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The Green on the Hill

Chapter Three

 

The Green

 

For all bowlers - crown and flat - the green is the holy of holies that blessed plot where only a few people are permitted to trespass. The reputation of a bowling club can stand or fall on the quality of its bowling green. When the Hallam Grange Directors took the decision that the club would have one, they fully appreciated that one of their most important duties would be to see it had a good quality playing surface. Its care and maintenance were never going to be easy and would be potentially expensive. And so it has proved. The major handicap is that the green was laid out on clay and builders' rubble thrown up by the excavation for the new tennis courts. When conditions are wet the green acts like a huge sponge due to the clay making the surface soft under foot. Drainage was always going to be a problem. Moreover, managing a green at over 800 feet above sea level presents a very different challenge compared with those at a much lower level. The growing season for grass is markedly shorter than for more sheltered and warmer sites. Grass suffers under cold winters and snow cover, and seeds have to be selected and nurtured carefully. Faced with those challenges, any groundsman, however proficient, would have a difficult task.

The leading green construction firm of the time, En-tout-Cas., was given the task in the summer of 1965 of laying out the green with quality sea­ washed turf. A promise had been made that if the weather was reasonable during the winter, play might possibly commence in May 1966. In the event, heavy snow falls in March delayed the start until 18 June 1966. At that time, the total membership of the whole Hallam Grange club - tennis and bowling - numbered around 260 people, of which about 40 declared that they intended to make regular use of the new green.

Unfortunately, both the club's founder, Samuel Cadman Harrison, and his wife Alice, were denied the pleasure of playing bowls on the new green. Samuel died in 1963, and then Alice shortly after the green opened. The Directors agreed that as a tribute to their memory, their son should be given permission for his mother's ashes to be scattered in the grounds of the club.

Members were delighted to have access to the new facility and initially well-pleased with the state of the green, apart from a rather tricky "hollow" that suddenly appeared and caused concern among some members unsteady on their feet. It was soon clear it was not going to be a particularly difficult green to play but had its tricky parts, and as one visiting player commented - "It nevertheless has to be played." However, within two years some members began to complain about the surface of the green, which sadly would be too often the pattern of succeeding years. When the Hallam Grange Directors met in April 1968 they were informed that a forthright discussion about the green's condition had taken place at the Bowling section AGM, and the consensus was that improvements needed to be made. The groundsman, Mr Parker, also came in for some criticism for not giving the green enough care and attention during the spring and summer months. In fairness to him, Parker had been incapacitated by an accident at work and probably far too much was expected of him. But by June 1968 he was gone, and a new groundsman appointed - a Mr Charles Seago - a pensioner, who the club was assured, had the necessary wide experience of turf management.

Mr Seago did at least turn matters around. He was no doubt relieved by the help of a proper motor mower, (he admitted that he found the old hand machine "heavy going") and he introduced a programme of treatment provided by the Fisons company that apparently improved the green out of all recognition. By 1971 the green had reportedly become the envy of other clubs, including its close rival Fulwood.

However, by the end of the decade there were further problems. In August 1977 the green was vandalised with an unknown chemical. Members worked frantically to repair the damage, just in time for a well-attended match against the tennis section. A lengthy period of bad weather followed which took its toll and by 1979 the green was declared to be in a shocking state. A most pernicious enemy of the turf, known as fusarium patch disease, had taken root which left a nasty patch of yellow grass over the green. Advice to combat the disease was sought from the Bingley Research Centre. With the help of the Centre the problem seemed for a while to have been brought under control. By 1981 members were congratulating Mr T Durkin, the current groundsman, and the newly appointed Green Committee, on the greens near "perfect condition". And when in 1983 the men started to bowl competitively in a league against other clubs, several of the visiting teams commented on the good condition of the Hallam Grange green.

It proved to be a false dawn. In 1984 the fusarium disease returned with a vengeance and the cost of the treatment required was expensive - just two litres of the liquid fertilizer cost £60. An extensive programme of spiking and other remedial work was carried out by the new groundsman Mr J Wragg, together with the assistance of a group of bowlers mobilised by the energetic and exuberant chair of the Green Committee, Stan Fisher. Crucial work was also needed over the next few years to restore the crown itself by the addition of some coarse grit and sand. Ominously it was said, to be in serious danger of "drifting away."

Once more the green was restored to something like its prime condition. However, by 1990 it was under attack from another unexpected quarter. Bowlers were shocked to find that their precious green was being shared with a family of foxes, no doubt attracted by the smooth and sandy surface, perfect for them to hone their hunting and digging skills. The problem was brought under control but it added to the tensions which had arisen between yet another new groundsman - Harry Surr - and the club's Greens Committee. Harry on his own initiative had bought several expensive items and anti-fusarium fertilisers which he argued were required to keep the green in good repair, and was further pressing for some more costly machinery and fertilisers, including a scarifier costing £350. Stan Fisher confessed to the Bowls AGM in 1990 that he was nervous to come to the club because every time the groundsman was lying in wait to ask for something new. Senior members, alarmed at the situation and the escalating costs, decided that an embargo should be put on any further expenditure. And although they did not want to lose Mr Surr, all agreed that he should be told to, "hold his horses for the time being."

Relations, however, between the club and its groundsman remained strained. Stan Fisher was soon complaining that he did not think the groundsman had done all he could to get rid of the rough patches on the green. The groundsman responded that he was working hard to hollow tine the green - a process that involved the widespread removal of bits of clogged turf from the playing surface and then replaced with soil and top dressing. He also wanted to build up the crown, and while about it took the opportunity to grumble about heel marks he had discovered on the green. The bowls' management committee hastily agreed that that indiscretion must be put down to children rather than the bowlers, and that the groundsman was hardly one fit to complain about heel marks when he had been seen on the green wearing shoes and at other times, wellingtons!

By 1994 Sydney Parke had taken over from Stan Fisher the key post of green co-ordinator. From then onwards, Sydney always provided each AGM with a very comprehensive analysis of the work carried out to improve the green's condition. In response to complaints about the early closure of the green, Sydney reported that this had been done to allow visits from a specialist turf dressing company, Gem Professional, based in Accrington. The company had recommended a full programme costing around £700 involving hollow tining, top dressing and reseeding which was now being taken forward. A suggestion from one member that a Toro Jet Machine should also be deployed to the green, sounded a bit too extravagant and reckless for the more conservative members to agree to! Apart from occasional outbreaks of fusarium, all the work carried out on the green proved successful and Sydney was soon happily reporting that it was in remarkably good condition. Co-operation between himself, Harry Surr the groundsman, and the newly formed Green committee was good and the only real problem beyond their control was the occasional visit of the foxes. Three pest control companies had come up with their options to deal with the problem but the animals proved difficult to move since they had become very fond of the green and there was no guarantee that they would altogether disappear. The offer from a member of an Ultrasonic Animal Deterrent device for possible future action was duly noted.

Harry Surr retired as groundsman in 1997. He had given nine years of faithful and eventful service during which he had to wrestle with problems sometimes even beyond his expertise. After careful consideration the club Directors offered a contract toJohn Illingworth, a self-employed professional groundsman who came with an excellent CV in turf culture and its maintenance. One of John's first priorities was to carry out improvements in the green's drainage system which had caused long-term problems. An investigation identified standing water a foot deep completely covering the main drains. When the blockage was removed, the water surged over the adjoining car park. The green remained liable to retain water and the drains required regular inspection and clearance. But the measures taken had their effect and for the millennium year the green was in good condition.

In 2002 it suffered badly in the winter and spring from a series of very dry months and with night time frosts and low temperatures. An urgent nutrition programme was put in hand to redress the very low potash levels affecting the quality of the turf. Although no names were mentioned, members were warned to modify their bowling action and to stop delivering bowls "from some height" as this could cause scuff marks and indentations.

By dint of careful maintenance and much end of season work, when Sydney Parke retired as the green coordinator at the end of the 2005 season, he was able to report that the green was looking and playing better than it had ever been. He was succeeded in the following years, first by Andrew Hague and then by Terry Durrant, who both worked hard to see that improvements were maintained. Nonetheless, the green lived up to its capricious reputation and the groundsman was still contending with the occasional virulent outbreak of the dreaded fusarium disease. And ominously, in 2010 the foxes returned to scuff up new holes in the green. {Note - John Illingworth has since discovered the den of the foxes in the hedge at the upper side of the green and dealt with it appropriately.)

Given the history of the green and the vagaries of the weather, it would surely be tempting fate to say that all the past problems have been now resolved. But at least for the present there is reason to be optimistic. The green is in good hands and playing well. Free from traffic noise and other distractions, Hallam Grange is a very pleasant place to play bowls. Members and visiting teams will have their niggles but there are no serious complaints, and the Sheffield and Hallamshire League appreciates being able to use it as a neutral venue for key competitive matches.

To sum up, over the past 50 years the Hallam Grange bowling green for all its ups and downs has provided enormous enjoyment, excitement and pride for hundreds of bowlers. It has come at a cost. A sizeable amount of money has been spent on its improvement and maintenance. It has seen a legion of aspiring and exasperated groundsmen come and go. Nor must we forget all the hard work and support that members themselves have willingly provided to tend not only the green itself, but also its surrounds. The many different shrubs, heathers, and plants laid by members over the years around the green are now well bedded in and make it such an attractive place to play and watch matches. Bench seats have been put in place. Many members too will have cause to remember the splendid flower displays which Brian and Joy Gee faithfully placed each year around the pavilion area during the 1980s and 90s. And today, several members, notably Martin Westley and his supporters, continue to give freely their time and energy to making improvements and generally keeping the whole site neat and tidy.

 

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