The Mote cricket ground has the stuff of legend about it. Cricketers first strode out to play within this picturesque setting 165 years ago. England stalwart Colin Cowdray batted for Kent here and the world's fastest bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, later pounded the turf.
Standing on the outskirts of Maidstone, Kent, The Mote rose on the western fringe of Mote Park, then a 558-acre country estate. The first earl of Romney built a mansion there in the 1790s, before the second and third earls redeveloped the grounds in the mid-19th century, establishing cricket provision by 1857. That year, The Mote played Cobham to launch the site's senior level activity.
After purchasing the estate in 1895, Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted, and co-founder of the Shell oil company, extensively developed the cricketing acres, levelling the ground and turning the square ninety degrees in 1907 to allow them to host county cricket regularly. The Tabernacle, his private pavilion, erected between 1909 and 1910, remains a Grade 2 listed building.
Selling Mote Park to Maidstone Corporation in 1927 on the death of his father, the second viscount excluded the cricket ground from the sale, gifting it to The Mote Cricket Club. In its role as a Kent County Cricket Club outground, the venue hosted more than 200 first class matches between 1859 and 2005, the year the first eleven played their final game there.
"I loved watching Kent 1st at The Mote," recalls current head groundsman Howard Waters, "and bowled here for Maidstone Grammar School U18s before joining the cricket club itself in 2000. Aesthetically, it's one of the most attractive grounds in the county, enjoying uninterrupted views of the North Downs."
Head Groundsman Howard Waters
With two squares to tend, solo grounds professional Howard is kept busy from March to October, preparing the strips for a crammed calendar of fixtures for the Kent League club and local school sides.
This is Howard's second season employed by the club, after seventeen years assisting as a volunteer. "I enjoyed playing at The Mote and began volunteering for them the same year I joined - I passionately wanted to make the ground as good as I possibly could," Howard explains.
"The Kent CCC county week was in full swing in those days - a championship match then a one-day game was the usual format - so I had the chance to see some quality players."
End of an era
Four seasons ago, the venue hosted its final Kent second XI game, marking the end of an era. It had lost first class county cricket here in 2005, following an umpire's unfavourable report about the condition of the pitches.
"The Mote invested £12,000 for county standard wickets," Howard explains "but they were relaid to no avail. In any case, the main pavilion is in a state of disrepair and would cost around £1m for a replacement of a similar size."
The advent of the Twenty20 game in 2003 heralded yet another record at The Mote. "Australian batsman Andrew Simons scored 100 off 34 balls in 2004; the then fastest ton," recalls Howard. "All the more impressive given our long boundaries."
Howard himself played for The Mote against Lashings in 2003, when Pakistani bowler Shoaib Akhtar, the world's fastest, now retired, was in his prime.
In what has proved to be a portfolio career, Howard worked first for Maidstone council, gardening and mowing, before studying in garden design at Hadlow College.
While studying and volunteering at The Mote, he spotted a job advertised for Torry Hill Estate, near Sittingbourne, home of former Bank of England's Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Baron Kingsdown, and wife Lady Kingsdown, Kent CCC's former president.
"That was in 2007 and my first experience of being in charge of a cricket square," he explains. "It's been in play since the mid-19th century.
One of many private cricket grounds dotted around Kent, Torry Hill is one of the highest points in the county and boasts some spectacular views and exceptional parkland and well maintained gardens. "The Band of Brothers usually host around thirteen games a season at Torry Hill, the Cowdrays played there, as did former Surrey captain Rory Hamilton-Browne more recently," he says.
"I was working at Torry Hill full time, looking after the cricket ground a day a week, but mainly employed in the gardens until starting my own horticultural-related business in 2011. Howard still put in stints at The Mote meanwhile, especially during county week. When recruited full-time last year, he retained his commitment to Torry Hill and remains looking after the cricket ground.
County 2nd XI match in progress
"I aim to complete one and a half days a week through the cricket season, but sheep graze the outfield the rest of the year, and the square is fenced off."
After his years of volunteering at The Mote, Howard applied for the job of groundsman on a contract basis. At over fifteen acres, The Mote is one of the largest grounds in Kent and Howard is contracted for a 60-hour week between March and October. That commitment drops to a day a week in winter.
As a bustling cricket destination, The Mote has much to celebrate. "Colts U9-U11 and U16s cricket is really picking up. On Sundays, as many as eighty turn up for training," Newly relegated from Kent League's Division 1, The Mote rolls out four teams on Saturdays, plus mid-week and Sunday sides. Although struggling with "a lean patch", it has just recruited a professional coach to oversee seniors training on Wednesday. "He was a Mote first XI player, so knows the club inside out," adds Howard.
The strength of community sport here has attracted ECB funding and council grants for machinery, he adds. "Maidstone Primary Schools run their Quick Cricket tournament in June, whilst Maidstone Special Needs School stages a year 6 softball tournament that month too."
"Add to those the Kent schools U19s second X1s, Kent over-60s and the Australians over-60s events, all in June and you can appreciate how busy we are keeping the grounds in prime condition. Last year, we had 133 pitch hirings, including local corporate cricket and Muslim community fun days."
The main square holds twenty-four wickets, rivalling many test ground tallies - the bottom square nine, and two synthetic practice strips. "The top square takes far more time to maintain," Howard says. "A bit of a baptism of fire when I first took charge. Last year's hot period was a real challenge as we only have irrigation taps in the outfield. Greywater recycling is being considered as one way to cut costs of mains supply."
"I aim to do the basics, bringing in contractors for the autumn renovations in early September as this is a huge job for a solo groundsman. They hard scarify, overseed and topdress both squares - it's a three-day operation for five or six people."
Tasks like machinery grinding Howard also contracts out, but he tackles as much maintenance of the ageing machinery fleet as he can. "Both Tony and his predecessor Malcolm Bristow struggled to win funding for equipment."
"Malcolm worked here for forty years and is a groundsman of some repute, winning County Outground of the Year for The Mote many times. He works at Hollingbourne CC ground now, aged 84 and stays active, playing off an 11 handicap in golf. Malcolm and Tony are still on hand if I ever need help and advice."
Cricket takes a break later in July when the popular Ramblin' Man Fair touring rock festival comes to Mote Park, next door to the grounds. "The whole of the bottom square and one of the rugby pitches are occupied with up to 1,000 camping visitors and car parking," says Howard.
"The Mote provides food and bar services and extra toilet facilities are shipped in. We water surfaces well before the organisers turn up and all traces of the event have gone just a week afterwards."
"The first year here, bad weather caused major disruption and damage to the pitches, but a change in parking arrangements and better roadways have minimised that. The club receives a cut of bar and food receipts - we serve plenty of breakfast to hungover rockers."
Held over several days, the Fair features headliners The Darkness and Foreigner this year. Jethro Tull, Mott The Hoople, ZZ Top and Scorpion have all played the gig in past years.
All the way from Memphis - Mott The Hoople on stage at last year's Ramblin' Man Fair
It's a Family Affair
Still officially self-employed, Howard admits it's "a tough balance" to manage his other business commitments as The Mote alone is "a full-time job" with three squares to look after. Enter the family as willing assistants. "My partner Elina started working with me last year, marking out wickets by hand painting them, putting out boundary ropes, rolling and mowing. This season, she has got her first wickets out from start to finish and recently produced a fine wicket for the first XI. Five-year old William rakes and clears up while his mum's on the tractor."
"Living onsite is the key to me being flexible. I can use the sprinklers later at night at the coolest time of the day, for example, to most benefit the grass, then come out of the house to turn them off - and I can begin rolling as early as I Iike."
Even with that key advantage, Howard turns to other volunteers when needed to keep everything functioning. "Angus Fordham saved my bacon last year by keeping the cricket squares irrigated in the hot spell day after day."
In fact, volunteers are a vital element of the maintenance mix. "We have plenty of strimming to do and spend a day a week tackling the surrounds, with help from Bob Purfitt, a retired policeman and rugby club member".
Young William with Bob Taylor at Torry Hill / William is clearly a groundsman of the future
In his seventies, fellow volunteer Bob Taylor has helped Howard rolling the wickets and maintaining outfields for several seasons, dedicating four mornings a week to the task when able to.
"Even without the hours the volunteers put in, we spent 80-plus hours a week maintaining The Mote in the playing season. Maidstone Rugby club, who are also onsite, maintain their own pitches and surrounds."
"The challenge is keeping everything ticking over to the same standard, that of a 2nd XI county cricket venue, but I would like to prepare wickets for first class cricket if the opportunity arose."
The grounds have changed from days passed though, when the lower square sloped down to the river Medway. "The first terrace was created around 1900," Howard relates. "The Army levelled the second ground and rugby pitches in the 1950s."
"During the season, I strive to make the surrounds as attractive as I can. The site includes many stately oak trees, some 250 years old, populated by a variety of wildlife, including bats and owls."
"Ducks, swans, partridges and pheasants have been visitors to the ground, whilst our many resident crows peck at the hosepipes in dry weather to reach water."
Malcolm Bristow and Howard's partner Elina help out
Qualified arborists come in to prune the trees when needed; Howard chipping in with stump grinding and hedge work.
Under the spring maintenance, Howard applies ferrous sulphate to treat moss and green up the squares. "I don't fertilise the outfields, just weed-spray," adding that he has gained his knapsack and boom spray certificates. "I didn't spray at all last year because of the swelteringly hot weather."
Monthly applications of spring/summer fertiliser follow until July, with verticutting and mowing the squares and outfield to 13mm height of cut
Autumn/winter fertiliser is applied once, after spiking in early December. Blowers are busy at this time as the leaf fall takes hold.
His life devoted to cricket, Howard can claim the best of both worlds, having played the game at such an attractive setting, whilst keeping his favourite ground to the quality required of a venue attracting so many fixtures.
But dramatic change has come to the game of his youth, he reflects: "One of the sad aspects of cricket in schools is that there seems to be little enthusiasm for it now in the state sector or in grammar schools. It has become a private school pursuit, far more than it was even twenty years ago."
One reason why community engagement is critical in cricket's survival at grassroots level.