Over the last few months, Trinity Fields Trust has undergone a transformation both on and off the turf. The charitable trust provides a safe space for disadvantaged children in the local community to play sport at their Trinity Fields base in Wandsworth, central London. After a slow decline in pitch quality over twenty years, they have now begun realising the site's potential.
Left to right: AgriPower Contracts Manager Euan McKenzie, Trinity Fields Trust General Manager Nurette Standford and Head Groundsman John Baigan
Originally, the fields were owned by two grammar schools who each had a pavilion on-site with a hedge separating it down the middle but, when the schools closed, they offered the land to Wandsworth Council who, after a while, handed it back to the owners Sir Walter St John Educational Charity (SWSJEC). It was at this point that the 'Old Boys' from both Grammars made an offer to manage the fields and Trinity Fields Trust was born.
Through the Old Boys network, funding was made for the drainage and the employment of a Head Groundman. The field was heavily used by the Old Boys Club, the local community and four local independent schools. The excessive use, along with a change in weather conditions and limited resources being invested back into the grounds or facilities, has contributed to the situation at the Field.
In 2017, the Sir Walter St John Educational Charity, who own the land, granted the Trinity Fields Trust a 50-year lease and, with that stability, plans began to be put in place. A major concern was the drainage which was installed in 1999 and never looked at again. Because of this, the fields began to hold water which resulted in field closures.
A well-intentioned but misguided effort to investigate the drainage in 2020 led to monumental damage to the pitches and served as the catalyst for the Trust to take action.
Fast forward to mid-September 2021 and the changes are evident. On the morning of our interview, there was 20mm of rain which previously would have meant a blanket call off of sport on the fields. Instead, when tunnels were being closed, and Tower Bridge was flooded, Trinity Fields was hosting football.
A problem needing solving
Ready to talk about the work that has led to this are Trinity Fields Trust General Manager, Nurette Stanford, Head Groundsman, John Baigan and Contracts Manager for AgriPower, Euan McKenzie.
Nurette, who has been in her role since April 2021, is refreshingly honest about the issues the Trust has faced with the land, but is equally as enthusiastic about the work that has gone on and why the Trust wants to improve.
"If I am ever having a bad day, I can come down here and see the kids playing sport; they are all loving what they are doing, and you think to yourself, that's why I'm here," Nurette explains.
"A couple of the local independent schools in the area are a key part of the new agreement and lease, so they support the fields and provide some of the investment we require. They use it for about 40% of the time, and the rest of the time, mainly at weekends, is for charitable and community use."
"I only started as General Manager in April, which is when the Trust started building more structure around the actual management of the fields, initially to help oversee the major works and support the substantial investment that has been made. Now the schools have a real vested interest in the playing fields and they want to make sure they are maintained and reliable."
"At the end of the school term in July, we had the Balham Cup, which is a local state school's football competition with under 11 boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon. It was organised by some of our key charitable partners and, from the reaction of some of the kids who played here, they thought they were playing at Wembley! It's nice to be able to offer them a clean, even surface dedicated to their event."
"The kids are safe here from a safeguarding perspective. There are no strangers walking by or dogs running through their games. They have proper marked out pitches, goals and everything else they need for a successful event, and the more they see that, the more they want to play; it really has such a positive knock-on effect."
Affectionately known as The Somme! Initial remedial work / AgriPower set about correct remedial work
"To support our beneficiary groups, the Trust offer the facilities at a virtually free rate so that there isn't that barrier to use. We can organise transport using some of the independent schools' buses to pick the kids up and bring them here if we need to. So it's not just about sport, it's about the whole package, but having good quality pitches makes a massive difference to the experience the kids are having at Trinity Fields."
The first step of bringing the pitches up to scratch was new drainage. Heavy rain between January and February 2020 had the pitches entirely underwater and prompted the investigation work that caused the initial damage. In November 2020, the STRI was brought in to assess the situation and recommend solutions for fixing the field.
After a competitive tender process, AgriPower was selected to carry out the works and Contracts Manager Euan McKenzie was introduced to the site for the first time. Having been involved with the project the longest, Euan is best placed to assess the progress of the Trinity Fields from all angles.
He begins: "I first saw Trinity in May 2021, and the evolution over those months has been its strength in depth. We have seen it progress greatly over this period, and there is a lot of unity for a shared goal, and you know the end result will be an increase in the quality of the facility. Even the changes I've seen in the last four or five weeks, it's focus, it's direction and, to say it again, it's strength and depth, from top to bottom."
"When I first came to the site, I'd never seen somewhere that had its playing surfaces damaged so much, even though it was done with the best intentions. We looked at it objectively and analysed the soil structure, and came up with a plan, which initially included a full review of the primary drainage system. It is still relatively fit for purpose, even though it was installed in the late nineties, so part of the remit was to flush out any parts of it that didn't work and install inspection chambers for future maintenance. Subsequently from that, Steve Gingell from the STRI's plans for the project was the installation of secondary drainage at one-metre intervals going to a depth of 250mm, 150mm of drainage gravel, with 100mm of sand to finish level."
The Somme taking shape ... and looking much better in September 2021
"We are also going to add some extra primary drainage to the area that was damaged. Initially, our first job was to reinstate that area, and there was some topsoil on-site, but our survey and modelling showed that we required more material, so we commenced with the secondary drainage and, after having the topsoil independently analysed, we were more than comfortable using the site won material. So the actual physical act of the Wizz Wheel installing the secondary drainage allowed us to recreate and re-establish the levels as much as physically possible so that we could merge into the existing established turf. This was quite an extensive part of the project, and it also meant, from an environmental standpoint, it reduced the project's carbon footprint because we managed to keep a lot of the site won materials on-site and reduce the costs for the Trust as well."
"When we were lucky enough to win the tender, it became fairly evident that the Trust was fairly forward-thinking, and it wasn't just looking at drainage. They were looking at every aspect, like a three-pronged approach. First, the drainage, to move water from the site and secondly getting the water on, so they've invested heavily in the irrigation system as well, which meant Steve could adapt his proposed plan, knowing that he could increase the drainage because having the irrigation will not allow the turf to dry out and compromise the surface and have a negative effect on its playing ability and recovery."
"The third part was bringing in John, as they reviewed their own set of skills within the Trust, and a groundsman was key; it always is for us as contractors. You can, in your own eyes, do a fantastic job, but if someone isn't there to maintain it properly, then the minute you're out the gate, that huge investment by the Trust can slowly be eradicated. So, from our standpoint, it was a three-pronged attack between a comprehensive drainage system, reviewing the irrigation system and a person that knows what they are doing to improve the quality and keep it moving forward."
With the major works underway, the last piece of the puzzle was to bring in a groundsman. The Trust needed someone who could elevate the quality of the pitches and ensure their significant investment in drainage and irrigation was put to good use, and John was the man for the job. His vast experience at King's College London on multiple sports and overseeing projects, as well as being part of the Euro 2020 pitch team at Wembley, made him perfect for the role.
At the time of the interview, John is only in his fifth week at Trinity Fields. Much of the early work has been bringing the pitches into order but, for him, the main word is potential and what can be done with the blank canvas in front of him.
"When I came in, I thought a lot of what is here is potential. I don't have to come in here and try and outdo anyone else; I can come here and get my teeth into it and do it how I want to do it. So, that was a big part of it."
"We've done a lot of work in the last week tidying the car park and assessing the kit we had because there was a lot of it."
"As a groundsman, the Trust has every piece of equipment here that you could wish for. Every groundsman has their own bit of kit that they always want, but here you have a ride-on mower, a Dakota dresser; I mean, what places have got a Dakota topdresser sitting around? We've gone through what was here and sold a lot of the older equipment so we can clear out and focus on what we need to do on the pitches."
"The first job we're looking to do out there is a dress with a rootzone just to help where the sand banding has been because it is a little bit bumpy on some of the areas. Obviously, sand banding takes a bit of time to settle as well. We will then overseed, and we're looking to put a fertiliser programme in there as well. We've ordered a Rytec to pick up a lot of the cuttings, and we'll leave the scarifying blades in as well so, during the winter months, we will just tickle the surface, but during the summer months, we'll take that up a bit more to get rid of the organic matter to reduce the thatch levels. We have a good budget here compared to what I've had before, and we'll be using the best out there to get the best from it. We'll have the best cultivars for strength, colour, wear and tear - anything that helps us out there."
Nurette adds: "I'm not a groundsman, so I trust John to make the right decisions on managing the fields. There has been significant investment, and we are very lucky that the schools who play here support us and see the value for the community. We all feel very strongly that everyone is heading in the same direction, from the Trustees, the schools and the groundstaff. Everybody is working towards the same goals, making the playing fields the best they can be now but also for future generations."
"We're putting money aside every year to re-do the sand banding on a ten-year basis, which is something that's never been done before, so there is that maintenance schedule and having an experienced groundsman come in and being able to manage that budget and to know that's happening is invaluable."
"From my perspective, having a groundsman that you can trust and let get on with the work is a huge relief. We also have an assistant groundsman, Jonny, who John is training on-site, and we are supporting him with the formal training courses as needed. There are plenty of training opportunities here."
"We have always had apprentices in the past and it is something we'd consider again because, from a charitable standpoint, that is what we want to be doing. It's not just about the grass; for us, it's more than that."
The first phase of the Trust's plan was always to build from the ground up. With the turf in good hands, thoughts are quickly turning to the pavilions on-site - one derelict and the other, whilst possessing a classic charm, lacks the modern facilities needed. Updating this building and adding cricket nets are just two things that are earmarked for work as the Trust aims to transform this site into a venue for sport in the area.
Plans are already being considered for the addition of an astroturf pitch which can introduce other sports to the field; netball, basketball, and to prevent winter pitch damage.
As mentioned, this is the first stage of a longer process for Trinity Fields Trust and the milestones along the way will be frequent. John anticipates a marked difference in pitch quality eight months from now and eight months further on from that Trinity Fields is likely to have moved closer to the final goal.