Located in magnificent scenery between the Lake District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales, Sedbergh School is renowned for its top-level achievement in a wide variety of sports, with boys and girls featuring prominently in national and international teams. Lee Williams caught up with Grounds Manager Martin South who, along with his trusted team, have vastly improved the playing surfaces since he joined twenty years ago.
Sedbergh School (founded in 1525) covers a vast fifty-six hectares of land, with seventeen hectares dedicated to sports, including cricket, rugby, hockey, tennis and many more. The rest of the site is split between buildings, gardens, grazing and woodland. Sedbergh Casterton Preparatory School sits on twelve hectares of land, including another three hectares of playing surfaces.
When Martin South first joined the school and tested the soil profile, the first 200mm on the winter sports pitches was described as 'sandy clay loam' with fines at around 50%. Combined with rainfall between 1.4m-2m per year and no known drainage system, this explained why the surfaces were black for most of the winter. "On our main areas; Buskholme 1st and 2nd XV pitches, we introduced little and often sand-spreading throughout the playing season; totalling around two hundred tonnes. At first, it was like throwing flour onto wet dough but, coupled with overseeding using Barenbrug Bar 7, a perennial ryegrass mix, alongside a sensible nutrition programme, we began to see changes in stability and grass cover."
"This helped persuade the school to expand that maintenance style to two other pitches so, out of the seven rugby pitches, we now have four that perform well - considering the extensive use and climate we are in. More recently, footfall has risen through pupil numbers and holiday academies, so we need to expand the level of maintenance further and possibly build more pitches."
"General cutting of the outfields and rugby pitches is carried out two to three times a week at a height of 20mm (during the growing season), raising to 35mm in the winter, with a Baroness LM3210 and John Deere 900. The main cricket outfield is cut at 12mm, raising to 19mm with the John Deere 7500E. Cricket squares are cut with a mixture of John Deere 220, 260 and Dennis FT610 pedestrian mowers."
"The main cricket outfield has a thatch problem, but we recently purchased a tractor-mounted Graden and Amazone Groundkeeper SmartCut which has made a huge difference. A regime of spring/autumn scarifying, verti-draining, sand dressing and tank mixing seaweed, wetting agent, and light nutrition will further encourage microbial activity and help to control it."
"We are lucky to have built up a reasonable kit list over the years. So, most sports turf surfaces are Verti-Drained - up to four times per year (at varying depths with different tine sizes keeping them open), with roots extending to 150-200mm."
Presentation is important to Martin, as this is the first thing people see when visiting the school, but playability and plant health rank higher. "It's really important to get those right then, consequently, presentation should be covered. I certainly don't fertilise and cut to make it green and stripy."
Martin must be careful when considering what fertiliser he applies to the playing surfaces. "We have highly fertile soils so we need to be cautious with fertilisers but, with high footfall on the rugby pitches, we need something ticking away in the background whilst tank mixes of Seamax, Primo Maxx and nitrogen help strengthen and condition pitches. I have found ICL Sierrablen coated fertilisers work best for us and, for the cricket square, we get great results using ICL Greenmaster granules."
"For rugby end of season renovations, we hire a two-metre Vredo Supercompact Seeder to bury Barenbrug RPR Sport seed at 12-15mm under the surface; seeding takes place around Easter when soil temperatures are around 12 degrees. On Buskholme, renovations usually take place after the Sedbergh Tens competition (where sixteen teams play over two days), so it is sometimes a battle to get an acceptable outfield for the under fourteens cricket games that follow."
"We then have Easter Sports Academies to contend with after we have seeded some areas. This is an impact from modern marketing we have had to get used to; unfortunately, it is not ideal for pitch recovery, but it provides extra revenue for the school."
"For cricket, as individual pitches are used, we scarify and reseed with Barenbrug Extreme, a 100% perennial ryegrass mix, to get the grass back in the surface. If we have not made a good start on the end of season renovations by mid-August, we can get washed out. Our Graden and SmartCut have made it easier to perform several passes in less time to beat weather patterns. We then seed at a rate of 35-70gms/m2 and topdress using Ongar Loam on the main square and Boughton County on the rest."
Alongside the many natural grass surfaces Martin and the team maintain daily, he also has to find the time to keep the school's artificial surfaces in tip-top condition. "We carry out regular drag brushing and power-brushing when weather and time permits. Short corners are re-levelled and marking is done with semi-permanent synthetic turf coatings to save marking time. We can suffer from moss and algae around the perimeters, especially in such a wet climate. We do our best to try and keep it under control, but sometimes we have to call in the contractors with better machines to get surfaces back on track."
In the past twenty years, many projects have been undertaken to help improve the school's playing surfaces. Martin tells me about the projects that have had the most impact. "During my time here, we have relaid most of the first eleven cricket squares. This was all carried out in-house and has contributed significantly to the rise in standards of cricket at Sedbergh, leading to fixtures with Durham, Lancashire and Yorkshire Academies and, more recently, hosting Lancashire County Cricket Club first eleven fixtures."
"In 2013, Duncan Ross Land Drainage Ltd put primary and secondary drainage into our under sixteen rugby pitch. Primary drainage went in at four-metre centres, with secondary planned at one-metre centres but, due to the rocky nature beneath of Silurian blue rag sandstone which was ripping the tooth mountings from the whizz wheel, we settled for two-metre centres with a plan to sand groove at a later date."
"In 2016, we built a new ten pitch second eleven square. Local contractors carried out the groundwork and Turfcare Specialists Limited finished the last 150mm with Boughton County Loam. Working with 180 tonnes of loose clay loam in our climate was not easy, but we now have a very useful second eleven cricket square."
The hard work Martin and his team have put into the playing surfaces over the years and major investment from the school has paid off in a big way. Attracting the likes of Lancashire CCC is a massive achievement and something they should be proud of. "We have hosted Minor Counties Cricket at Sedbergh since 2006 and, more recently, Sedbergh First XI have played against Lancashire, Yorkshire and Durham Academies. We've always had good feedback on the surfaces produced, so when Lancashire CCC was looking to take the game further out to fans, Sedbergh became a place of interest. Then, in 2019, we hosted our first Championship four-day game; Lancashire CCC v Durham CCC."
"We are now seeing the fruits of our labour. With the combination of good surfaces and tireless coaching opportunities from Martin Speight, pupils have the chance of professional cricket contracts."
"It is so pleasing to see pupils hone their skills, do well and, the next minute, you're watching them on TV smashing it into the stands. Ex pupils who recently signed professional contracts at Yorkshire CCC include Harry Brook, George Hill and Matthew Revis."
I asked Martin if there are any differences in prepping a wicket for the arrival of Lancashire CCC compared to a regular school first-team match? "There is only a tiny difference in preparation from the pitches we produce for school to the ones we produce for county cricket. We'll have a slightly larger window of prep for County of ten to fourteen days, so a bit more brushing and rolling is undertaken. Essentially though, if we get the time, we try to replicate this for all matches so that our pupils experience what it is like."
Wormcasts have become a real pain when trying to maintain a certain standard of presentation. "Most of the chemicals we used to rely on to prevent wormcasts, leatherjackets and chafer grubs have been revoked. As groundsmen, we are all having to adapt the way we work. Our primary concern is wormcasts so, to try and help reduce the amount of smearing, we are introducing more sand dressings. Weed control is mainly done in-house, but contractors are used on the Prep School sports field."
Helping Martin maintain the surfaces to a high standard, including the school's many garden areas situated throughout the site are: Richard Mason, Senior Groundsman and Martin's right-hand man - who has been by his side for the last twenty years. Dan West; Groundsman (nine years' service), Sam Moore; Groundsman (four years' service), Ian Frost; Head Gardener (twenty-two years' service), plus Gardeners Will Johnson (twenty-two years' service), John Woof (five years' service), Colin Grundy (four months) and Darren Parkin (three months).
Ecology is very important to the school and the pupils are encouraged to get involved in the upkeep of the local flora and fauna, which is in abundance around the large site. "We have two wetland areas; the Bruce Loch and Old Peculiar Pond, where the school have a conservation group of pupils and staff under the watchful eyes of teachers Dr McMeechan and Dr Worgan. Bruce Loch has recently been dredged, making a larger body of water and encouraging new growth. During mid-June, the place was alive with Damselflies."
"The various collections of trees around the site are largely maintained in-house and we work closely with the Yorkshire Dales National Park. For any significantly large trees that need to be pruned or felled, we will bring in a local tree surgeon."
"We have recently tried to encourage wildflower areas on the steeper banks. We used to Flymo, but now we just strim them a couple of times a year and it seems to be working as we have already seen Orange Hawkweed, Common Knapweed, Bush Vetch, Meadow Vetchling, Oxeye Daisy and Lesser Spotted Orchid."
2nd XI new square renovations before and after
It has been a tough eighteen months for all of us up and down the country, with the restrictions we have faced due to Covid-19 however, fingers crossed, this will be the last time I ask how the pandemic affected the way people have worked. "At the start, five from nine were furloughed, leaving two groundsmen and two gardeners managing two sites. Nobody likes the thought of a cut in wages, or to hear the word redundancy when there are bills to pay."
"The workload was obviously increased, but the saving grace was the arid spring which meant that grass didn't get away from us on the main areas and grass banks were left for most of the summer. It was essential that we kept on top of the main grass cutting and traded pitch prep time to renovate cricket squares that were not being used. We also noticed that, without the usual footfall, grass and hard surfaces had an increase in moss and algae. We continued to purchase materials and machinery, but with heavy justification."
"There has been a significant improvement in video communication, and the pandemic would have hit even harder without it. I think everybody's mental health has suffered to some degree - unless you had shares in Zoom or Teams. It was like being caged in on Groundhog Day. For me, a sense of purpose disappeared. I kept in touch with other groundsmen via video communication so that helped, but don't even mention home schooling!"
Back in his younger days, Martin had a dream to play professional cricket. Over a few years, he had trials with MCC Young Cricketers, Yorkshire CCC and Notts CCC, but it was not to be. "I had always helped at my home club Bradford Park Avenue - which was a county out-ground for Yorkshire CCC, so seeing pitches being produced for high-level sport interested me."
"I had a short spell at STRI whilst Park Avenue Cricket Ground was being assessed for YTS training then, in 1984, I started at Park Avenue on the scheme under Roy Whyatt. Roy had also worked in professional sport at Bradford City FC, so he taught me a great deal with a good mixture of mickey-taking. At the same time, I studied Horticulture and Sports Turf Maintenance at Shipley College."
"Roy moved on to Bootham School in York so, when Bradford CC merged with Bingley CC and Bradford & Bingley RUFC to make Bradford and Bingley Sports Club, I became the sole groundsman where I spent seven years - attracting Yorkshire's second eleven fixtures and league cup finals and also prepping three rugby pitches on the twelve-hectare site."
"In 1992, I moved to Giggleswick School as Head Groundsman, which was a steep learning curve into the demands of getting many pitches ready for different sports, but it gave me the chance to hone my skills and later develop two assistants; Craig Eccleston and David Worthington - who have gone on to become head groundsmen themselves."
"Then, in 2001, I joined Sedbergh School as Head Groundsman. I wouldn't say it has been easy and there have been many challenges along the way, but I'm proud of what the team and myself have achieved so far."
With Martin's many years spent working in the sports turf industry, I was interested in finding out his thoughts about how we could raise its profile. "In the last twenty years, our industry has become extremely commercial with people at the top squeezing as much revenue out of, essentially, the piece of turf as possible. There are now two codes of rugby playing in the same stadiums, also rugby and football sharing. Cricket has tents popping up in late January for nets, then T20 late September early October, not to mention the dreaded pop concert stuck in and around all of these. This has increased the pressures and expectations on ground staff, without a balance of reward. It seems to have become the norm."
"I think there are many ground staff that are undervalued undervalued in the Industry, which I think is leading to the shortfall. Demands have grown and I do not think people realise the sacrifices that are being made to deliver their particular discipline. There is a lot more science and research, so products and techniques have improved, requiring a need for better skills. Many years ago, a senior manager once said to me; I don't know why you spend so much time out there; it looks fantastic."
"I'm not sure how we would raise the industry profile. I dread having to tell people what I do. You are met with either a blank face or they say, oh - you cut grass for a living? It isn't rocket science, but It is a science and a skill with a tremendous amount of commitment involved."
When possible, Martin likes to attend industry shows, seminars and demo days such as SALTEX, BTME, ICL Independent School Seminars and Dennis/SISIS Seminars. "It's great to disconnect from the everyday routine, meet up with other ground staff to swap ideas, build friendships and take in the educational aspects of the seminars. Our garden staff also take trips to estate gardens for inspiration."
What's in the shed
John Deere 4720 66hp tractor
John Deere 4320 48hp tractor
John Deere 5415 74hp tractor and loader/pallet forks
Kubota M4072 74hp tractor
Baroness LM3210 fairway mower
John Deere 7500E fairway mower
John Deere X748 mini tractor deck
John Deere 260C/220C pedestrian cylinder mowers x 5
Dennis FT610 cylinder, verticutter and brush cassettes
Wiedenmann GXi8 Terra Spike
John Deere X758 mini tractor deck and snow plough
Graden GS04 scarifiers x 2 cassettes
Etesia Pro 53 LKX2 rotaries x 4
Bomag 2 tonne roller
Bomag BW75 1.4tonne roller
Brouwer TR235 300kg roller
Brouwer TR224 224kg roller
GKB SP300 sand spreader
Graden 1200 tractor-mounted scarifier
Amazone Groundkeeper SmartCut
ProGator 2030A & HD200 sprayer and cargo bed
Turfmech TM 300 Tornado blower
John Deere X304 mini tractor
Kleensweep Powerbrushes x 2
Rytec leaf collector
Trojan SPR 30 pedestrian sprayer
iGo Midi linemarker
iGo Markers linemarker x 2