As lone groundsman at St George's School in Ascot, Peter Thompson often has his work cut out to maintain the surfaces. But, when a drainage project scheduled to take two months ran to a year, he and the contractor had that sinking feeling, literally!
Peter Thompson says that he takes his inspiration from his grandfather and grandmother, who were farmers working and living on the Kent Marshes well into their eighties. "If I can work anywhere near as hard, I will feel I have worked hard indeed," he states. Judging by his CV to date, he is well on the way.
"My cousin John was a groundsman with Kent County Council. He laid the foundations for my career and managed to get me a position with them as an apprentice when I finished school in 1974. When I left the council, I joined the Medway Drainage Board cleaning waterways with a Hymac 360C on tracks. After that, I went to Fort Belvedere, a country house in Windsor Great Park, as assistant groundsman tending grass courts golf greens and ornamental lawns. I then had brief spells at Windsor Racecourse and a local polo ground until I came to St George's School nine years ago as sole groundsman."
"Whilst working for the council, I took City & Guilds Groundsmanship 1 & 2, plus horticulture and basic mechanics. I also did a number of in-house courses including setting out, fine turf and track and field events," continues Peter. "Since leaving the council, I have taken Level 3 Sportsturf, plus further courses, including Chainsaw CS36 and PA 1 and 6 pesticides, First Aid at Work, Health & Safety, Working at Height; strimmer and hedgetrimmer risk assessment, dry stone walling and an excavator licence for 360% up to 10 tonne." Phew!
St George's School, Ascot, is a thriving boarding and day school for girls aged eleven to eighteen. It was founded in 1877 by The Reverend Herbert William Sneyd-Kynnersley as a boys' Prep School with just forty-one pupils. Sneyd-Kynnersley is listed on the Plantagenet Roll as being of Royal Blood and was the son of a Birmingham magistrate.
From 1882 to 1884, Winston Churchill was a pupil, starting at the tender age of seven. He refers to the school in his book, My Early Life, as "one of the most fashionable and expensive in the country." It modelled itself upon Eton and aimed at being preparatory for that Public School. It was supposed to be the very latest thing in schools; "only ten boys in a class; electric light; a swimming pond; spacious football and cricket grounds; a chapel of its own."
In 1904, it became a finishing school for girls and has remained a girls school to this day, now accommodating over 300 students.
Whilst Peter is the sole groundsman, he can now count on assistance with the gardens from Melvyn Kirk. "He is the school gardener (aged 52) and has been here for two years. I am required to write out a weekly worksheet that he has to plan his work around, but he is a great help to me. Until he was taken on, I had to tend the gardens myself. He worked at several National Trust properties on short term contracts prior to coming here, so enjoys the work, as the quality of the flower beds testify."
The site covers a total of thirty acres, of which 2.7 hectares is sportsfields, two acres are gardens, lawns, amenity and play areas; the rest is woodland which is left as a conservation areas.
Three lacrosse pitches are provided in the autumn and winter which are converted to a 400m running track, shot, discus, javelin for the spring and summer. There is also a long jump pit and four rounders pitches. The school also hosts summer camps in the holidays.
There are also two blocks of tarmac tennis/netball courts which Peter maintains. These are due to be resurfaced this summer as they are wearing badly.
Peter continues; "the main part of the school is on high ground which suffers wind damage in autumn and winter and, as the sportsfield is at the bottom, we get run off problems when prolonged heavy rain occurs."
"The soil profile here is quite poor with a thin layer of topsoil and low pH levels. I have been told by several people that I do well to get grass to grow at all! We have to apply lime once a year to help get the levels up, but it's a slow process and, to be honest, probably something we are going to have to live with."
"I use industry agronomist Corrin Beaney. He is always ready at the end of the phone with advice if I need it and can put me in touch with any help I may require."
"Complete Weed Control come in three times a year to spray for weeds, leatherjackets and worms."
"I like to cut the sportsfield as many times as is possible in the growing season, gradually working the height of cut down with a Major roller mower and Amazone Groundkeeper. Then, as soon as I can, I use the Ransomes triple to keep it at around 25mm but, to be honest, I only realistically get time to cut it two or three times a week."
"Due to the soil profile, I have to run the Sisis slitter over it weekly when the use is heavy, because it compacts so quickly. I only overseed once a year, unless otherwise required, as I have to hire the overseeder and wear is usually minimal anyhow."
"Marking out is done twice a week in term time using a spray or wheel transfer marker, depending on conditions. I clean these up after sports day at the end of June and put them away until the autumn term when the lacrosse pitches go in.
As a sole groundsman, where does presentation rank? "At the very top of the list; at a fee paying facility like this, it has to be. You want people to go away having enjoyed their visit and surroundings and wanting to come back - and tell other people what a lovely place they have been to. It's not easy, but I do the best I can."
Main renovations are the sportsfield surface and the drainage system. "I scarify as soon as sports day is over to open up the surface and clear any rubbish, then use the tractor mounted jetter to clear any silt out of the pipes before it dries solid. The drains flow into a ditch that surrounds the field, so this has to be cleaned out and banks cut annually."
"Major renovations like topdressing, on a field this size, can be very expensive and, as the pitches never suffer huge amounts of stress, I just do the worst affected areas and keep the cost down that way."
"We have summer camps here and they can be a pain. However, the bursar always informs them of any pending works and that they will have to work around me, although it's generally the other way round! Things usually go smoothly enough though."
"On the artificial surfaces, I blow the tarmac courts surfaces off weekly and check for moss and algae. If I find any, I will spray off using glyphosate, but this is only required maybe two or three times a year."
Peter considers the local flora and fauna to be very important. "We have specific areas set aside for wild plants to thrive and I never cut a hedgerow until late August to allow nesting to finish. I have an owl box and kestrel box ready for placement and various tit and other boxes dotted around the site. We also have orchards to encourage bees."
"When I started here in 2005, my kit stood in an old, roofless, brick shed and two containers with tarps over everything. Then, one day in 2009, the new bursar walked into one of them and realised how bad the conditions were. She immediately made plans for a new, purpose built tractor shed/workshop to be erected next to the sports pavilion, which I now occupy gratefully."
"The other main project in recent years has been the reconstruction of the sportsfield. Work began in March 2010 after I had reported that the drains had packed up working and we were losing 80% of home fixtures. Quotes were obtained and Melvyn Taylor of Turfdry was asked to carry out the works. in hindsight, he probably wishes he hadn't won the contract! I'll let Melvyn tell you the problems they encountered."
"We were told there weren't too many problems with the pitch," Melvyn explains, "but, as soon as we drove the machines onto the surface, they started bouncing up and down. It was like driving on a trampoline. If we parked up a machine, within ten minutes there would be water over the tracks. It was like a sponge layer and the weight of the machine was pushing the water up out of the sponge."
"When we dug a hole of, say, a metre deep, the water would just pour out of the sponge layer and fill it up within seconds!"
"We had to dig through this sponge layer, which was around 150mm thick, and install deep drainage at 800mm to take this water away from the layer as much as we could. We put in 6" twin wall pipes, but to dig the trenches was a nightmare. We were literally working in water and in danger of losing our machines, I have never seen anything like it. And this was across the whole 20,000m2 area."
"Across the bottom of the site, we found a row of chambers close together. We did as much research as possible and reckon the site had been an army camp in the First World War ... and we had unearthed the old latrines! We also learned that, between the wars, the field had been used for a fete and there had been a fire of some sort. A fire engine was called and the story goes that it is still buried in the field somewhere because they couldn't get it out!"
"We never found it, but we did discover some old plastic land drains which, when we cut through them, were full of water. This would then pour out into what was already a soggy mess, and form huge ponds which we would have to pump out. We had serious concerns that the job might be impossible to complete."
However, twelve months later, after enormous perseverance by the Turfdry team on a job that had been scheduled to take just a couple of months, the main drainage was finally put in at 4m centres and the site prepared for seeding. A perennial rye grass mixture was chosen for its quick germination habit and for coping with the conditions. "We have not lost a single fixture here due to ground conditions since the drainage was installed four years ago," confirms Peter, "even though rainfall seems to be more prolonged and heavier in recent years. Turfdry were exemplary."
"Whenever I go abroad, people always tell me that British groundsmen are the best and, yet, I think we are still undervalued. But, it's a conundrum, as you only have to watch major sport on TV from places like the Emirates, Wimbledon or Lord's to see how highly respected our work is. What bigger and better profile do we need?"
All school images courtesy of the school's marketing manager, Annabel Brown
Drainage images courtesy of Melvyn Taylor
What's in the shed?
00 litre fertiliser spreader,
Landini 150 tractor
Ransomes Parkway 2250
Westwood garden tractor
Honda pedestrian rotary mower
Mountfield pedestrian rotary mower
Major roller mower
Stihl strimmers x 2
Stihl 14" chainsaw 14" and
Stihl 25" chainsaw
Linemarkers x 2
1000 litre water bowser and tractor mounted jetter.
Sisis 24 slitter
"I don't get a budget and never have done. I am free to purchase essentials but, if I need any large machinery, it has to be managed by the bursary and these items are usually purchased outright. We use a local dealer where possible."
"Servicing is undertaken by Twyford Tractors; they never let me down."
"My wish list would include a Verti-drain and a large, walk-behind cylinder mower."
"I do hire in a side-arm flail for large hedges and ditch banks, and also diggers and overseeders, which I operate myself."