, which include a mini grass wicket, four mini football pitches and a mini rugby pitch.

Unlike its Lancing counterpart, Ardingly College isn't blessed with the same free-draining soil - quite the opposite in fact, bemoans Matt. The heavy clay and sandstone composition mean the pitches are particularly prone to flooding, due to years of compaction and play without any major renovation works.

Nine Acres runs alongside the River Ouse and, when it breaks its banks, the floodwater often has nowhere else to flow than out on to the pitches, rendering them unplayable. "The water board installed electronically operated gates," says Matt, "but these often don't react to high flow. Coupled with this, our antiquated drainage system runs into the river and increases the risk of flooding further!"

The water supplier is set to change the course of the Ouse soon, Matt explains, by removing weirs to allow more wildlife to flourish. The knock-on effect of this should be a reduction in the risk of flooding on to college land.

Matt admits that the last twelve months have been one of his most challenging, with frequent flooding causing cancellations and an inability to work on the areas under water to carry out essential tasks. "Once the water percolates through the clay, the sandstone actually makes for free flowing, so vertidraining is crucial for us - a job we have to undertake frequently," adds Matt. "Compaction is probably our biggest problem though, with the sitting water and silt build-up contributing further. The clay also attracts more worms, tempted by the lime in the ground. For this, we apply plenty of sharp sand as they generally don't like the coarseness, so tend to steer clear."

The lack of good drainage and flood risk in the winter months contrasts markedly with the picture in spring and summer, where limited irrigation can pose a problem when maintaining their most prized sporting asset - the first team cricket square.

"We like to cut at 7mm, roll each wicket 20 minutes a day, watering at the start of preparation," reports Matt. "It's a trick Ian Card (Assistant Head Groundsman) has used since taking on the responsibility of the squares, not because of irrigation but to allow the ball to zip off the surface," he adds.

"We find that leaving it a little longer - at 7mm - prolongs the life of the square, which helps when we have a particularly dry spell."
The historic character of Ardingly forms a large part of its appeal and the stunning gothic style building offers the ideal setting for academic excellence. Many of the original grounds fixtures also remain on the site and the antiquated water collection systems pose another headache for the team.

"Irrigation isn't great and our reliance on mains water is something we have to live with," explains Matt. "The water pressure is up and down, great in some areas but a trickle in others. Because of this, we need to rely on turf products that excel in our conditions. Barenbrug Bar Extreme, for example, has a fast take-up and good establishment, so the grass isn't as thirsty and we can expect good coverage for longer."

The work of the team can only stretch so far though and groundsmen increasingly have to rely on science to give them a helping hand, arguably more so in the private school sector where they are not afforded the kind of benefits of professional sports clubs, who need not worry about prolonged periods of drought, for example. Matt, on the other hand, is expected to deliver professional quality nonetheless, so support from a highly skilled workforce is the key to delivering the goods.

The closeness of his team is something that Matt is particularly proud of, and his commitment to take on apprentices is symptomatic of his management approach. Beginning life as an apprentice himself, and climbing the ranks to head groundsman, Matt considers his progression a personal high point in his career, but his journey has also made him acutely aware of the necessary skills set to succeed in this business.

"We took on Liam [Baldwin] last September and he was chosen from a long list of candidates," says Matt. "Liam already worked at the school in catering, but he made it clear to me that he wanted to break into groundsmanship. He kept on at me for an interview and a chance to work with us, so when the apprentice position became available he was an obvious choice."

"I look for enthusiasm, passion and a willingness to muck-in," adds Matt. "Sometimes, young guys approach the trade with misconceptions about what they'll be doing. The reality for apprentices today is long hours, antisocial starts and getting your hands dirty doing the jobs that no-one else wants to do, but we all have to at some point. Liam showed he was well up to the task."

The Ardingly groundstaff are bolstered by Sarah Carew, the only female member of the team, who handles mainly gardening duties, but is taking on more groundsmanship work, much to Matt's pleasure as he is keen to see her match the more senior members of the team with work across the whole site and on the sports pitches.

Increasingly, the demands on the team extend beyond the school calendar as the appeal of the college's sports facilities grow, both within the UK and among some of the world's premier sports teams - an expanding and lucrative industry for Ardingly and many rival independent schools.

"The college runs many half-term project for sports, music, English and so forth, and there's always high demand among foreign schools especially," he explains. "Match Point tennis summer school use our facilities in the summer and at Easter, and is one of several important annual bookings, so we have to ensure the facilities meet the same high standards that we deliver for school fixtures."

This year is a special one for the college, as Real Madrid youth team will be swapping the Bernabéu for the rolling Sussex countryside as they set up at Ardingly for their pre-season training preparations.

Last year, Ardingly welcomed Arsenal FC youth to the village, but Real promises to be an even bigger draw. "There's real pressure on us to deliver the goods and showcase how good our surfaces are," stresses Matt. "If they're impressed, it will be a real feather in our cap and could mark the beginning of a lasting relationship between the club and the college."

The days of downtime in the summer months are a thing of the past for staff working at UK private schools and, with the growing demand on those in the public sector to be more business minded, it's a trend that could soon overlap into the public sphere.

One of the Woodard Trust's other schools - the Sir Robert Woodard Academy - also in Lancing, is hoping that by raising the quality of their pitches they might also forge links with professional sports clubs like Brighton & Hove Albion. Such a shift would require the state sector to seriously ramp up its investment in sports maintenance, though.

Spring appears to finally be upon us [as I write this on a sunny May day morning] and, with it, comes a sense of optimism for Matt, and others like him in rural Sussex, that at last they can catch up with the work that was delayed because of the atrocious weather earlier on, readying the college for a packed summer term and for the arrival of some pretty prestigious summer guests, who they'll be eager to impress.


What's in the shed?
Toro Reelmaster 5400 D
Major rotary mower
95hp Massey Ferguson tractor
Dennis wicket mower 24"
Dennis wicket mower 32"
Honda rotary mower x 2
John Deere X49 tractor
Kubota G18 compact tractor
Kubota G21 compact tractor
Kubota B2230 tractor
Sisis Rotorake 600
Sisis Quadraplay
Sisis Autobrush
Poweroll roller 2.5 tonne

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