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Potential unleashed

Potential unleashed: Millfield School has an enviable roll call of high achieving alumni. Scott MacCallum speaks with Craig Richardson, Head of Grounds and Gardens, to find out how they do it. 

Ask many people at which school they would have loved to have been a pupil and I’m pretty sure the name Hogwarts would feature strongly.

Not for me, though, the school I would have loved to attend is Millfield School, in Somerset.

Potential unleashed

Potential unleashed

I grew up learning about the great names who had been educated, and honed their sporting prowess, at Millfield School and I wanted to join them, not because I was particularly adept at any sport. Quite the reverse, I’m pretty inept at most sports. But I love sport and while I was never likely to achieve what the likes of Sir Gareth Edwards, Duncan Goodhew, Helen Glover, Adam Hastings, Tyrone Mings, Andrew Castle, Lando Norris, Chris Robshaw, Mako Vunipola and Huw Jones, to name just a handful, I would undoubtedly have become more proficient with some top quality coaching.

The site itself is phenomenal, and coupled with coaching of the highest quality, you can see exactly how the school has acquired its reputation.

No amount of talent or high level one-to-one coaching, however, can succeed without a quality surface on which to show off skills, and the man in charge of managing the sports surfaces, as well as maintaining the fantastic gardens around the school grounds, is Craig Richardson, Head of Grounds and Gardens.

“The brilliance of this school is that we pretty much cover every sport. It’s not just football and rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer, we’ve got grass tennis courts, we’ve got golf, we’ve got equestrian, the list goes on. Up until this year we had our own polo pitch and we still have an annual polo event. It’s a fantastic spectacle,” said Craig, in his calm north east accent.

With such a range of sports for which to provide surfaces, the entire site is 240 acres, Craig is fortunate to have a strong team of over 20 whose goal, set by Craig, is akin to those goals set for the elite sportsmen and women who are lucky enough to attend the school.

“We try to maintain our sports surfaces as close to professional surfaces as we can. There are going to be constraints because of time and also finance, but that is what we try to do.

“And we try to take it one stage further because, rather than just look for those standards for the first team pitches, we want to make all of our pitches to the same standard. So, whether it’s the under 15 Cs or the A team, I believe they should be playing on the same standard of surface.

“That is what we aspire to. Do, we get it right all the time? Probably not, but that’s our goal,” explained Craig.

The school, in the village of Street, was founded in 1935, a mere stripling alongside some of the country’s public schools but in those 88 years its sporting claims to fame has been unmatched. Where else, for example, could boast of having been represented at every Olympic Games since 1956.

Indeed, at the Rio Games in 2016, eight Millfieldians took part and won a total of four medals, in rowing, swimming and rugby sevens. Go back to the London Games in 2012 and Millfield was the most represented UK school.

There are 130 sports coaches on staff who oversee 24 diff erent sports including, in alphabetical order, athletics, badminton, basketball, chess, clay shooting, cricket, cross country, dance, equestrian, fencing, football, golf, hockey, karate, modern pentathlon, netball, rowing, rugby, skiing racing, squash, swimming tennis, trampolining and triathlon.

There is one word for that stable of sporting opportunity – WOW! Facilities include, a 50 metre swimming pool, the equestrian centre, sports halls, cricket nets, putting green, squash courts, water based hockey pitch, outdoor tennis courts, netball courts and a nine-hole golf course.

Definitely spoiled for choice! And it’s not just in sport which Millfield has produced the goods.

The world of entertainment can look to the school for producing some if its biggest stars – Lily Allen, Tony Blackburn, Sophie Dahl, and Rose Leslie, among a host of others, saw the firm foundations of their careers built at Millfield. The current Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, is a former pupil.

“There are so many talented people at the school and it is good to be in and around it,” said Craig, who recently watch the school’s long jump record being broken by one of the girls.

Despite having risen to the top echelons of grounds management Craig was actually a late starter. He spent the early part of his adult life in the casino business, where he worked around the world before a yearning for a career which would expose him to a little more sunlight.

“I was playing a lot of golf between contracts, and saw the opportunity to do something different with my life,” he recalled.

He approached a local college and they found him a work placement at Woodspring Golf Club, in Bristol, where he was lucky enough to fi nd Course Manager, Steve Chappell, there to mentor him. Steve went on to be Head Greenkeeper at Gleneagles for the Ryder Cup in 2014 and is now a Course Manager in Slovenia.

Potential unleashed

Potential unleashed

“He was great to work for and we had a young team which produced some very good surfaces.”

Having cut his teeth on golf he then moved to Ashton Gate, home of Bristol City Football Club, where he spent 15 years.

“I remember I started two days after 9/11 in 2001 working under Martin Plumley, who was Grounds Manager. When he moved on a year later I took on the Head Groundsman’s job. At that time we just had the stadium to look after, but I then took on the responsibility for the training pitches at Clifton College.

“We then build a training ground next door and helped level an area for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital School to enable them to create more sports fields before taking on a management contract from the school to look after the facilities.”

Towards the end of his time with Bristol City he had taken on the role of Head of Operations.

“It was amazing really. We were developing three stands at the ground and it was very exciting to be involved with the club. But then the job at Millfield came up. I had a great job at Bristol City and it took a lot to get me to move but with everything the school had to offer it was too great an opportunity to miss.”

As everyone knows, the trick is when starting a new job is to make a good impression early and Craig knew what he wanted to do. Using renovation techniques he’d learned at Bristol City from people including Premier Pitches he introduced new practices which had an immediate impact on the school’s playing surfaces.

“I was lucky that there was a good budget in place and we were able to buy a fraise mower, a disc seeder and a top dresser while we already had a fl eet of tractors and the manpower to carry out the work that I wanted to do. The pitches had never been fraise mown before, but it was something that I knew would bring about significant improvement.

“We also installed drainage and irrigation into a number of pitches and we now take the top off every pitch every year and top dress.

We’ve fraise mown the cricket square for the last three or four years and this year is probably the best we have had them.

“It has allowed us to do our renovations in-house and so we have been able to improve our surfaces and protect the investment that has gone into the pitches.

“Hopefully the school appreciates that and the children can appreciate what they have here when they go to other venues which perhaps don’t drain as well and perform a little bit differently.”

Standards across industry are rising all the time and expectation levels rise accordingly, but any pressure to clear the bar at a school which demands the highest standards is handled with a degree of sensible.

“I don’t think the pressure weighs on us. You can only do what you can do. We are limited with the soils that we have, the drainage that we have, the irrigation that we have and the finances that we have.

“We are not a premier league football club which can spend a lot of money on fertilisers and the latest technology etc, but seeing what can be achieved does give us something to shoot at – we should be trying to improve ourselves and improve the surfaces that we have to look after.”

It would take a very experienced eye to blind test successfully any Millfield pitch against the pitch of a professional team in a range of sports, so Craig and his talented team of groundsmen and gardeners are an extremely good fit for a school where striving for excellence is a non-negotiable.

For me I left the school still regretting that I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have attended but just wondering how many more pupils they would attract if they offered quidditch on the curriculum?