It's all fun and games, plus plenty of hard graft, for the grounds team tending one of the country's elite sporting schools. Greg Rhodes arrived at the entrance of Epsom College to interview head groundsman Jason O'Keefe, and was ill-prepared for the sheer scale and splendour of the place.
On an expansive stretch of the Surrey town, renowned for its racecourse, rest clusters of solid, traditional red brick buildings (aside from an imposing entrance reminiscent of Hogwarts) that give the college a unity of structure that is both welcoming and reassuring.
Picking a quiet morning period when the college's 1,000 pupils were in class gave us the chance to witness the full scope of this 85-acre estate - 12 hectares of those devoted to outdoor sports provision.
A brief history first. Epsom College is viewed as one of the UK's finest independent day and boarding schools for girls and boys aged 11 to 18.
Founded in 1855, with royal patronage granted by Queen Victoria two years later (the Queen is its current patron) the college was the vision of Dr John Propert, who wished to improve the lives of those who had fallen on hard times by offering orphans of medical families free housing, clothing and school.
The then-named Royal Medical Benevolent College evolved into today's co-educational establishment: with the charitable Royal Medical Foundation still based here, dedicated to "improving the lives of the individual and society" - values that, the college website declares, "remain at the heart of the college today".
The imposing Chapel of St Luke's, built in 1857, reflects the school's Christian heritage, although the college community now embraces diversity, to include pupils and staff of many different faiths and beliefs.
Co-educational since 1976, the college opened the Lower School in 2016 for years seven and eight, further swelling pupil numbers.
Offering "a seamless transition into undergraduate life" will be the 2,000m2, £9.4m Sixth Form Centre, currently under construction, to "equip students with the skills to succeed in the 21st century".
Jason rolled up to meet me in a whisper quiet, newly acquired Yamaha electric buggy, the latest example of the grounds team's shift away from diesel and petrol kit. "I came here as head groundsman seven years ago with a mission to improve the quality of the pitches," recalls Jason, who is employed by the college's external contractors Commercial Grounds Care Services, as are his five-strong team.
Keen to move to a net zero carbon model, Jason had the data at his fingertips to demonstrate where he was on that journey.
"Replacing our petrol buggy, strimmers, hedge cutters and blowers is saving us 1,800l a year," he reports. "Now we've gone electric, we're offsetting about 4,500kg of carbon dioxide a year."
He shows me a white cabinet in the shed, displaying digital readouts of battery charging status, power usage and cost, and carbon offset. Above that are four orange batteries, part of the Pellenc package Jason has invested in, following a visit to the supplier's Saltex stand last autumn and an "impressive" demo day dealer RT Machinery staged at the college.
We settle in the wood-panelled long room of the cricket pavilion - walls lined with lists of school XIs going back well over a century. Through the windows is visible a panorama of outfields as lush green and densely swarded as any top-flight football training ground I've seen.
"We're on site permanently," he explains before stressing: "Just because we are contractors, it doesn't mean we're not every bit as passionate about the quality of the service and standards we maintain in creating the best environment and playing surfaces."
Epsom College's estate grounds are managed by Commercial Grounds Care Services, the contract forming an intrinsic part of their portfolio of 85 schools and colleges across London and the south-east. Based in Godalming, Surrey, Commercial Grounds Care Services is family-run business headed up by Irene McTaggart, with a team of forty experienced groundsmen working out of the company's three depots in Woking, Haslemere and Epsom.
With more than twenty years of caring for the College grounds under their belts, the team is clearly meeting requirements for what is a mammoth sporting calendar spanning football, rugby, hockey, cricket, tennis and field and track athletics.
Since coming into post seven years ago, Jason has agreed the annual maintenance plan to develop the site, including pitches and equipment budget, with the college bursar - a process that will continue under new incumbent Ben Bennett.
Sporting demand continues to burgeon. Opening of the Lower School boosted pupil count to 800, which has since risen by another 200. "Two hours of sport are played Monday to Thursday, with extracurricular activity between four and six, so pressure to provide facilities to standard is mounting," Jason says.
Having the Commercial Grounds Care team based on site lifts the college of the burden of running a fleet of machinery of its own, Jason points out. "The company has a rolling programme of investment in new equipment," he confirms, "which includes our switch to electric, a second Grillo mower, Toro 4000 groundsmaster, Verti-Drain 7416, which can deep tine down to 14 inches, new vans and assorted cricket equipment."
The change to battery power reflects a trend among schools to ask contractors how they plan to tackle carbon offsetting. "We're moving with the technology," says Jason. "I researched the market for electric power tools and a new buggy last year, along with Neil Anderson, Commercial Grounds Care's contracts manager for Surrey and the South East."
"The power tool batteries are ergonomically set up to fit comfortably and the larger packs allow three of the team to be out for up to four hours each. The buggy (new this year) will go all day towing cricket mowers and prep."
However, just in case ... "I've kept one of each of the old hedge cutters, strimmers and blowers as back-ups."
The electric tools also give the team an added advantage. Noise is a growing concern across many aspects of modern living and the College estate needs to provide as stimulating an educational experience as possible, while limiting impact on the surrounding community.
"Now that we have the battery powered hand tools, we are allowed to cut the hedges at the front of the school, as noise levels have reduced considerably," says Jason. The Yamaha buggy brings similar gains across the estate.
Although still in the process of a wholesale move to electric equipment and machinery, the team maintains commitment to reduce the environmental impact of its fleet.
The newly acquired used Kubota 42-522 mini tractor stands outside the shed with the Verti-Drain 7416 attached. "The Cat6 engine features lower carbon emissions, helped by AdBlue diesel exhaust fluid (distilled water and urea) to reduce particulates," Jason explains as we pass by.
Pride of place in the fleet is the Grillo. "Two machines in one" is Jason's verdict on the mower, which has a Verticutting deck on the front and collection unit at the rear. I spotted this team favourite scooting around the site several times, moving across lawns dotted with trees or trimming the cricket outfields.
Moving outside to tour the grounds by buggy, we briefly meet director of sport Michael Johnson, who needs a quick word with Jason. The easy rapport between the two men is striking (more than one independent school I've visited had issues over pitch preparation policy).
"He's been in post around six years and has proved really helpful," Jason notes. Given the scope of provision and fixture demands, that's got to be a major blessing.
"At our monthly and seasonal meetings, we discuss the fixtures programme and pitch preparation - a fine balancing act as cricket outfields become football and rugby surfaces during the year."
"In any given week during summer, we can have 18 cricket matches, spread across our five squares - four each on Monday and Tuesday then five morning junior games and five senior ones in the afternoon."
The athletics season has started and we pass a crisply lined six- and eight-lane track, with field facilities and equipment clustered nearby. "It's a two-hour Friday slot for us to cut the running surface and overmark with Fleet paint using the Beam Rider," Jason explains. "The machine broke down once so I contacted Richard Mamoany from Fleet, who sent us a loan unit next day. That's good service."
Given the diverse duties maintaining the grounds requires, Jason has offered the team ample training opportunities since he arrived in 2015. "Some of the gardeners have gained their NVQ Level 2 in Sports Turf from Merrist Wood College, near Guildford, while everyone is qualified to use the hand power tools and knapsack sprayers and hold trailer licences," he says. "And they all put their hand to preparing the squares, marking and setting out. Providing a varied work environment also avoids boredom."
Jason's PA2 and PA6 tickets allow him to undertake various spray duties around the estate. "I tried one of the Berthoud Vermorel 20l knapsacks a couple of years ago, liked it and bought a second one," he tells me.
"They're really comfortable - the extendable lance is handy for reaching tricky spots and the nozzles that come with the sprayer include flat fan 90 degrees, deflector, solid and hollow cones, which can be stored in a side pocket."
Jason uses the knapsacks to apply herbicide to the water-based hockey pitch as well as iron sulphate to green up and strengthen the grass and acidifier to control worms across the site. For the annual weed and feed spray though, he brings in Weed Management.
We trace over Jason's career - a varied one covering groundscare and gardening at home and abroad, stretching back to 1992, when he began as an apprentice under head greenkeeper Roger Tideman at Crohum Hunt Golf Club, South Croydon.
"I attended Plumpton College to gain my City & Guilds Level 2 in Sports Turf before moving to Walton Heath Golf Course. Uncertain of my career direction, I left there in 1996 to join Knights garden centre group as plant area manager, working up to assistant area manager."
Suffering from the seven-year itch perhaps, Jason moved back into greenkeeping, taking up a post at Woodcote Park before switching to the Alton Wood Group of clubs, owned by Crystal Palace FC's former chairman, Ron Noades.
"Then a job came out of the blue in Menorca, as deputy superintendent at the Golf Son Parc club. I crash-learned Spanish, picking up basic commands and helping the club extend from 9 holes to 18."
"My wife and I moved to the Costa del Sol, where I looked after urbanisation gardens and pools because I couldn't find work on a course. Our second child was on the way and my wife wanted to give birth back home so we returned, and I found work at Surrey Downs Golf Club, then Gatton Manor."
A spell tending high-end gardens in London followed before Jason spotted a job advertised by Commercial Grounds Care Services, "and the rest, as they say, is history". But, he confesses, "when I came to Epsom I knew nothing about cricket or multisport."
His time since clearly has been well spent and he reveals some of the complexities of the college groundscare delivery he manages on what he says is "a topographically interesting site".
"The college has a huge sporting ethos, as well as academic excellence. Luckily, we're on chalk, so playing surfaces enjoy free draining and we aerate, fertilise and water them regularly. Irrigation is particularly key in warmer weather to avoid drying out. I use an electronic moisture meter to check levels regularly."
Pointing out the blocks of pitch provision, Jason continues: "Numbers one and six are named the Chuds, the Old First doubles for both rugby and football, as does Second Side and Colts pitches."
Grouped as a foursome are the 12,000m2 Farm pitches, numbering two, three, four and five. Making up the complement is the full-size dedicated rugby pitch, and its football equivalent, which can also be marked out as two smaller playing areas and which transitions to the athletics track in the summer term.
"Moveable barriers line the first team football pitch in season, before the team move them inside the athletics track to create a diamond that protects runners from field sports such as the javelin and discus."
"All the cricket outfields transition to rugby until December, when football takes over until March. We then have just three weeks to transition to cricket across the five squares - two contain nine strips, another two, five each and the fifth with six."
"We topdress the pitches - all natural soil - with 600 tonnes of sand across the grounds, which are sown predominantly with RPR Sport perennial ryegrass, under a process of sand improvement and creating a rootzone environment but that is set to rise to 800 tonnes because of increasing usage."
"Some pitches are played on ten hours a week, which is really heavy going. The girl pupils are now heavily into cricket, and we have some real prospects coming through, while rising pupil numbers are putting pressure on provision."
"Sutton United FC Academy use us for pre-season training, as do other local minor league football sides, plus the UR7s, who come here for a week every year to give rugby training sessions - strong motivational for the grounds team."
It all adds up to one thing. "STRI agronomist Stella Rixon evaluates the pitches and squares annually and her latest findings reveal that we are at capacity to cater for current sporting needs."
Bolstering the college's existing six-lane practice nets this summer will be an eight-lane, ECB-approved fully synthetic facility, under a six-figure project delivered by Total Play.
"This'll be as close as you can get to grass in terms of the sub-base," Jason states. "It's designed to simulate pitches and the outfield, so it'll be an exciting addition to our provision."
Tennis season has arrived too, with more transitioning the order of the day. "In addition to our nine permanent hard courts, we create another 16 by marking out our second, sand-filled, hockey pitch with Fleet Colour XS. I overmark with a mix of 20% paint and 80% water as this blend damages the turf less."
Walking from the quadrangle, with its colourful summer bedding coming into full bloom lining the crossed-hatched lawn, to the terrace overlooking the grounds, a tented village springs into view below as we talk through the team members.
"We're preparing for Founder's Day at the end of May," Jason says, anticipating my question. "That's when we up the ante even more, super striping and double cutting the pitches to wow parents and visitors. Our key focus is always the playing surfaces."
Left to right: Mark Stalker, Jason O'Keele, Will Offer, Paul Constable, Simon Knight and David Pringle
Senior groundsman David Pringle, 32, joined the team from nearby Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre as a gardener five years ago. With sports turf qualifications from Merrist Wood, David's key tasks include setting out. marking and preparing cricket strips. "A solid member of the team, he also fully understands fine turf maintenance, including the need for watering the football pitches in hot weather and about the importance of fertilising," Jason says.
"Our work is organic as far as possible and with the price of nitrogen rising, we apply slow-release fertilisers, seaweeds mainly, that stay in the soil longer, rather than factory-based polymers - certainly a more sustainable option."
Working under David is characterful Will Offer - the self-styled "special" - who came to Epsom College with plenty of practical ability but little experience of working on sportsgrounds: a fact now being fully rectified.
Jason takes up his earlier comments about irrigation and its role in helping combat the impact of climate change. "Longer hot summers and really wet winters are forecasted for the UK. I know of some schools that have had to cancel fixtures because pitches were too hard as they had no irrigation system in place."
"In 2016, I explained to the former bursar how vital it was to install irrigation. We were fortunate that someone in that position realised the importance of upgrading our system, and this has now paid dividends in terms of providing safe pitches."
"A ring main and 100,000l underground holding tank, sited behind one of the football pitches, were installed the following year along the playing surfaces perimeter, which two 14kw Javelin pumps tap into so we can attach the sprinklers. The system works very well."
The portable pumps are moved round the ground to plug into the ring main wherever they're needed - one task being to feed the Olympic standard water-based synthetic turf hockey pitch that replaced a sand-filled one recently.
"Compaction and standing water had made the old surface no longer fit for purpose," Jason says. "The new pitch includes pop-up sprinklers that apply a 3mm water layer. They can be pre-set to irrigate the goalmouth at half-time."
Mark Stalker, 54, joined the team twelve years ago and knows the college grounds and many of the longstanding members of staff very well. Mark is Jason's number two and his length and breadth of experience prove invaluable, Jason says.
"He has seen many changes over his years at the college and is the ideal person to introduce new members of the team to college ways as well as sports requirements where he is known as Mr Calculator."
Simon Knight, 56, TUPE'd over from College staff when the grounds maintenance was originally contracted out to Commercial Grounds Care.
He plays a key role in ensuring that the college grounds are litter and debris free and, under Jason, is learning to undertake other grounds maintenance tasks.
Planting with purpose
While sport has to be the main focus for the team's activity, horticulture plays its part across the estate.
"I consult with Irene McTaggart, Director and owner of Commercial Grounds Care on planting schemes and brought in Paul Constable from the Ripley depot for his gardening expertise and experience. Paul has worked for the company for over 20 years and has helped me develop the gardens, including those surrounding the headmaster's and student accommodation houses and teacher accommodation offsite."
Colour-themed herbaceous borders around Whitehouse and Crawford girls' houses include, white, purple, yellow and black annuals, for example.
Formality and informality live side by side on site. "Our natural area is designed to attract and support a diversity of wildlife. We've introduced more wildflowers to add colour through summer into autumn and the bee and grandad orchids are proliferating."
The best-laid plans can come a cropper, due to factors outside Jason's control, however. "We wanted to commemorate the Queen's Platinum Jubilee with colour-themed planting but were unable to buy the 1,500 plants we needed from one supplier," he explains.
When many grounds and course managers are struggling to source and retain staff, in part due to pay scales falling out of kilter with other sectors, Jason can report high levels of satisfaction throughout the Epsom College team.
"Commercial Grounds Care pays well and looks after its workforce," he says, "with time and a half for anything over forty hours, including Saturday work." Paid "according to my skill set", Jason can also be spotted on Sundays in the cricket season, tidying up after intensive action on the squares the day before.
Nothing stands still in grounds provision, and, "as a contractor, we will change our service with the needs of the school. This is a growing, living environment so we must reflect that. The school never intrudes or interferes with our activity, so we have a free rein, within the scope of the yearly plan."
A policy borne out by the previous bursar's words, which Jason holds dear. She said 'Commercial Grounds Care makes my life so much easier because I don't have to worry about the grounds."
His pride in the team and the job shines through and as I bid a fond farewell after a visit on a sunny spring day that showcased the grounds in their finest light, Jason's parting shot said it all. "I found my calling when I came here."
- Jason emailed every head of house with a summary of pitch etiquette for pupils to follow.
- Avoid practising penalties in the dedicated penalty areas. Move to the side of the goalmouths to avoid undue surface wear and tear.
- Avoid treading on pitches unnecessarily and no playing on the dedicated football pitch.
- Think before you act as these are your pitches so respect them.
- Etiquette for the cricket squares is already sorted, Jason says. "No-one walks on the pitches and pupils know to use the end strips for practising, leaving the middle ones prepared for matches."
What's in the shed
Dennis FT610 cylinder mowers x 2
Dennis G860 cylinder mower
Hayter Pro x 2
Pellenc Rasion electric mower
Toro 5410 Reelmaster®
Toro Reelmaster® 5510
Grillo FD 2200 ts rotary and additional verticutting deck
Yamaha UMX electric utility vehicle
John Deere Pro Gator 2030A and HD 220 sprayer
New Holland tractor
Trilo sweeper and vacuum
Kubota G23e Glidecut high lift
Kubota B3030 tractor with front loader
Kubota L2-522 tractor
Redexim Verti-Drain 1513
Redexim Verti-Drain 7416
Power Brush 1010
Pellenc Airion blowers x 4
Pellenc Excelion strimmers x 4
Pellenc Helion 3 hedgecutters x 2
Pellenc Helion alpha long arm hedgecutters x 2
Pellenc Selion pole saw x 2
Charterhouse deep slitter