School's out - now let the work begin!
While Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School in Hertfordshire has been out for summer, the schedule for Head Groundsman Daniel Beckley and his team remains ongoing, with summer camp preparations and maintenance as well as preparations for the new term in September. Siobhan Harper discovered what this involves
Aside from taking on 70 acres of woodland, wetlands, formal gardens and sports surfaces , when 35-year-old Daniel Beckley was appointed Head Groundsman at the Elstree-based private boys school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, he was also tasked with managing an established team of five people. “Although it was a bit intimidating as the ‘new boy’ coming in to manage an established older team, I received a warm welcome,” he reflects.
One of his first tasks was to recruit a Deputy, which should have been simple when good wages at a prestigious school were on offer. But that didn’t prove to be the case, as Daniel explains: “While the package was good, I think the location was a deterrent. It is so costly to live locally - even if the wages are above average.” After two rounds of advertising and interviewing he did, however, find a suitable candidate: long-time employee, Richard Mussett. The team also includes 27-year-old Groundsman, Tom Hardy, who has been at the school for 11 years; Gardener/Mechanic, Graham Croker, who has been there on and off for 30 years; and Gardeners Anthony Carville and Peter Roberts, who have been there for two and 25 years, respectively.
The site is on heavy London clay subsoil with a clay loam topsoil and, prior to Daniel’s arrival, no renovation or machinery replacement programmes were in place and the annual budget was just £30,000, most being spent keeping the machinery going. To address this Daniel benchmarked all the facilities and presented a report to the school detailing the issues. “The grounds were more like a public park but in the two years I’ve been here we are starting to turn things around - there’s still some way to go though; the turning point was when the school started to see sport as a selling point, and the arrival of our new Director of Sport has also helped push this up the agenda,” says Daniel. “We aim for a high standard of presentation and playability from the surfaces. This is helped by a having a good relationship with the Director of Sport who doesn’t interfere or put pressure on the surfaces by playing when they are unfit.
“All the machinery I inherited was not sufficient to manage the site, so as soon as I started, I submitted requests for a tractor, a verti-drain, a roller and a tractor-mounted scarifier, which were accepted. I then submitted figures for a machinery replacement plan over the next 10 years. Budgets have certainly increased but they probably need to be about three times what they were when I started. I always support requests with a business case report rather than a simple expenditure request, because if I can justify requirements then they are more likely to be accepted. Explaining the impact of going with or without the purchase is essential, I have discovered” says Daniel.
The team is tasked with maintaining three cricket squares; a turf net block area with 20 wickets; four pitches for winter sports; plus training areas and a winter sports area for the preparatory school comprised of four winter sports pitches; two sand-filled artificial surfaces that are used for tennis, hockey and playground; and a 100 metre poly running track. Currently under development are an additional cricket square and four more winter sports surfaces. Usage is fairly high; in addition to sports lessons, there’s activity at lunchtimes, after school and regular weekend fixtures.
In the woodland areas, the plan is to re-introduce coppicing and clearing. “The areas haven’t been touched for 30 years, but if budgets allow we’ll use an experienced company to implement a comprehensive management programme next year,” he says.“ In the meantime, I’m managing it on an ad-hoc basis.”
The responsibilities of Gardeners Graham Croker, Anthony Carville and Peter Roberts include hedging, cutting and lawn maintenance. In the past there wasn’t too much attention paid to the surrounds, but now each gardener has his own allocated area (as have the sports surface ground staff ) so they plan their own schedules and clearly take pride in what they do.
Daniel’s time is a 20:80 split between management and practical work, respectively. “I enjoy retaining the hands-on role; indeed, it’s a must because otherwise the maintenance simply wouldn’t be done. I also think it works well from a team perspective as the guys don’t just see me sitting in my office, which can be alienating.”
His management responsibilities include overseeing new projects such as the construction of the new sports surfaces; ensuring that risk assessments are in place and are reviewed regularly; and report writing. “I try to get most of the reports and budgetary planning, for example, completed over the winter months when I can be away from the grounds without too much impact on the rest of the team’s workload,” he adds.
Summer is a busy time for everyone, providing the opportunity to renovate and prepare the pitches for the Autumn term, as well as general maintenance to ensure the facilities are in good condition for the two weeks of summer camp. Only during three weeks of the eight-week summer holiday are no children on site!
The programme starts with marking out the rugby pitches at the rate of one a week with a Beamrider, to ease the workload and prevent a rush, and the lines are over marked when required. The two main rugby pitches are cut to 10 to 12 mm, then scarified, hollow cored and top dressed with 80 tonnes of sand per pitch. The pitches are then verti-drained and dragged with a harrow to address the levels. The pitches are overseeded with 100 per cent rye. Then the team prays for rain because there is no irrigation!
“We carry out renovations in the summer rather than the spring to avoid any damage that a wet spring and poor drainage could cause,” explains Daniel.
The cricket squares and nets are renovated in August then prepared for the new season in March and cut and maintained from April through to July, when the school term ends. From September through to March there’s general maintenance, leaf collecting and tidying up. In December the rugby pitches are switched to football.
As the new term dawns and Daniel reflects on the state of play, it is clear that the team has again achieved top marks in groundscare!
Career profile: Daniel Beckley
After completing his A Levels at sixth form in Wembley, north London, Daniel took 18 months out travelling the world before starting a Sports Science Degree at South Bank University, London. The course didn’t appeal so, after the first term, he dropped out and took a job with a local supermarket.
Enjoying cricket and football, Daniel is by his own admission not particularly talented at either! During his time playing cricket, at Harrow he met local contractor Dave Summersell, who was looking for staff to maintain local sports clubs. He enjoyed the work and, despite taking a massive pay cut, decided to go full time as a contractor and worked towards a City & Guilds qualification in Amenity Horticulture at Norwood Hall.
Daniel’s next role was as Head Groundsman at Orley Farm Prep School in Harrow, where he spent five years. At the same time he completed an HND on day release with Merrist Wood.
Next stop was Latymer Upper School before moving to Haberdashers, where he is enjoying the challenges of poor soil, no irrigation and limited drainage as well as honing his skills in man management.
Last October he completed his biggest challenge to date – studying part-time towards an MSc in Sports Surface Technology at Cranfield. Studying under soil science experts Alex Vickers, Dr Iain James and Dr Mark Bartlett, the course took three years and combined block lectures and assignments spread over four modules per year. The course is designed to give students in-depth knowledge to understand the cause, effect and interaction of the various elements that make up a sports turf surface.
Daniel’s review of the sports surfaces when he arrived showed that there was potential for some significant improvements however issues with levels and unevenness of the pitches along with a high thatch content, heavy clay soil and lack of a sufficient budget to correct these issues, impeded their overall condition.
Over time additional financial investment has been made and this has seen an increase in key operations which have helped correct some of the underlying issues, particularly for the winter sports pitches. Aeration of the whole site increased with the newly purchased Verti-drain and this has helped relieve compaction, in addition the top dressing applied to the pitches has improved the soil texture. These measures have resulted in a better growing medium being provided and a general improvement in the health of the turfgrass. Continuing to combine these practices with hollow coring will help to correct the levels over time.
The top 25 mm of the soil profile on the cricket quares and nets consisted mainly of thatch and a loam which was incompatible with the original construction loam. This difference created a root break effect and layering within the soil profile. The result was poor root development and contributed towards inconsistent bounce and breaking up of the surface.
This was addressed by stripping the top 30 mm of the cricket surfaces using a Koro. The surface was then cultivated to create a uniform profile and the new loam was applied to a depth of 50 mm. Soil samples were taken to ascertain which cricket loam would be most with the existing soil. The area was then overseeded with a 100 percent rye grass mix.
Additional top dressing was applied creating a slightly higher cricket to allow water to run off the surface and on to the surrounding outfield.
The nets were re-orientated to increase usage as previously bowlers run-ups were on the cricket outfield which limited use whilst matches were in progress. This involved the leveling a 3000 m2 to create a safe run-up for the bowlers, the installation of netting to protect the adjacent road and a new netting system.