0 Under pressure at Crosfields School

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Crosfields School is one of the leading co-educational schools in the country, educating pupils between the ages of three and thirteen. Grounds Manager Stuart Gower has had a varied career, spanning forty years, and we paid him a visit to find out why this is the opportunity he couldn't turn down.

Grounds Manager Stuart Gower

Stuart found his way into the industry whilst unemployed in the 1980s. His first job as a groundsman was at the Metropolitan Police Football Club Ground (Imber Court Sports Club) in East Molesey. Stuart explains: "It was a bit daunting at first, but I slowly settled in. I was given the opportunity to go to College at Merrist Wood, Surrey where I gained my City & Guilds Levels 1 and 2 in Sports Turf Management and my PA1, 2 and 6 spraying certificates. I was at the sports club for nine years, looking after first-class football, tennis, rugby, cricket and bowls - we once even hosted American football."

"In 1998, I had to leave for personal reasons and joined the Royal Mail but, by 2005, I was getting the bug to get back in the industry. I was given the opportunity to work at the Hurlingham Club, Fulham with Peter Craig and Neil Harvey and, as you can expect, this was a great job in which I gained some valuable experience. After several years, I joined Nick Eastway at The Royal Wimbledon Golf Course, trying my hand at greenkeeping. Then, in 2010, I took a position as Deputy Head Groundsman at Rokeby School in Kingston; this was a brilliant little job based off-site from the school at Worcester Park. The standards were very high for a school and they have actually just got into the top one hundred cricket schools in the country. I left there in 2014, before joining Ibstock Place School in Roehampton as Site Manager. This was a small site with two full-size football pitches and a lot of training areas, but then, nineteen months ago, this job came up at Crosfields School and it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down."

Based on Shinfield Road, Reading, just two miles away from Reading FC's Madejski Stadium, Stuart and his team are responsible for the upkeep of the forty-acre site, which includes the main field and backfields which are constructed on a natural sand based rootzone. Summer sports include cricket, football and athletics then, in winter, they accommodate rugby, mini rugby and various training grids. The two all-weathers are 18mm sand-filled carpets which host hockey, netball, football, tennis, cricket and tag rugby. There is also a lower field which is currently under construction.

All fields have some form of drainage, with a limited irrigation system Stuart can call upon in the summer months. "The main fields drainage system runs off towards the main road, and the backfield drains off down the slope away from the school. It does work well, but I supplement this by keeping them opened up as much as possible. Implementing a regular aeration programme of slitting every other week and terra spiking at least once a month, at a depth of twelve inches, helps to keep the pitches playable in the wet spells," Stuart continued.
"We have static sprinklers dotted around the site, which link into five water points. Water pressure isn't the best as we don't have a pump house; they are connected directly to the mains. The school has a swimming pool and, if we are really struggling, we can tap into this and up the pressure a little bit which helps. Having said that, it can be a real struggle in summer. Last year, I would come in at 5.00am to get the water on, which went on for weeks. We have to constantly move the sprinklers to get good coverage, and we will hand water the worst areas. This process continues throughout the day, until it's lights out, but the hard work is worth it."

This January, Stuart felt the full effects of storm Brendan, which brought winds of up to 80mph and heavy rain. "The winds caught hold of one of our portable goals and a wicket cover, which meant they were both severely damaged and needed to be replaced. Several old oaks trees were blown down around the site, which was very disappointing to see."

Stuart talks me through the maintenance of the artificial surfaces and the grass pitches. "The new artificial pitch was opened at the end of 2019 and, to help maintain this, we recently purchased a Charterhouse Speed-Brush. This will be used every other week to brush the surface of both the all-weathers - if we can get on them. In the autumn, it can be a nightmare trying to keep them clear of leaves; some days there can be three of us with blowers trying to clear it against the clock, as timing is critical. A lot of the markings are already on there, but still, we do have to manually mark for external uses, like netball and cricket, using a spray marker and specially formulated marking paint. Then, it is just a matter of keeping our eye on the weeds and moss."

"In summer, we will cut the pitches with the Trimax Snake between 25mm and 28mm, depending which sport is being played. Subject to the weather and the school's busy sports schedule, I like to cut at least two to three times a week. The schedule can sometimes be a nightmare, but we try and get around this by having staggered start times. The Amazone Groundkeeper is used once a week to clean up the surface, removing any clippings and debris left behind. With the various amount of sports we have to cater for, we continually have to mark out throughout the season; we tend to overmark every week, using strings and a spray marker."

Stuart took advantage of the Easter break to carry out some mid-season renovation work on the pitches. "We hollow-cored the three main pitches, with ¾ inch tines, using our Wiedenmann Terra Spike XP8. We then recycled the cores using a drag mat, to break them up and re-incorporate them back into the surface before picking up the debris left behind with the Amazone Groundkeeper. Following this, we topdressed with twenty tonnes of sand per pitch, using our own topdresser and then overseeded with a ryegrass seed mix. Finally, we applied a pre-seed fertiliser."

Stuart likes to adopt a more granular-based fertiliser programme throughout the season due to time constraints and the lack of water available in the summer. "We will use a conventional granular product at the start of the season to help kick start growth. This is then followed by the application of various manufacturers' slow-release polymer coated products. To help prevent disease and strengthen the plant, I have started to use disease prevention packages that include phosphites, iron and seaweed. Since starting to use these products, I have seen a big difference in recovery and disease stress has been reduced significantly."

Helping Stuart look after the site is groundsman Steve Herring, who has served the school for over twenty years. He is chainsaw qualified and has been on a Lantra tractor operated flail course.

The school has a good relationship with their local machinery dealer, Lister Wilders, who they use to supply all the equipment. "The school have bought most of their machinery from Lister Wilders throughout the years. We recently got a great deal through their local rep Lee Hatton on the Charterhouse Speed-Brush, which was purchased outright, and the Trimax Snake which is on hire purchase. The majority of servicing and repairs is carried out by them, and they do a great job for us. I do like to stay loyal to Lister's, but if anything took my fancy that they don't sell, I would have a look at it. I would love to purchase an Air2G2; we have had one on hire in the past, and I think it's a magnificent piece of kit, but they are not cheap!"

A big project that will hopefully be completed in the summer is the construction and redevelopment of the lower field, which used to be part of a nine-hole golf course. "Most of the construction has been carried out using recycled materials already on-site, but the contractors have got to come back in and finish off what they left because of the bad weather we have been experiencing. It's then down to us to finish off the construction of the new cricket square over the summer holidays, which I'm looking forward to."

Stuart believes the sports turf industry is good to be involved in but can be ruthless at times. "I enjoy it, but you never know what's around the corner. The industry is changing daily; one minute you have a product, the next it has been taken off the market. I don't think groundsmen and greenkeepers get the recognition they deserve, and the general public don't appreciate the amount of work that goes into providing a quality playing surface."

A brief history

Crosfields became an independent Preparatory School in 1957. However, its roots can be traced back to a school in Castle Street, Reading called Marlborough House, established in the first half of the 19th Century. The school moved first onto the Bath Road and then, in the 1920s, to Park House, a private house in five acres of grounds on Parkside Road. (It is now the YMCA.)

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Headmaster Mr Makins approached Leighton Park School with a view to them taking over Marlborough House and thereby ensuring a continuity of education for the pupils. The boys moved into Townson House and became LP Junior School.

After the war, the Goodrest Estate was purchased by Leighton Park, and the Junior School moved there in 1946. The name Crosfields was chosen at a boy's suggestion in memory of Hugh Crosfield, an old boy and Governor of LP who had been killed in an air raid in 1944.

By the 1950s, the number of pupils had increased to around 100, both day and boarding. A recommendation by the Schools' Inspectorate that Crosfields should become entirely a day school was seriously considered and, in January 1957, the school became a non-profit making Trust with its own board of governors and, thus, independent, though with strong links to Leighton Park.

The school is essentially non-denominational with a long tradition of welcoming children of different religious backgrounds. Christian teaching is given, and strong emphasis is placed on moral principles of kindness, tolerance, good manners, honesty and a sense of responsibility to one another and oneself.

The original buildings - the White Building and the Stable Block - have been added to steadily over the last five decades as the number of pupils has risen.

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