With 25 years’ industry experience, David Roberts is meeting his latest challenge as Grounds Manager at Charterhouse School with gusto. And with 215 acres of grounds and woodland, of which 79 acres are sports surfaces, as well as an established team of 14 grounds care professionals, his role today couldn’t be any further from his days with Southampton Football Club.
Growing up with a keen interest in both science and gardening, early advice from a careers officer almost saw David pursue a career in pharmacy – but the years of necessary study deterred him. Instead he took up his interest in horticulture which led him to Rodbaston College in Staffordshire at aged 16 to complete a one-year taster course in horticulture and, upon completion, he joined the grounds department of Staffordshire County Council through the Youth Opportunities scheme (the precursor to YTS and now Modern Apprenticeships).
“It was a great opportunity - I wasn’t there just to make the tea,” he says. “I spent six months across all departments and gained good experience. But I was keen to learn more so went back to college and completed the National Certificate in Horticulture. It was during this time that I realised how much I enjoyed the sports turf element of the job.”
Now in the late ‘80s, David then started his own landscape gardening company but as recession kicked in work was scarce and eventually the business was wound up. With little prospect of employment in the Midlands, he moved to Romsey, Hants, where he secured a grounds maintenance role with Hampshire County Council and worked at many of the schools in Winchester.
His next move, and possibly the most fortuitous, was to Tonrin Contractors during which time he had a temporary role maintaining the gardens of Lawrie McMenemy, then manager of Southampton FC. Tipped off about a vacancy at the club, David applied and landed the job in 1994 – being part of a team of three looking after the stadium and training grounds, with his responsibility being the stadium.
“After a while the training ground was extended and the team was restructured and expanded to six. I took on the role of Grounds Manager and an additional person was allocated to the stadium. This definitely saw the pitch improve.”
There were more changes afoot. In 2001, the club moved to St Marys Stadium and the training ground was increased by a further seven acres. The main pitch went from having 35-40 uses a season at the Dell to 100-120 uses at St Mary’s. “Gordon (Strachan) liked to train on the pitch and this did put us under extra pressure - but the grounds care team did well, including winning FA Groundsman of the Year title in 2004.”
In December 2007, David’s departure from the club was marked by a personal invitation from the chairman to the last game of the season. “By the end of my time at Southampton, I felt the pitch was at a good standard and I was leaving it in good hands. The club was left with an excellent team headed by Graham Mills and Andrew Gray who were fully able to continue with the maintenance and management at the level they had become accustomed to.
“Watching the last game in the company of the chairman was a really good note to finish on. I felt valued and held in high regard by the club.”
Then came the ‘‘baptism of fire” when he began at Charterhouse in January 2008.
“I felt ready for a new challenge, although the opportunity at Charterhouse did come out of the blue. I was approached by Dale Gleed, then Grounds Manager at the school, who had accepted a new position elsewhere and, after going through the interview process, meeting the staff and having a good look at the grounds I decided this was the challenge for me.
“Dale had put in a lot of hard work during his four-year tenure; he had brought the grounds out of the dark ages. Now it was my job to bring them into the 21st century! It’s been an interesting process, to say the least, even getting up to speed with the paperwork which is a new area for me. I’m also dealing with new suppliers, and it all takes time to get on top of.”
As the school’s financial year runs from August to July, David made the most of the budget he had inherited although he admits it did end with a ‘small’ overspend. “The school wants progress so big steps have been taken and investments have been made to help achieve this. Budgets for ‘08/09 are, however, better aligned with our aspirations, and they include a good allowance for capital expenditure.”
In the short to medium term, David has some ambitious plans - from the reinstatement of coppice management and the introduction of a green waste management programme through to the construction of two new Astroturf pitches and one replacement.
“I am keen to re-introduce coppice management, which hasn’t been undertaken since the war. The school sits on a hill and the steep surrounding slopes are woodland. Historical photographs show what the area could look like if managed properly. Not only will it create a new eco-structure for the area and re-establish the amazing vistas of Victorian time, but the resulting woodchips will provide a renewable energy source for the school throughout the year.
“We will also be introducing a green waste management system once I have researched similar projects, for example at RHS Wisley and other schools. At the height of the season we gather 40 m3 of leaves every day which takes three people, three days a week to blow and collect using two tractor-mounted blowers and a Trilo sweeper collector. Traditionally we have bunked the leaves up and left them in the woodland to compost down naturally, but looking ahead I am keen to put our green waste to better use - mainly because I don’t like seeing waste and, of course, going green will bring cost savings.”
The new and replacement Astroturf pitches will also create issues as the new surfaces will eliminate one hole and a practice green from the existing golf course. But David is optimistic: “Although this will cause upheaval I am confident about the outcome. David Rhodes, an expert in artificial surfaces, is consulting us and we have Donald Steel [renowned golf course architect and writer] re-designing the course.
“The proposed development is to be three hockey pitch sized areas, possibly surfaced as follows; one will be the latest water based surface, purely for hockey. The second a challenger type material with sand and rubber crumb infill for hockey and football use, and the third a sand filled pile for hockey and tennis. We are looking at building in storage under one of the pitches for maintenance equipment and sports equipment, however the work is subject to planning at the moment.”
Many of these projects are timed to complete to coincide with the school’s 400th anniversary in 2011, which is ambitious on top of the day-to-day management of the extensive site in Godalming, Surrey. But David is confident in the strong team he has.
“The team takes great pride in the appearance of the grounds and this keeps them motivated. Many have been here for a long time and seen a number of Grounds Managers come and go - my deputy has been here for 40 years and our Head Gardener has been here for 30 years having taken over the position from his father when he retired. I didn’t come in and try to change things, I’ve focused more on streamlining and efficiency.
“I also have the support of the Headmaster who is rightly proud of the grounds - and constructively critical! The grounds are the first thing that prospective parents see, so they have to be clean, tidy and have the wow factor.”
With Charterhouse a joint founder (with Westminster) of the rules for association football, it is no surprise that the school continues its soccer ‘bent’ by dedicating much of its 79 acres of sports surfaces to football (and cricket), with rugby occupying one pitch.
Autumn is the main football term with 15 pitches being maintained, followed by hockey in January with 16 grass pitches and currently one Astroturf (planning permission is being sought to increase this by a further two). The cricket season starts after Easter, played on 11 squares, as well as non-grass tennis. In addition to the school sports, which are played three full days each week, there is also a nine-hole members’ golf course managed by two full-time greenkeepers.
There is plenty of activity out of term to keep the grounds team focused including Old Boys fixtures, American summer camps, the Surrey CCC academy and the English Lacrosse training camp as well as concerts – last summer Jools Holland entertained 6,000 guests, most of whom picnicked on the first team cricket outfield and parked on the sports fields, causing tremendous compaction.
“Although the concerts here don’t compare in terms of size and set up to those held in stadia, they do bring their own problems,” says David. “Aside from compaction, the biggest headache was the insistence that the cricket square was to be used the following day for a long-standing Old Boys cricket fixture. Perhaps fortunately, there were deemed to be too many crushed champagne flutes for the area to be safe for play!”
In terms of geology, the school is sited on a sand ridge with Bargate stone with rock formation and green sand on top - although it’s more orange than green. As a result drainage is excellent, but with no irrigation system the pitches do get dry.
“For the lawns to look good we need irrigation but with the proposed bore hole project on hold we have been trying different forms of management including growth retardants, wetting agents and also increased aeration to help the roots go down,” comments David. “The site also suffers from quite a heavy thatch problem so our management programme is designed to prevent rooting in the thatch layer and encourage the roots to go down deeper to where the water is.”
So what does the future hold for David? “Charterhouse is another exciting chapter in my career. I have many challenges ahead of me here and I’m looking forward to them.”
“In terms of grass types, rye grasses won’t establish,” says David Roberts. “We’ve had various soil tests carried out and it varies across the site. The sand and the top layer are very acidic whereas as lower down it is calcarius. Natural species, like fescues and some of the smooth-stalked meadow grasses, thrive. We’ve gone for a tailored grass type which DLF Trifolium has engineered for us and includes some top quality fescues and a decent percentage of smooth-stalked meadow grasses. It’s not what you would traditionally use for winter pitches, as nowadays you’d just use rye grasses, but this is what thrives here.”
Thatch managementThatch management is key to achieving good playing surfaces at Charterhouse, says David Roberts. “Looking at the cycle of how the grass grows here, because of the thatch layer, in early spring when the ground warms up (March or April time) but before it dries out the poa goes to seed. It’s already thrown up a lot of seed which drops into the thatch layer in the dry period then the grasses all die off and the poa seeds sit there dormant. In the next wet spell the meadow grasses re-establish. Managing this process, even if we don’t get irrigation, will manage the drought issue resulting in harder wearing and better playing surfaces.”