The Wanderer settles down
I started my career as a trainee at West Byfleet Golf Club and progressed to work at two of surreys premier golf clubs.
I left the golf industry to work for Surrey County Council as a trouble-shooter, bringing in better machinery to do the contracts. At the time the F 24's had just come onto the market, the council machine of choice was the Toro Wheel Horse, it was slow and liable to breakdown, so I persuaded my bosses to change their fleet and we started to win contracts hand over fist.
After a while, I moved to BP Meadhurst, sports ground at Sunbury for Throwers the contractors. I was there for a year to sort out their problems. Throwers then moved me to Park Royal, which was owned by Guinness. This was a major step for me as I moved up from a 30-acre site to a 188-acre sports ground with all the sporting facilities to maintain, including a nature reserve and a railway, which ran around the brewery.
I then left Throwers for a job at Portswood Lawn Tennis club. (Why the move? Well my work had become more desk bound than I really liked and felt and still do that Head Groundsmen and Grounds managers need to stay active.) This was a small local club with big aspirations sadly the roll required was not quite me so after two years and some good grass courts I made the move to Bristol Lawn Tennis Club.
Once more the courts were in trouble and finances were tight to say the least but as so many times before things started to turn round, the courts improved and then the decision was taken to start digging up the courts so once more it was time to move.
The next move, which I hoped would be amongst my last as wedding bells were soon to ring for me was to Reading School. Unfortunately the promises made at the start were not to be brought to fruition and my time at Reading though short turned sour. The school and its dreams were all in place sadly the facilities manager did not understand the work we do except the fact that they also had a lawn at home.
The Hampton School site covers about 26 acres, and we also have another one and a half acres of playing fields at Denmead School, which is a junior school. The school houses over a thousand fee paying students ranging from eleven to eighteen years old, so it's not a small institution. It's also very forward thinking, there are new buildings under construction including eventually a swimming pool, so I feel proud being part of this progression. The school is a good school, achieving high academic results, but there is no complacency and will continue to improve all aspects of school life. There is a strong Old Boy network here at the school, with football matches and rugby matches played most weekends. In the summer, two of the cricket squares will be in use, just for the Old Hamptonians.
All of the pitches were very uneven, and the amount of grass on the pitches was poor. Although I have only been here for a short space of time, we have already implemented programs to improve the levels and quality of the grass sward.
One of my first jobs was to determine the make up of the ground, so I had detailed soil analysis done on all of the playing surfaces. The football surfaces averaged around 50% sand and 25% each of silt and clay. To my amazement the cricket squares have a sand content as high as 59% sand and clay as little as 19%. The school had voiced concern at the poor quality of the cricket squares, and
We will start work on the squares in due course to re-address the balance by hollow coring and funnel filling with a Kettering and Surrey loam mixture. I will also hope to use our Terra Spike to get some deep spiking with maximum heave, this will enable me to work more loam into the profile to provide a layer within, that I can then build a better surface on the top. Alternatively, and subject to funds, I may strip the top four inches off and replace with a good specified loam.
The school had experts in to advise them, prior to my arrival, all of who had done soil analysis and had not seemed to notice the high sand content in the top three inches of the squares. For me this is a worrying aspect of our profession, that people are offering advice, without a solid understanding of the job in hand.
There is still a large quantity of fertiliser here that was bought previously, much of which is not now necessary. With a soil analysis for each pitch, I have had to change the feeding programs to make them address the deficiencies that lie within the soil.
Within my budget, there is a renovation budget. The first eleven football pitch is my priority, so in the spring we will be re-levelling the pitch and laser grading the goalmouths. I hope to do this on all the football pitches over the next seven years on a rolling program. After that, I will look at the rugby pitches. The cricket squares are separate and will be revamped along side the football program.
I have four Ground staff here at Hampton, and then there is the caretaker at Denmead School, who spends part of his time on the Grounds maintenance there.
The lads have just had their first appraisals and the feedback that I got from them was tremendous. They all voiced that training and qualifications were very important to them. I spoke to my superiors about this and he agreed that the staff could go on formalised courses in return for their future commitment to the school. All of the staff here are paid in excess of the qualified IOG pay scale standards, so the boys are treated very well.
I have at the moment concentrated on just the playing surfaces and given the rainfall, it is apparent walking onto the pitches the difference that can be made with some good housekeeping. The Terra-Spike has been working hard since it arrived and to date has been over the pitches several times. The first pass with the machine showed me clearly what I was up against as the spikes struggled to penetrate much deeper than 3 inches. Now the machine is getting in to a twelve-inch depth. Once I realised the compaction and rooting problems were inherent, I used an old trick, which was to feed with a summer fertiliser and then deep spike seven days later. This enabled the fertiliser to get straight to the plant roots and we had a surge of root growth. Obviously a watch on the weather was crucial, but we didn't get any frosts until last week, so I was quite safe.
My plan centres on being able to look out across the fields next August and see a lush green field with cricket squares defined. It's all about the basics, you don't need a giant manual; just learn how to grow grass. It needs light, air, water and food, just like any other plant and saying that people.
The other myth that many people believe is the damage that rugby causes. I have found in practice there is actually less than half the damage caused by rugby players to their pitches against footballers to their surfaces.
With a multi-sport facility, the majority of the work is similar with a few subtle changes, but I often go to grounds where little or no aeration takes place and the grass isn't fed out of season. Having come from a golfing background, it is perhaps easy for me to apply a lot of what I learned to other sports. We used to work sand soil profiles and keep fairways free from water throughout the winter months. If you can keep a free draining surface, then the wear will never be so bad. This has to be coupled with use management, and at a school, the pitches are used maybe three or four times a week, but the younger kids do not cause too much damage, so this is a balanced argument.
This coming year I will have worked in the Industry for twenty years. I have worked hard to progress from a humble beginning to HND qualified, and I hope to do an MSc at Cranfield University with my work on Bio technology sugars. Having got married, I now want to enjoy where I am and feel that with the support of the school I can achieve my goals of providing playing facilities that will rival the best in the country within seven years.
The school ethos has placed emphasis on providing quality sports surfaces, Hampton School has a long standing reputation for producing great rowers, but would like to emulate this with Cricket, Rugby and Football players.
My initial big challenge will be to get some reasonable cricket played next summer. I spoke to the Cricket master and he informed that the tables couldn't get much worse! The previous Groundsman had rolled the squares repeatedly. Had he known how high the sand content was in the squares to start with, he wouldn't have been rolling them. The rolling actually brought the larger particles to the surface, in this case the sand, so the more that they were rolled the less bounce was likely.
As Head Groundsman, it is my duty to liase with School and staff and I find everything easier to explain with analogies. If you talk to a layman then the work we do is 90% presentation and 10% cultural practice, the reality as professionals is the opposite. Good cultural practice will give you good presentation.
Explain the reasons for the problems and how they are overcome using simplified terms. In the cricket scenario, I explained that sand is a large particle and lots of sand particles together is like a bag of marbles, lots of cushioning air space between them. Great for drainage and allowing water to pass, unfortunately not very good for cricket tables.
Clay and silt on the other hand are very fine particles that lock well together and allow far less air space, therefore compact well and provide a hard surface that the ball bounces well on. Replace the sand with the correct amounts of clay and silt and we start producing good cricket tables again.
Good explanation linked with cost effective remedy should win the day, whether it's implemented in one fell swoop or 'budgeted for' gradual improvement is up to the people holding the purse strings.
I like to keep very strong records, so I have set up my computer with databases to keep track of working diaries, budget expenditure, health and safety, staff records, consumables, weather and other items. When I first arrived, out of necessity, I spent alot my time out working with the team to make the most of the autumn weather, in improving the surfaces. Now I can spend my time more efficiently as we head into the winter, if I have spare time I'll go out litter picking on the field, because I can leave this job if I get called to deal with a problem, rep or meeting elsewhere.
The staff I inherited are good lads and it was refreshing that I didn't need to replace any of them. They are all committed to the schools future but were basically frustrated, unable to see any benefits from their hard work. Now they are still working hard, but enjoying it and with direction can already see the fruits of their labour. It's great to see them starting to enjoy their work and the willingness to improve themselves as well as the playing fields.
We have six artificial tennis courts and they were compacted and holding water. I got the lads to put the wire cylinders in the Sisis rotorake that were sitting in the shed and had never been used. We raked out all the old sand and grime from the courts and then brushed the courts. They looked 100% better afterwards and aren't holding the water now. They will need regular maintenance but that is now planned in on the work sheets.
One of my biggest bugbears with the industry is the 'keep information to yourself' attitude. There's something wrong with the Industry when I walk into a ground and meet staff of between three and five years service with no training or knowledge of the jobs that they undertake each day. Apart from the obvious, the health and safety implications don't bear thinking about.
I believe that it is my duty to train my staff to at least the standard if not higher than I have reached.
Health and safety is a key issue that I am addressing. On arrival there was one first aid kit, now there are six strategically placed in the offices, machine sheds and the vehicles.
Health and safety is a necessary evil, but now the staff have far better awareness of what they can do and what they can't. As they are constantly working around kids, they need to know the implications of their actions; after all else safety is paramount.
I have a long road ahead of me, a challenge I set for myself, the challenge the school has set me. I already have support with total backing, a budget that can be worked with, communication with my superiors, a team of guys biting at the bit. These are the things we need if Groundsmanship is to continue to grow we have to modernise to survive at every level.