0 Battersea Ironsides - Tanks, but no tanks!

BatterseaIronside EricFerebeeBEMOne stop on from Clapham Junction and a short walk along the south side of Wandsworth Common is Battersea Ironsides Sports Club. It's a 4+ acre green site tucked into the London Borough of Wandsworth, known as much as anything for its HM Prison, though nowadays, in places, there's a chic feel creeping in, with the upgrading of terraced housing and coffee bars and restaurants springing up.

As I get closer to the club's ground it is a more down-to-earth Wandsworth. I'm here to meet Eric Ferebee, a club stalwart to end all club stalwarts, and Simon Mills, club member turned groundsman.

Simon is busy giving the cricket club's square an autumn/winter feed of Vitax Endure 5:5:20, so Eric tells me about the origins and history of Ironsides over a cup of coffee in the club pavilion. It's a story that shows how hard it is for amateur sport to exist, let alone prosper, in inner city surroundings.

First off, why Ironsides, I ask Eric? "In 1943, a Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment (Cadets), based at Clapham Junction, started up a rugby club and they initially called themselves The Ironsides, soon changing it to Battersea Ironsides," he says.

BatterseaIronside CricketSquare"They were a 'wandering' rugby club with no home pitch. Their headquarters was the Regiments drill hall in Battersea. Ironsides was the nickname for tanks, so it was an obvious direct association. By all accounts, it was very appropriate because they had a playing reputation that went with the name."

The Battersea Ironsides Sports Club today is a far cry from those early days and embraces cricket and football, as well as rugby. Eric calls it a three-pronged set-up, though each sport is run quite separately.

The military association is long gone, but the Club's origins are still an important part of its heritage, especially to the rugby section.

Battersea Ironsides Cricket Club began back in the 1950s and Eric has been its secretary for over thirty years. The football club followed soon after. Like their rugby counterparts, they were wandering sides with no playing home. This changed in the 1970s when there was an opportunity to share a ground owned by Wandsworth Council. Ironsides cricket and football paid for pitch and pavilion use there for a number of years. The rugby club paid for and used two other council pitches on nearby Garrett Green, which it continues to do today for matches.

It was 1983 when the club - all three sections - first made its home where it is now. At the time, it was owned by Holloway Properties, part of what became the Aviva Group. The then tenants were moving out of London and those running Battersea Ironsides saw it as an opportunity to get their own ground.

BatterseaIronside FootballPitch"A mixture of bank and personal loans and all the trauma of personal guarantors meant we were able to take it over. We had the best of intentions, but it was quite a short lease," recalls Eric.

"It came as no surprise that we had difficulty renewing this lease in 1990. We had found it hard to keep up our maintenance and repair obligations because absolutely everything was done by club volunteers."

"It was - and still is - Metropolitan Open Land, and in a conservation area, so any owner was limited in the type of re-development. However, after five years of negotiations and court battles, in 1995, we did get a new fifteen year lease. "

When that lease ran out in 2010, Aviva put the ground up for sale, as it did with the neighbouring Spencer Club's. Both clubs had the first option to buy and there was a general flurry of activity, not to say anxiety, over where the money would be found. Ironsiders were not keen on going down the personal loan route again!

One of London's iconic sporting charities came to the rescue - the London Marathon Trust. One of their objectives is to ensure the preservation of London sports fields and facilities and they came to the rescue and provided the cash for both clubs to purchase their grounds.

A separate company, London Marathon Trust Earlsfield Ltd, jointly owned by Battersea Ironsides Sports Club and the Spencer Club, was set up to own the freehold of the land each club occupied. It means that the Ironsides could be where they are forever. It was a big turning point for the club.

"No more rent payments and, generally, we were financially much more secure. It was a great relief," says Eric.

Prior to 2010, the club had a holding company, Battersea Ironsides Sports Club Ltd, of which Eric was a director. He has always been on the club's ground committee and, up to the London Marathon Trust help, he and a couple of club colleagues, notably Mick and Jean Peddle, had taken on the responsibility for the upkeep of the clubhouse, pitches and ground facilities. Without them going the extra mile, week-in week-out, who knows whether Battersea Ironsides would have survived?

BatterseaIronside JuniorsFellow Ironsiders recognised the huge contribution Eric had made over the years and nominated him for an honour and, in 2013, he was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to sport in Battersea.

You only have to look at numbers to see how well this small, multi-use site is doing these days.

In 1983, Battersea Ironsides had two cricket teams, two rugby teams and a football team, and no juniors at all.

Now, in the summer, there are four cricket teams playing in the Surrey Championship on Saturdays, and a Sunday team playing friendlies. Last season, there were 138 senior cricketers and 136 under age 15 juniors.

Battersea Ironsides Football Club runs four teams each weekend and has sixty-seven players signed-on this season, and the rugby club has four teams with eighty players vying for places each weekend. There is also a thriving junior rugby section, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. There are 870 boys and sixty-eight girls involved in this, making it one of the biggest junior rugby clubs in the country.

Last season was the best ever for Battersea Ironsides Rugby Club. The first fifteen won the Junior Vase at Twickenham, and also won the Surrey League and the Surrey Cup - a magnificent treble.

A local private school also uses the site on weekdays. Hornsby House School at Balham has used the ground for the past six years for football, rugby, cricket and netball. The school would like to secure a long-term tenure. Negotiations continue and, if successful, would open up opportunities for a 4G artificial grass training area; a much needed facility bearing in mind the numbers using the ground!

BatterseaIronside WornOutfield"Prior to 2010, our income only covered just being there for each of the Ironsides sections," says Eric. "There has been some leeway in terms of pitch care since then, but our resources remain very limited."

"The real problem is always going to be massive over use, and the overlapping of winter and summer seasons makes it worse. The outfield here is used seven days a week, and rugby training, in particular, takes a real toll. It's quite normal for sixty-odd players to be training in a limited area of the ground in all weathers." Judging by the mud in the changing rooms, quite a lot of the surface keeps being taken away!

"It's great to have growing numbers of players, winter and summer, and fantastic that now the rugby club has become so successful on the field, but it does present more and more pitch problems. We're the victims of our own success, you might say."

Eric then takes me on a tour of the ground. It has contrasting highs and lows. The football pitch looks verdant and inviting, as does the cricket square, where Simon Mills is near to finishing the mini granular fertiliser application. Beyond these two gems, on what is the cricket outfield, is a pitch area which, even in just mid-November, is heavily worn by a constant succession of school football by day and evening rugby training.

Worse still is what can best be described as a grass free area, where heavy mud is ameliorated only by visible signs of sand spreading. This, I'm told, is where the 4G surface will go if current plans reach fruition.

BatterseaIronside StudMarksIt's easy to understand such contrasts in appearance when you realise that the football pitch gets a maximum of say five hours play a week and the outer training areas can be subjected to twenty hours and more 'under the stud'.

It's 'cuppa' time for Simon and he tells me about his baptism into groundcare and how he does what he can to keep Battersea Ironsides' pitches half decent. As autumn turns to winter, it's all about keeping the outfield fit for winter games training and matches and, at the same time, keeping the hallowed cricket square in good shape.

He has been looking after the ground for five years, effectively taking over from Mick and Eric. He had no previous experience and, before the London Marathon Trust came along to change things for the club, he'd been report writing for a metal industry magazine and playing cricket for Battersea Ironsides at the weekend.

Simon's had no formal training, but says he owes a lot to Pitchcare courses. He's been on half a dozen: two cricket at Guildford, winter-pitch at Horsham, artificial surfaces at Southampton, and spraying at Telford.

"I really enjoyed these courses. They gave me masses of basic advice and I certainly got a lot out of them," says Simon. "Also of great help in learning the ropes has been Steve Irons, the head groundsman at our neighbours, the Spencer Club."

"Unfortunately, we are still very limited in what we can do with the budget and equipment to hand. I have to use a Westwood ride-on to cut the outfield areas all year round, though I do have two old, but decent Toro and Ransomes Auto Certes pedestrians for cutting the square. A small sarrel roller is all I have for aeration at the moment."

BatterseaIronside ATBoneSimon is helped twice a year by contractors A T Bone, who carry out end of season renovations. The spring visit is the most crucial for the club and, last year, Simon tells me twenty-five bags of a high wear tolerant creeping rye grass seed were needed to recover the bare outfield after a particularly heavy winter of rugby training and football. As well as reseeding work, the late March restoration routine includes verti-draining and topdressing.

Simon's an opening bat for the Ironsides 2nd XI and admits he has a vested interest in seeing that cricket's use of the ground is looked after especially well. Scores have been steadily rising, he says, since he's been involved in pitch work, with games generally lasting longer, and he reckons better pitches may have something to do with it. He averaged almost fifty for the first time last summer, and scooped up the cricket club's Player of the Year award at their recent presentation evening. So, groundsmanship is definitely paying off for him.

"I admit I enjoy grounds work in the summer more than over winter," he says. "It is soul destroying watching some areas deteriorate as they inevitably do, but A T Bone do a tremendous job for us each year and I know they will again next March."

BatterseaIronside SimonMillsSimon has ten grass strips on the club's square to look after, plus an artificial one for the juniors, which requires little more than post-winter jet washing to remove silt and moss to keep in trim.

"Not counting the football and school's play, it's the eight hours or so a week rugby training that's the biggest issue as far as surface deterioration is concerned," says Simon.

"All I can do with what we refer to as rugby's mud area is just flatten it out with tractor-towed chains now and again and distribute sand over it. The ground is saddled with the training regime because there are no floodlights at the Wandsworth Council rugby pitches up the road. Despite the problems, we're all delighted, of course, that the rugby team has done so well. They certainly train hard and just love the mud."

It's what Ironsides' life is all about; a balancing act between the different sports. So much sport, so little space. It's just one big battle.

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