Celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2014, Monmouth School is situated around two miles on the Welsh side of the border with England and even closer to the meeting point - and flood plains - of the rivers Wye and Monnow. Over the centuries, Monmouth has experienced many major flood events. Michael Bird learns how the groundstaff cope
If there's one word that could be used to describe Bob Park's attitude to his role as head groundsman at Monmouth School, then that word has to be "pragmatic".
During term-time, he deals each week with the consequence of thousands of pairs of boots pounding the turf that he lovingly tends. Add to that the perennial threat of floodwater covering all of the school's sports pitches and cricket squares and it is clear that Bob has little choice but to adopt a sensible and realistic approach to his work based on practical, rather than theoretical, considerations.
It's an approach that Bob has had to pursue, mostly through necessity, since he first entered the world of turf and grounds maintenance thirty-three years ago in his late twenties.
"I started off as a volunteer groundsman, helping look after and prepare the outfield and wickets at Lydney Cricket Club, not far across the border in Gloucestershire," he recalled. "Having played cricket for the club for the previous three seasons, I answered a call for assistance from Lydney Cricket Club chairman, Peter James, father of former Glamorgan and England cricketer, Steve James, who had attended Monmouth School from 1978 to 1985."
A pupil himself at Monmouth School from 1943 to 1950, Peter James had been a successful player for Lydney since 1951, becoming a committee member in 1969 and serving as groundsman, fixture secretary, chairman and, latterly, president, before his death in February 2014 at the age of 81.
"Peter was very happy to offer advice and assistance to a raw recruit in the art of cricket wicket preparation," said Bob. "Under his guidance, I learned a huge amount about turf maintenance and am happy to have remained a volunteer groundsman at Lydney to this day, despite the fact that I now earn my living elsewhere as head groundsman at Monmouth School. I am proud also to have been chairman of Lydney Cricket Club for all but five of the past twenty-four years."
Bob Park's move into the professional groundcare arena came in 1990 when, through contacts in Lydney, he learned of a vacancy for the position of head groundsman at Gloucester Rugby Club's Kingsholm stadium.
"I applied for the job and was invited to attend an interview during the summer," he said. "I was both surprised and delighted when I was offered the job, starting in September that year. Nothing could have prepared me for what I faced when I arrived at Kingsholm on my first morning.
Despite being very early in the season, the pitch was in a fairly poor state, looking as if it had hosted half-a-dozen games of rugby the previous week."
In fact, as Bob soon discovered, that impression was not far from the truth.
In 1990, the game was still five years away from becoming officially professional, so the funding and resources to support provincial club rugby were well below the consistently high levels found today throughout the Aviva Premiership, and beyond.
As a result, Gloucester's first and second team training sessions took place, by necessity, within Kingsholm stadium every Tuesday and Thursday, leaving the pitch with very little time to recover before the next competitive game, often the following weekend.
"In wet weather, it was a constant battle to avoid presenting a mud bath," commented Bob. "I desperately wanted to provide the players with the best possible playing conditions, so that was when I learned how to make do and mend. Like rugby itself, groundsmanship was far less professional back then, but I do recall trying out sand topdressings and slitting in an effort to keep the surface open and encourage drainage."
"During my time at Gloucester, we moved also from using a heavy trailed gang mower, hauled by a large agricultural tractor on cleated tyres, to semi-mounted rotary roller mowers and smaller tractors fitted with diamond-patterned turf tyres."
Bob pointed out that one positive outcome of the changes he made was that Kingsholm successfully hosted a pool match during the 1991 Rugby World Cup, in which New Zealand beat the USA by 46 points to 6.
Although he left Gloucester Rugby Club almost twenty years ago, Bob says that the experience he gained in grounds maintenance and pitch preparation during his time at the club played a huge part in his ability to deal with just about every challenge that regular pitch flooding and high levels of use produces today at Monmouth.
After three years as head groundsman at Whitecross School in Lydney, Bob applied for and was appointed, in February 1999, head groundsman at Monmouth School, an independent boarding and day school of around 700 pupils, founded in 1614 by wealthy haberdasher, William Jones, who had spent his early life in the area around Monmouth.
The school is run as part of a trust - the William Jones's Schools Foundation - administered by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, one of the senior livery companies of the City of London, having been granted its Royal Charter in 1448.
Taking a walk across the school's playing fields on his very first day in the job, Bob Park recalls experiencing a distinct feeling of déjà vu.
"Unfortunately, my predecessor had been forced to retire around six months earlier due to ill-health," he said. "Consequently, the playing fields had not been managed nor maintained to the consistently high standard needed by a school that is widely-known and respected for its prowess in both summer and winter sports," he said.
Reaching and maintaining a high level of sporting achievement at Monmouth is amply illustrated by the fact that former Welsh international and British Lion, John Bevan, is a member of the school's staff and responsible for coaching the 1st XV rugby squad. Former pupils who have made a name for themselves on the rugby field include Eddie Butler, Keith Jarrett, Richard Parks and Hallam Amos.
Looking after the pitches to the best of his abilities during his first term at the school, Bob said that the damage had been caused primarily by over-use and inadequate reparation during the back end of 1998 and had to be managed very carefully until the weather and surfaces were suitable for renovation to be carried out.
"That objective was easier said than done due to the fact that the machinery fleet I inherited was quite limited at the time," commented Bob. "For example, there was no aeration equipment and no topdresser, shortfalls that I am happy to say have now been put right."
Despite being laid out on a flood plain bordering the river Wye and its tributary, the Monnow, there is one aspect of the school's playing fields that Bob finds extremely helpful in carrying out a job that involves just two groundsmen, namely himself and Glen Comben, his assistant of the past seven years.
"All of the school's natural sports turf surfaces are situated in one location, served by a £2.3 million sports pavilion, with changing rooms, that opened in 2008," explained Bob. "Covering around 10.5 hectares, the playing area is dedicated 100 percent to rugby from September to December, supporting six full-size pitches during the school's Michaelmas term.
"In the spring, or Lent term, we have three rugby and four football pitches to prepare from early January to late March, leaving no more than fifteen working days to finalise and mark out four cricket squares, a 400 metre grass running track and a field sports area before the boys return in mid April for the summer term."
Sharing outfields with surfaces that have been used a few weeks earlier for intensive rugby and football training and for matches means that cricket does not always get off to the best possible start, especially following a cold, gloomy spring or when the sportsfields have been flooded over winter.
"Fortunately, our top four pitches are situated a little above the remainder and there is also a bund that helps stem the flow of water when the river Wye starts to flood," explained Bob. "However, the very high rainfall in Wales and Welsh borders last winter resulted in a lot of water covering all of the sports turf for more than a week, making the groundsman's job virtually impossible. I couldn't even get close to the sheds and it's been very much the same story in nine out of the fifteen years since I first came to the school."
Bob pointed out that the regular flooding does have one benefit; the resulting fertility of the silt soils underlying the playing fields. This fertility, he says, does not diminish even after prolonged submergence beneath water.
"We've dug inspection holes and the silt soil averages around 750mm in depth, overlying a layer of pure gravel," explained Bob.
As a result, when the river Wye returns to its normal course, the flood waters quickly subside, leaving behind a silty covering which, Bob believes, helps retain the natural nutrients built-up over many centuries of grazing, reducing the need for programmed fertiliser applications by himself.
"We use fertiliser very sparingly on the majority of the turf and only when necessary to promote new seeding or pitch recovery," said Bob. "Turf areas that do get treated every year are the cricket squares, all of which are built on clay."
Although the soil beneath the winter sports pitches might be consistently fertile, Bob is very conscious of the need to maintain an open surface and subsoil to promote good drainage following shorter periods of heavy rain.
"Every square inch of grass available to us for sports purposes is used for training, practice or exercise by pupils, as well as for competitive matches. This means that a pitch prepared on a Thursday for a game at the weekend may be trodden by 400 pairs of feet before the match kicks off, with little or no time to repair any resulting damage."
"It would be of huge benefit to have an area dedicated specifically for training and for practice, but there is no alternative large, level expanse of grass within walking distance of the school."
Despite having limited natural turf resources, due to its riverside location, Monmouth School does boast an impressive sports club just across the road from the playing fields.
Available to all pupils, staff and members of the public, the complex comprises a fitness suite and sports hall equipped for most indoor sports, a 25m indoor swimming pool and outdoor all-weather tennis courts, golf practice area, 3G floodlit pitch and cricket nets.
Having seen, close-up, the consequence of the high demands placed on the school's sports turf, particularly at the latter end of the year, Bob was keen to introduce a programme of remedial action within a short time of his arrival in 1999.
"Surface compaction is the biggest threat we face in preparing and presenting consistently good playing surfaces for winter and summer sports," commented Bob.
"This led to the early introduction of regular hollow coring and knife slitting at depths ranging from 40mm to 100mm, complemented by sand topdressings and deep-tine aeration over the winter months. We find it beneficial to break down the hollow cores using a tractor-mounted brush, leaving the mower to spread and work them back into the sward."
When Bob first took up his post, there was no specialist equipment in place to do such operations. He stressed that, although the school has been extremely supportive, trusting him to get on with the work without requesting continual progress reports, the budget available for new machinery and sports turf materials does remain limited.
"For that reason, I continue to rely on many of the contacts that I've built-up over the years to locate good, pre-owned kit still capable of doing a good job for the school at a reasonable price," he said. "One person who has been more than helpful to me over the past fifteen years is Swindon-based, Keith Carter, and he has become my primary source of specialist second-hand machinery."
Looking at the array of grounds maintenance equipment parked outside and within the sheds located at the edge of the playing fields, Bob commented that the situation is a far cry from the one he inherited when he first started in the job more than fifteen years ago.
"Large-area overseeding, for example, was simply not possible previously, unless a contractor was brought in," he said. "We now have our own machine and try to overseed the rugby pitches, as and when the need arises, to repair the wear and tear produced by constant high levels of use."
"Being surrounded by open countryside, we do suffer from infestations of Poa annua blown-in on the wind. My long-term aim is to improve the playing and wearing qualities of the turf by introducing new sports seed mixes comprising perennial ryegrass, smooth-stalked meadow grass and creeping meadow grass. The benefits of this campaign are becoming increasingly evident and it's something that I plan to continue over coming years."
One operation being trialled by Bob for the first time in 2014 is aimed at improving the firmness, consistency and pace of future wickets prepared on the first XI's cricket square which, like the remainder of the school's playing fields, sits on silt subsoil; not the most stable of materials.
The work commenced at the end of last cricket season in September, with Bob and Glen excavating a trench 380mm deep and two wickets wide spanning the full width of one end of the square. A 100mm deep layer of limestone scalpings, measuring between 10mm and 30mm diameter, was laid at the bottom of the trench and tamped down.
The soil that had been removed from the trench was mixed thoroughly together and shovelled back on top of the stone and allowed to settle. Finally, Bob and Glen spread Surrey Loams Ltd GOSTD 125 high clay content cricket topdressing over the upgraded area, followed by seeding with Limagrain MM50 perennial dwarf ryegrass mix and an application of pre-seeding fertiliser.
"We are looking forward to seeing the results and hearing the reaction of the cricket team and coaches next year," said Bob. "If the work proves a success, then we plan to do the entire first team square in future years. I am more than confident that the presence of a consistently sound sub-base beneath the wickets we prepare will bring lasting benefits all-round."
What's in the shed?
Toro Reelmaster 2600D ride-on triple mower
Toro Reelmaster three-gang trailed mower
Ransomes Super Certes 51 pedestrian mower
Ransomes Matador 61 pedestrian mower
Ransomes Mastiff 73 pedestrian mower
John Deere JS63V walk-behind mulching mower
Midland Power pedestrian flail mower
John Deere 955 tractor with front loader
Massey Ferguson 35 tractor
Cushman Turf Truckster (x 2)
Cushman truck-mounted top dresser
Hardi 6m tractor-mounted sprayer
Sisis Auto Rotorake Mk4
Ransomes Hahn hollow corer
Blec Aerovator seeder
Ryan Greensaire 24
Sisis tractor-mounted Combirake
Wessex tractor-mounted fertiliser spreader
Walkover knapsack sprayer
Supaturf pedestrian spreader
Assorted powered and non-powered hand tools