Alice Northrop heads to the Bradford & Bingley Sports Club to meet up with Groundsman Mark Heap and his trusty companion at the start of the inaugural Mixed Abilities Rugby World Tournament
The first thing that hit me when I drove into the car park at the Bradford & Bingley Sports Club was that I wished I had brought my waterproof. I removed the sunglasses that had perched hopefully on my head since leaving sunny Shropshire and headed over to where Mark Heap, Groundsman at the club, was standing in the rain.
The clubhouse is impressive, with a fantastic panoramic view of the first rugby pitch and the surrounding grounds. As Mark points out, the spectators and supporters are spoilt here with the view of the pitch. There is no need to leave the bar area for the stand outside.
The view of the pitch at the moment is a good one. Bradford & Bingley's Bumble Bees are playing against ASSO Christo Rugby in the first game of the Mixed Abilities Rugby World Tournament. A game that they won during the course of our interview, 26-19.
Mark left school at sixteen and took the first job he could get, becoming the Overseer at a local wool mill. "I found myself looking out of the window all the time. I wasn't happy." So he went for a job advertised by the Local Authority for a gardener/groundsman, and worked up from an apprentice to assistant manager from 1983-2003. "Every course that came up, I jumped on it ... NVQs 1 and 2, Tractor Driving, Pesticides ... it sticks with you. You've got the qualifications for the rest of your life."
Then, when the pinch came into the local councils, and Bradford's grounds maintenance was awarded to Glendale's, despite being hand-picked to go with his old manager as part of a small skilled workforce to Bingley, Mark opted for redundancy. He then used that money for machinery to set up on his own.
Mark works sixteen hours a week at Bradford & Bingley Sports Club: "I played rugby here anyway, and the opportunity to work here just opened up." He also does work for other rugby, cricket and football clubs, as well as landscaping and general gardening. "It's good to have a bit of variation"," he tells me, "you don't get bored. It's nice to do a rugby pitch one day and then go and mark out a football pitch the next, or a running track."
A one-man-band, Mark does everything, with the help of his trusted sidekick Jake, a beautifully bright collie that follows him everywhere. "He's too clever for his own good is Jake. If he's bored, he drops his ball or stick on the white line, so I've got to throw it. He's been here since a puppy, and he thinks he owns the place." Jake is also the best Canada goose scarer that the club has. When the river Aire, which dissects the land, rises the geese tend to wander and leave a mess on the pitches, and the club members don't like it.
Unfortunately, the river does a lot more than bring the geese to the pitches. It also has a nasty habit of flooding. Last year alone, the pitches were flooded ten times, diagonally across from the dugouts, about 2-3ft deep. "If I'm watching the weather, I know within twelve hours," Mark tells me. "I have got up in the middle of the night before, got out of bed, and taken all the tractors and machinery to higher ground."
Back in 2000, the entire place got flooded, and the bar was shut down for a year due to everything being six inches under. "All you could see was silver, right across. When that went down, it was carnage. The local sewage works in Keighley burst their banks. There were big logs and banks of sediment to clear. I had to get all that off, then lime them all to neutralise human effluent. Everything was just ruined." But, as Mark says, "it's just one of those ongoing things. It's the place we are, right next to a river." At least, he says, they have good sandy, loamy soil with big boulders, which means drainage is good.
Aside from the flooding, although maybe even as a result of it, Mark has to deal with a yearly bout of Himalayan Balsam, as well as Japanese Knotweed down the sides of the land. "When it gets too close to us, I weed kill it with RoundUp or flail it down. I keep on top of it most of the time. The machinery needs a damn good wash so it doesn't contaminate everything else." In the last year, Giant Hogweed has also appeared, "Its awful stuff. I just take the seed head off 'cos I know what it's like. The river just brings everything down with it."
As well as the weeds though, the river also brings more than its fair share of wildlife: "That's another thing that I love about working here. We get otters, deer, herons and kingfishers. Fallow, Sika and Roe deer all come out of the trees. It's a different world at night when everybody's gone home, or early in the morning. I start sometimes at 5.00am, and the deer will be in the middle of the field. If I tell the dog to sit next to me, they'll just graze and its lovely watching them, and watching the roe deer wade and swim in the river." The rabbits do a bit of scraping and the geese cause a bit of trouble but, as Mark says, "we're all on the same planet, aren't we? We can all live together. They're not too bad."
The club is a busy one for rugby, as well as wildlife. Mark takes me through the pitch usage: "Pitch 2 is used sometimes on Mondays and Tuesdays for about three hours. Wednesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Fridays. There are games on it on Saturday, and Sunday is all day with the juniors (U7s-18s). Pitch 1 is used once or twice a week, which you can cope with if it's nursed through. It all depends on what the weather is doing." Although pitch 2 is not as good as pitch 1, it is as good as most in their league.
This year, the club has only spent £4,000 on three pitches. Luckily, Mark knows a few contractors, and a mate of his has earthquaked, seeded, fertilised and sprayed them all for the £4,000. "There has been a great amount done, but I'd like to sand dress the pitches that haven't been done for six or seven years. I would like a tonne of sand to divot the pitches in winter, but the committee won't buy any."
The old committee were very set in their ways and provided quite a barrier for the work that Mark wanted to do on the pitches. "I have to go through the committee for everything. All machinery is my machinery and I get no pay for machine hours."
With regards to dealing with the flooding, he did have a 1.2m verti-drain, "It took me ten hours to do a pitch. But it was here and I could do it as and when I wanted. Or, if I had a bad area, I could just work on that one area. But they got rid. Said I only had sixteen hours a week and that I didn't have time to do it. I've just got my slitters now, that's all. If you can try and keep the top open and the air in, it's not too bad.
That's why a bit more sand would help. It just levels everything as well, doesn't it?"
The club did get the pitch levelled for about £30,000 eleven years ago, "It was the best thing we ever did," Mark tells me. "It's a lasting legacy. Not being big headed, but it's one of the best in Yorkshire. We've had Yorkshire Cup finals down here. Even at the end of season, when it's been hammered, they still want to come." Bancroft Amenities, from Cheshire, with Total Turf Solutions overseeing the project, did a superb job on the pitch. "I worked with them for a week, and they put me on their books. It's nice, it's your pitch, and you should have an input in it."
There was another frustrating point with this project, with regards to the old committee. TTS were in contact with Twickenham during the levelling, and they offered the Club their spare set of brand new aluminium posts. They would transport them up, and all the club had to do was put them in the ground. But the committee wouldn't allow it because of tradition: "The other ones, they're big iron things. They're going to tip over. When you're on a flood plain, it gets hard in summer, wet in winter and they'll end up just going," Mark says. "As well as this, because we changed the levels so much, the crossbar was at about 13ft, so we had to get an engineer in to chop them off and bring the crossbar down to 11ft 6". It cost an arm and a leg!"
Mark's love of rugby extends from playing for the Bradford & Bingley Barbarians to going on Lion's tours every four years. He is currently saving to go to New Zealand in two years' time. As well as playing for the Barbarians, he used to coach the Bumble Bees: "To help them out is really nice. All the Bumbles know me. Sometimes I'm their friend, or just the grumpy groundsman. They all come and see me."
I can see that Mark is well liked as we walk around the grounds. Lots of the Bumbles players, triumphant after their win, come over to him and have a laugh and a joke, whilst he is stopped every few metres by somebody else offering to buy him a drink or just wanting to have a chat.
All the time Jake is never too far away and, at one point, when Jake sees a crow on the pitch, he doesn't move a muscle until Mark tells him to see it off. It's a really lovely atmosphere, and I can see why Mark is fond of it.
As we stand and watch the end of the game, Mark tells me, "you do get a lot of pleasure out of it, seeing something like this when everybody is running around on it. It's a rewarding job. It's nice when you're done, but you cover a few miles doing it."
What's in the shed?
John Deere 4300 tractor
Ransomes Mastiff 36" cylinder mower
Major 6300GR roller mower
6ft Sisis slitter
5ft ballast roller
Grassline Titan spray linemarker
Inaugural tournament a huge success
Teams from ten countries compete for the inaugural Mixed Abilities Rugby World Tournament at Bradford & Bingley Sports Club
Bradford and Bingley Sports Club is home to the Bumble Bees, the first team to play Mixed Ability Contact Rugby Union in England. Founded in 2009 by Anthony Brooke, a young man with Cerebral Palsy and Learning Difficulties, the team has been the ones to come up with, and host, the first Mixed Abilities Rugby World Tournament, which was held in August this year.
Mark Heap, groundsman at the club, tells me: "Anthony Brooke, a lad from Clayton, the other side of Bradford, followed his local Rugby League Club everywhere. He just wanted a game and they just shunned him and shunned him. He came down here one day and got talking to Dave Morris (the now manager of the Bumbles). Dave told him he'd get him playing and that they would sort something. It all just bubbled up from there."
Teams from ten nations arrived for the tournament on the 17th-21st August, bringing around 400 players ready to compete for their clubs.
Each team included players with a variety of learning and physical disabilities, as well as their non-disabled team mates, or "facilitators". Each game lasted sixty minutes, which took place as either two x 30 minute halves, or three x 20 minute thirds, although usually the Bumbles play full eighty minute games.
The full-contact rugby is what sets these teams apart from the usual touch rugby that is played by teams with learning and physical disabilities. "It's not like wrapping them in cotton wool. They do get injuries," Mark tells me. The only real difference from the mainstream club game is the implementation of uncontested scrums, which are used, in part, to safeguard the players new to the sport, as well as to protect the neck instability experienced as a result of Down's Syndrome.
I ask Mark how the Bumbles do for fixtures: "They've got a fixture list. In fact, there's quite a lot of local clubs that will ring them up, and their veterans will say, 'yeah, we'll put a side out.' They play a lot on Sunday afternoons. Castleford and Halifax have set their own sides up too, so the Bees have someone to play with some disabilities." He also says that they not only get support from parents and friends but, if the senior side knows about a game, they will go and watch."
The culture surrounding the game is no different to that of the usual club rugby scene. "They don't go on about what's 'wrong' with them. It's lovely seeing them have a beer and that together. They all get a little bit cheeky," Mark says. "The Bees have done it for the lads. The comradery is palpable on the day, and it's great to see the support they all give each other."
Whilst watching the first game of the tournament, between the Bumble Bees and ASSO Christo Rugby, I spoke to a few of the spectators and supporters. Sharon Deacon, from Keighley Albion Juniors, a Rugby League Club, was one of about forty volunteers from the club to come and help out at the tournament. She wanted her young son, who has learning difficulties, to see how he could play with a group of like-minded people and just have fun. She told me, "It's nice to see everyone being treated the same. All playing together." Something that her son had not necessarily been used to while playing with other teams.
I also spoke to Chris Stone, one of the RFU Youth Development Officers at the event. He told me that the Bumbles were now "World Leaders" due to the tournament. "It's new and there isn't much support yet, but we would like somebody else to take it over and replicate it. Preferably somewhere overseas where it's sunny!"
The increase in recognition and support as a result of the tournament will hopefully lead to the development of more teams, and the acknowledgment that it is a great sport to be involved in, no matter who you are.
Walking around on the first day of the tournament was a real pleasure, and seeing the players battle through persistent rain, and still be upbeat after the game was inspiring. "They had a great week and they all enjoyed themselves," Mark told me after the event.
The Bumble Bees finished second overall, which was an unexpected and well-deserved result. The winners, Ireland's Sundays Well Rebels, won the final 26-19, in what was said to be a cracking game with the host team.