Set in spectacular and secluded surroundings in the heart of the Shropshire countryside, Lilleshall is one of the UK's National Sports Centres, providing training facilities for a number of the national governing bodies and for the country's leading sportsmen and women.
Originally built in 1831 as the hunting lodge and family retreat of the Duke of Sutherland, Lilleshall National Sports and Conferencing Centre is set in quite spectacular surroundings, and is a flagship residential training centre and award winning National Centre of Excellence for many of the UK's top sportsmen and women. It is owned by Sport England.
The Centre is fully open to the general public and provides a base for numerous local sporting clubs and facilities include nine grass pitches (for football and rugby), two floodlit synthetic pitches (for football and hockey - one being an Olympic standard pitch which is used by England Hockey), three multi-purpose sports halls, indoor and outdoor archery ranges, a bowling green and orienteering course
The Centre is run by Serco Leisure, along with Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, on behalf of Sport England. Philip Coxill is the Operations Grounds Manager and has previously worked as a groundsman at Lilleshall. This experience has put him in good stead for a challenging role in managing the grounds and development of the site.
He also tries to inspire others in the team; Philip has a saying, that was taught to him by his manager, which has been adopted by all the staff at the national centres; "the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept", so he is constantly asking questions of the staff at the sites to maintain the highest standards.
Lilleshall is certainly a busy site, especially when all the pitches are in use. Philip has a staff of six; Peter Bolland is the Grounds Supervisor, who is supported by Ben Wenlock, John Silvester, Matt Haycox, Sam Arrowsmith and Julian Hardy. Julian is the longest serving member of the team, having recently completed forty years service.
The whole site is spread over 330 acres of sprawling Shropshire countryside, there are plenty of mature specimen trees planted in and around the historic hall which, additionally, is surrounded by an array of formal ornamental gardens.
Two members of staff are employed on the pitches and four on the gardens and informal grounds but often, during busy periods, everyone has the relevant experience to fill in and help each other out when needed.
The main drive to the hall is 1.8 miles long with an impressive avenue of Wellingtonia trees planted along both sides. The grass cutting of the verges either side of the drive usually takes a full day to mow.
The presentation of the grounds is always uppermost in Philip's mind; first impressions is a key driver, along with the performance of the pitches. With that in mind, every effort is made towards ensuring they are presented in the best light and are in the best condition for play.
All grass verges are cut and presented with stripes, litter is picked daily and shrub and flower beds are maintained to a high standard. That presentation continues through to the pitches, with neat line markings and even stripes, so that the wow factor is presented across the board.
The pitches are in use most days of the week, with weekends being fully booked by many teams. A lot of Football League clubs' youth sides also use the pitches, playing regular match fixtures during the football season. As well as football and rugby, there is also a big demand for high profile archery events on the sportsfields, which bring a new challenge for the grounds team to maintain the high standards set.
Lilleshall currently provides nine full size natural soil/sand based pitches, with six of them having primary/secondary drainage systems, enabling maximum use during the winter period. To date, there have been no cancellations on any of the pitches this year, mainly due to the robust maintenance programme that Philip has devised for them.
With such a demand on the pitches, and with so many events planned throughout the year, the groundstaff's end of season renovation programmes are often fitted in between fixtures. Generally, it is a case of scarifying with their Amazone, vertidraining, overseeding, topdressing and getting the pitches back into play as quickly as possible. Scarifying is a key part of the renovation programme and an effective way of removing unwanted debris and thinning out the sward.
The performance of the playing pitches are monitored monthly, testing for traction, volumetric water content, hardness and also visual appeal and evenness. The results are relayed to Philip and give a good indication of the standard of the pitches and what actions are required which, in turn, dictates the maintenance regimes.
Independent audits are also carried out twice a year through consultant company TGMS, who carry out external inspections of the pitches.
The maintenance of the sports pitches is dictated by what sports are being provided for. In the main, these are football and rugby during the winter sports period (July-April), and the summer period when the pitches are turned into archery fields.
General maintenance of the pitches is centred on the following; pitches are marked weekly, mown two to three times a week and aerated with either a slitter or vertidrain on a monthly basis. A Sisis Quadraplay is used after matches to restore playing surfaces. Philip says that the key is to clean up the surface as soon as possible after matches.
Pitches are scarified on a little and often basis to keep on top of any thatch build up. They are then fertilised, using both liquid and granular, to maintain vigour, colour and encourage deep rooting. The staff will hand divot after matches and then clean up with mowers and sweepers.
The groundstaff also look after a flat green bowling rink which is used by Lilleshall Bowling club. The bowling green is mown every other day during the playing season (April-September) along with other maintenance regimes that include verticutting, brushing, aerating and feeding.
At the end of the year, the staff carry out a typical end of season renovation which is centred on deep aeration, topdressing and overseeding. Going forward, fraise mowing will be part of the regime, including hollow coring.
In recent years, the centre has installed a number of new artificial playing surfaces; the old sand dressed one near the house is now home to Archery GB, with the two new water based ones being used for hockey and football. These are checked daily, swept regularly - a couple of times a week at least - and deep cleaned annually.
Lilleshall Hall and gardens are classed as Grade 2 listed historic facilities and need to be managed under guidance from English Heritage.
Serco are currently undertaking a large refurbishment programme that is part of a long term, twenty-one year plan, with money ring-fenced for restoring the gardens and grounds, along with the building of some new facilities.
Philip and Peter have already begun restoring some areas, working from old plans; they are trying to recreate how the gardens looked during the early 18th century.
The work is currently centred on removing some rhododendron plantations from around the bowling green, restoring an old Italian garden and herbaceous border, opening up the gardens with heavy pruning and removal of unwanted trees and shrubs and refurbishing some lawns. All of the prunings are chipped and recycled back onto beds or stored for composting.
The herbaceous border has been completely replanted with a wide range of herbaceous plant material that include; Lilac Beauty (Achillea millefolium), Honorine Jobert (Anemone x hybrida), Crimson Star (Aquilegia caerulea), Aster (Friartii monch), Bridal Veil (Astilbe x arendsii), Peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), Takion Blue (Campanula persicifolia), Sunray (Coreopsis grand), Pam's Choice (Digitalis purpurea), Karalee white whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri), Snowflake (Gypsophila paniculata), Elegans (Hosta sieboldiana), Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima) and varieties of Red Hot Poker including Kniphofia Tawny King and Kniphofia Royal Standard.
Over the next couple of years, with the borders planted, it will be a case of dividing up the plants to increase the collection.
Similarly, The Italian Garden has been completely revamped, with new box hedging (Buxus sempervirens) being used to form the main structure, along with some spot planting of Totem Pole Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). The rest of the garden has been infilled with a range of plants that provide colour, shape and texture, including Lavendar, varieties of Agapanthus, Lucifer, Acanthus, Sedum and Water Lilies.
The rest of the amenity grass areas around the site are cut on either a weekly or fortnightly cycle, depending on where it is. Formal lawns are cut weekly, whereas road verges and other off route grass areas are cut fortnightly.
It goes without saying that the staff at Lilleshall have to work very efficiently and require a lot of skill sets to cope with the diversity of the work they undertake. I am sure Philip and his team will be kept busy over the next few years, bringing the Hall back to its former glory.
It is always pleasing to see investment being made in historic grounds and gardens; they are a living landscape that needs to be preserved for the next generation.
What's in the shed?
New Holland 50/50 tractor fitted with Chiltern MXt8 loader
Wiedenmann Terra Spike XP8
Iseki TH4345 tractor
Iseki SXG22 tractor
Ransomes Commander 3520
Ransomes Highway 2130
John Deere F1445 outfront mower
Ransomes TM214 3 unit mower/scarifier
Amazone GHLT 150 flail collector
Selection of Dennis mowers
Hardi boom sprayer
Major Swift roller mower
Blec multi seeder 2
Trilo leaf sucker
Various Stihl equipment