Julius Caesar landed here, the Duke of Wellington lived and died here and its castle has been, for over 200 years, the official residence of the Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports. Tranquil Walmer, on the Kent coast seven miles from Dover, has much to recommend it. On a warm, glowing September day it was a sports club that took Neville Johnson there to meet the man in charge of its splendid playing surfaces
Walmer Tennis and Croquet Club has been running since 1883. Its address, Archery Square, reveals something of its past when bows and arrows were as much used for sporting endeavour there as the wooden racquets used by players - men and women - clad from head to foot in true Victorian modesty.
These days, 120 or so members serve and volley there and about 80 others do battle through hoops. The tennis and croquet interests run separately, but share the same superb site. An honesty bar in the club's timbered clubhouse, called Racquet and Mallet, where you put the money for your drink in a box, says it all about the friendly nature of the set-up, as does its President, John Cresswell, who welcomes me.
John, who comes from a horticultural background, has been a tennis-playing member since 1968. When he retired twelve years ago from running a successful tomato growing business nearby, he had the time and the inclination, as he puts it, to take a more active part in club matters. He describes himself as groundcare organiser. You could say he's gone from red to green.
"You never get a queue of people volunteering to take on responsibilities at sports clubs, do you? I was just in the right place at the right time," he said.
There was a time when he did much of the physical work himself, but he turns to an outside contractor more these days. This is partly a sign of ju st how difficult it is to get volunteers, he reckons, but as much as anything, it's a way of avoiding the risk of making mistakes. With an ironic smile, he tells me of the time a court was weed killed because Round Up was mistakenly used instead of a turf herbicide. His fault entirely, he admits, but it showed how decisions made in haste can quickly spell trouble. Members would rather pay a bit more and get someone else to do the work was his honest assessment.
As the morning went on, it was clear this was a perfect example of a sports club working in harmony with a contractor. The Walmer club did seem a blueprint for using professional services sensibly and to best effect.
There are eight courts, six of them grass, with a pair of hard courts that were converted from grass twenty or so years ago. At the top of the site is the croquet lawn which, John tells me, is used for golf croquet, reckoned to be more sociable and competitive than the Association version of the game. A foursome is playing, not on the lawn, but on tennis courts three and four, because autumn renovation of the surface is under way. Such is the relaxed and friendly nature of what goes on at the Archery Square site.
During the war, the club site was taken over by the Navy as a defensive position. It consequently became a jungle. After the war, a local farmer and keen tennis player, Guy Steed, used his farm machinery to bring the courts back to a playable state but, as the years rolled by, annual additions of topdressing created a plateau, with the court edges sloping away rather like a cricket square. There was a general unevenness too.
The decision was taken, about eight years ago, to have two courts - seven and eight - and the croquet lawn laser levelled. This was carried out by a specialist, Norman Hollingsworth, who had done work at Roehampton and Hurlingham, in conjunction with contractors C & W Groundcare, who look after the regular renovation work at the club and were on site now beginning the first phase of this year's.
At the same time as the levelling, a fully automated irrigation system was installed. John, with his professional knowledge of irrigation from taking care of two acres of hydroponic tomatoes under glass, was a real money-saving bonus to the club because he was able to conduct installation of tank, ring main and four pop-up sprinklers per pair of courts himself. No longer was watering a random affair, relying on hosepipes and volunteers.
No pun, but this and the laser levelling, completed a couple of years later on courts one to four, were a watershed for the club in terms of its playing surfaces. Since then, it has offered players a level of court quality that's as good as anywhere, certainly in the county of Kent. Having a truly flat surface has eliminated the problems of water run-off's highs and lows. Grass growth is even and the bounce of the ball consistent.
John tells me they have an effective and, when you think about,it rather obvious way of minimising surface wear and tear. They turn direction of play ninety degrees every five to six weeks through the playing season from May to the late September. This has the effect of changing the pressure points, notably the baselines. They have twice the number of net posts and sockets to accommodate this manoeuvre. The setting sun can be a discomfort to players, so to see that important matches and tournaments avoid this, the pairs of courts are alternately switched around, making sure there are always north-south courts available. It's a simple course of action, and one that John reckons is unique to the Walmer club.
"When we know we're going to make a switch, we stop marking, let the lines fade a little, and then wash them out with a hose," said John.
Linemarking and mowing is the main role of the only paid groundsman, Derek Richards, who is on court three mornings a week; twelve hours typically. He and John, who says he pretty much does filling in and odd jobs these days, plus two other willing volunteers handle the club's routine upkeep.
"For isolated or localised occurrence of fusarium and the like, we tackle it ourselves but, if there's ever a need for the whole complex to be treated, then I call in C&W Groundcare," said John. "They've been handling all our annual renovation work and any major projects for more than ten years now and do a terrific job."
"It's a matter of being realistic about the time involved, and our resources. We can spot treat virtually any of the usual nasties but, if I notice something more widespread, I give C&W's Andy Chapman a call and they are here quickly to sort it out."
C&W is based at nearby Ash and cover a radius of fifty miles. Andy Chapman, joint-owner, says the firm specialises in cricket, tennis and bowls and also handles grounds maintenance for about forty schools in the area.
As usual, the autumn renovations are starting at the top end of the grounds, the croquet lawn and courts seven and eight. Andy, and two of his team, were ridding the courts of their lush green and turning them a wasteland brown. Messrs Graden and Sisis were doing the deed.
"Some members are still uncertain about such apparently drastic action, and don't realise how much work goes into keeping their courts looking and playing so well," said John as, sitting 100 metres or so away outside the clubhouse, we saw dust rising like smoke from the 'destruction'.
The renovation is deliberately a two-phase operation, so that play can continue for as long as possible. As the glorious late summer weather stretched deeper into September, that was especially welcome this year. A pair of courts - and the croquet lawn - are closed early in the month for attention, then C&W return in a couple of weeks to complete the work on the remaining four grass courts. Each phase lasts five or six days.
"We treat the court surface very much like a cricket pitch, taking it back to minimum. It does look extremely harsh, but it pays dividends," said Andy, taking a break from the dust.
"Once clearing is completed, we'll water the surface before tining and reseeding. We use a John Deere Aercore to solid tine down to a maximum three inches. The croquet lawn is treated a little less harshly, as much as anything because play continues year round."
For reseeding courts seven and eight and the croquet lawn, C&W are using a 100 percent ryegrass mix, but Andy says he plans to use Bar Extreme for courts one to four by way of a trial.
Once reseeding is complete, all of the surfaces are topdressed, using sieved matter from a still massive soil heap created when the two tarmac courts were constructed twenty or so years ago. Andy will come back a few weeks later to check germination progress and put on worm control, plus fungicide to keep fusarium and dollar spot in check, though these are seldom widespread or serious headaches.
After establishment, Andy and his team return with a Verti-drain through the winter to deep spike with a little heave. During the growing season, they will verti-cut as and when required to thin out, especially ahead of a tournament.
Fairy rings have cropped up in recent times, caused by mycelium in the soil, but this has been a minor annoyance and now seems partially under control. Andy says he finds a wetting agent will help to contain it.
"We are very traditional here and I think most of us would like things to carry on the way they are. We still have club teas on a Saturday and Sunday afternoons you know," said John.
"There are issues, of course, one being the wearing of coloured clothing on court. Some think white gives an impression of being elitist and allowing coloured kit would be moving with the times, perhaps encouraging more members."
It's about a 50-50 split on the clothing question, apparently, rather like the Scottish one that was yet to be decided this mid-September morning. The Walmer club had made a decision though and, for first time in its 130-year history, coloured clothing had been allowed this year.
"We are not a wealthy club, but we do have funds and, if something needs doing, we get it done. The playing surface is all-important to members; more than anything else for most of them. There is always money available for necessary measures to maintain our high standards.
As one himself, John says that tennis players will always say grass is the best surface. It's faster, yet easier on the feet. It looks better too. "It isn't lawn tennis on asphalt or wood, is it?" he asks.
Looking at the excellent courts yet to get the C&W treatment and, given that they've been played on daily for over five months, who am I to argue?