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The most famous school grounds in the world

The most famous school grounds in the world: Eton College’s Lee Marshallsay became the first school Grounds Manager to become the GMA Grounds Manager of the Year, proving that it’s not just the boys in the Eton classrooms who are high achievers. Lee spoke with Scott MacCallum.

The Battle of Waterloo, perhaps one of the most famous triumphs to be carved onto the bedpost of British military history, was said by the very man who led our forces, to have been won on the playing fields of Eton.

The most famous school grounds in the world

The most famous school grounds in the world

Now in all likelihood the Duke of Wellington didn’t say it, or to be charitable, no-one is around to prove that he did or didn’t, but what it did was ensure that those very playing fields became the most famous school grounds in the world. An accolade held to this very day.

Can you think of anywhere to rival them?

What the quote actually meant, apocryphal or not, was that the excellence embodied by Eton, and its fellow British public schools, was what carried the country to victory. That ethos remains in place in 2024, a mere 584 years after Eton was founded in 1440.

So, it is perhaps fitting that the man charged with looking after those famous fields has also achieved a degree of excellence which marks him, and his superb team, out from the crowd.

Lee Marshallsay was crowned Grounds Manager of the Year at the recent GMA Awards, held at Headingley, in Leeds.

“It was a real shock as the winner normally comes from football, cricket, tennis or horse racing, so I certainly didn’t expect my name to be called out. I believe it is the first time that someone from a school has won the award.

“But it was great as it was only possible for me to win because the team had won the Top Independent Schools Grounds Team award earlier in the evening, so it is an award for the whole team.

At 37, Lee is still a young man but he has packed a lot into his 20 years as a groundsman and grounds manager and he has a CV which includes two other schools at the very top of the independent school tree – Harrow and Charterhouse, both of which he was Grounds Manager.

But the role at which he has excelled was very much second choice by way of a career.

The most famous school grounds in the world

The most famous school grounds in the world

“I actually wanted to work in taxes and excise, but I didn’t get the grades,” laughed Lee, as we stood on the balcony of one of Eton’s famous pavilions, about to conduct a Turf Matters, YouTube video interview.

It says a lot for Lee’s single minded focus that he would have contemplated a job which doesn’t feature strongly on many people’s list of dream occupations, but having seen those aspirations dashed, he embarked on another activity which doesn’t offer much by way of love and affection either.

“I was a football referee to quite a decent standard,” he revealed, adding that he was a referee at Conference level and assistant referee at National League level.

With his commitments at the school he has retired his whistle and flag, but he does attribute refereeing for adding to his man management skills.

“Dealing and managing people in stressful situations on the pitch showed me that everyone is different and everyone has to be handled in different ways. I miss the 90 minutes of a game, but I don’t miss everything else that goes along with it.”

It was actually flicking through the prospectus of Oaklands College, shortly after his tax man dreams had been thwarted, that he fell upon the Greenkeeping and Grounds Management course.

“So that’s what I did,” he said of a decision which must go down as one of his best ever.

“I did a one year’s course including some work experience at Tottenham before getting an interview at Harrow School.”

Lee worked his way through the ranks at Harrow before eventually becoming Grounds Manager. He made the move to Charterhouse after 12 years and it was further four years before the attraction of his current employer saw him make the move… four years ago in the middle of Covid!

His attitude to being the man in charge of the most famous sporting fields in the world is refreshingly down to earth.

“I personally don’t look at the fact that it is Eton any differently to how I looked at it at either of my previous schools.

First and foremost I’m looking to produce playing surfaces for the boys. It’s just on a bigger scale.”

Lee manages a team of 30 at Eton which is split into three areas – the playing fields team, which looks after 38 winter sports pitches covering 600 acres; the gardens team which looks after the formal areas of the school and the gardens of the 25 boarding houses, and the landscaping team which works on the meadows, the hedges, the trees and the management of Dorney Lake, which was the venue for the 2012 Olympic Rowing regatta.

The most famous school grounds in the world

The most famous school grounds in the world

There are also 500 acres of farmland which doesn’t come under the management of Lee and his team.

“My goal is always to try and improve year on year and I feel that as a team we’ve gone on a bit of a journey since I came here. We aren’t perfect but we always want to be better, and always try to be better.

“We came second to Whitgift School in the GMA Awards last year so to win it this year shows that we haven’t rested on our laurels. We went again and have been recognised and that is great for the team to show them that the hard work they’ve put in has been recognised,” said Lee.

If there is one thing that Lee is particularly hot on, it’s presentation.

“We have parents and grandparents visiting the school, as well as other visitors and people who walk around the grounds, as we are an open site in the town, so presentation is very important.

I want to make sure that we are always on point, that pins are straight goal posts are clean etc.

All small things, but they are noticeable if they are not done well.”

Lee may not have learned the phrase back at school in Borehamwood, but he is an advocate of Carpe Diem – seizing the day!

“The biggest thing I’d say about this site is when the opportunity comes up to do work, you’ve got to do it because if you miss the boat you may not get the chance again for some time.

“The reason that is the case here at Eton is the weather. We are getting more rain and with the Thames so close to us our water table is higher than most, while our fixture list, with over 1500 boys on the role, is packed. There is play on most pitches every single day but if there is a gap we will go on and carry out work,” said Lee, who explained that the boys play sport from 2pm every day.

There is one sport that doesn’t give Lee too many headaches when it comes to presentation. The Eton Wall Game is unique to the school, and bizarre barely covers it.

Two teams, one comprising pupils from College, which is one of the boarding houses, pit themselves against a team made up of the “Oppidans”, pupils from all the other boarding houses. The combination of rugby and football doesn’t produce much by the way of scoring with many matches finishing 0-0 but it is a spectacle nonetheless.

The most famous school grounds in the world

The most famous school grounds in the world

It is played on a strip of ground called the Furrow five metres wide and 110 metres long, next to a slightly curved brick wall erected in 1717.

The St Andrew’s Day match, in particular, is viewed by many as one of the highlights of the year which sees almost the entire school turns out to watch.

It is a bitterly contested clash, with the Oppidans currently holding a slight advantage at 48 victories to the 43 of College, with the remainder ending in draws.

“We don’t have to prepare the pitch for the Wall Game, but it is tradition for the Head Groundsman to toss the coin before it starts,” revealed Lee.

While that is not something any other Grounds Manager has on his list of tasks, there are many others which are just the same as any grounds team up and down the country.

“A few summers ago we had the dry hot weather where everything burnt off and died while we had the frosts at the end of that year while we’ve had the floods as well.

“As people who work on grounds we have to adapt and we learn how to know where we can make a difference and which parts of our land that we need to avoid. This time last year was a nightmare for us in terms of trying to get things done to the cricket square.”

Lee has come a long way from that 16 year old unfulfilled tax man back in Borehamwood. What would the Lee, with 20 more years’ of experience under his belt, say to him to cheer him up?

“I would say to grab every opportunity that comes your way because you just don’t know where it is going to take you. And in this job, if there is something you want, you can really go out and get it.”

And coming from the man who now looks after the most famous sports fields in the world, that is very sound advice.