Live and kicking at West Heaton Bowling, Tennis and Squash Club

West Heaton Bowling, Tennis and Squash Club is 150 years old this year, an age unmatched by any sports or social club in the Four Heatons district of south Manchester, it claims.

Only Nelstrop Flour Mill in Stockport is older, says club member Alan Mansfield (pictured below), who handles marketing for West Heaton Bowling, Tennis and Squash Club (WHBTC).

The 1870s was a time of great change. After the railways came, so did high-end suburbia, inhabited by wealthy textile magnets among other notable residents.

Like pioneering sports hubs of the Victoria era, WHBTC began with a pavilion and croquet lawn, which still survive. “The turf serves as a junior kickabout area for U10s football now,” adds Alan, “with a central square of artificial grass where we place a table tennis table in good weather.”

His local history research has unearthed a map dating back to 1895, which clearly shows the pavilion and a bowling green (on which the first match took place in 1873). “The first houses, built in the early 1870s, overlooked bare ground, before the club emerged on a triangular parcel of land.”

Elements of the current pavilion date back to 1930, surrounded by later additions. “It keeps growing,” says Alan, “never-ending, like painting the Forth Bridge once was.”

Run almost solely by volunteers (the secretary and a part-time bar steward are the only paid employees), strengthening club finances allow West Heaton to contract out essential groundscare services to keep courts and the bowling green in good order.

The surface looks in fine fettle – something increasingly rare among cash-strapped clubs. “It’s one of the best kept in the region,” Alan notes, “and well-used. We’re in the Cheadle & Gatley open leagues and last year topped the veterans division. Our oldest regular player is 93.”

The contractor handles a number of local sports clubs besides West Heaton, and balancing budgets with the turfcare needed to maintain quality playing surfaces is an ongoing conversation with them, they say, “especially in these challenging times”.

“Scarification, verticutting and aeration using our Toro ProCore aerator and GKB V-strong kit, all vital services for the bowling green as part of end of season renovation we usually conduct mid to late September,” they explain. It’s all part of the commitment to maintaining a healthy sward over the long term and particularly important given that trees on its southern edge shade a good third of the surface.

Renovations also include overseeding with Barenbrug Bar 2 using a GKB V-strong dimple seeder after hollow coring to three or four inches. The cultivar is hardwearing and resists disease, the contractor adds.

Bowling greens (Crown green in the North West) are up against it across Greater Manchester. The quality is patchy and clubs are crying out for volunteers. The slow start to the 2023 spring season and prolonged dry spells meant May dawned before greens started to show their quality. West Heaton is again fortunate in having programmed irrigation for its green, turned on daily in dry conditions.

Over the club’s lifetime, the original cinder tennis courts gave way to shale ones, with three Playdeck areas added in 1979 and three synthetic surfaces in 1990 to replace the “unforgiving” hard courts, while TigerTurf superceded the lower level shale in 2003. Same brand synthetics replaced those in 2019.

“The artificial surfaces play a bit slower than natural grass, but don’t wear around the serving sites,” says Peter Goulding, House and Grounds Manager. “The old surfaces gave us 17 years’ use, so lasted well.”

“The lower courts are more popular – sheltered, they don’t have car park lights intruding and provide better viewing of the ball, so it made good economic sense to opt earlier for a replacement surface.”

“We rotary brush all six TigerTurf sand-filled courts regularly,” Peter confirms, “and use our mini tractor to haul a triangular brush over them fortnightly. The contractor undertakes more extensive maintenance, including sand cleaning and deep decompacting when needed.”

“West Heaton is a very busy tennis club,” the contractor spokesperson adds, “so maintaining the six floodlit sand-filled synthetic courts is essential. We usually loosen, lift and relay the infill every three or four months, with a deep clean twice a year.”

Such work is critical in ensuring the club delivers quality playing surfaces for its five men’s, four women’s and veterans’ teams.

Once a persistent problem, court drainage no longer holds up league matches or training sessions. “We play tennis year-round, and flooding proved a problem before we installed slip drains to take surface water to a soakaway. Our natural gradient also helps,” says Peter.

A 10,000l above-ground reservoir tank stores mains water to apply across the site, which includes attractive bedding by the car park, pavilion and lining the club perimeter. “Our water consumption is scarcely more than a domestic user,” Peter says proudly.

Alan adds: “Even after a deluge, the courts are playable after ten minutes – so different from how it was.”

What can cause issues though is autumn leaf fall. The club is surrounded by Victorian houses, many with gardens boasting fine deciduous specimens. Acting as a visual and acoustic screen, they aren’t a friend when foliage drops. The club liaises with neighbours to ensure they are happy with reducing the tree canopy, conducted by a local gardening firm, which also cuts the hedges every fortnight.

“Our four drag mats are great for picking up leaves,’ Peter says. “Stepping on them creates mulch, which can pollute the surfaces, so it’s important to remove as many as we can. The contractor applies chemical and moss treatments, which help keep courts clean and hygienic.”

The club is loathe to dispose of materials that it can repurpose or recycle and canvasses its 600+ members regularly on eco-friendly ways of saving money. “The artificial grass from our first courts has come in handy across the site,” says Peter.

“Stretches of it criss-cross the kitchen garden as paths to provide easy access to the plots, while more of it provides the square on the football kickabout area. We have links with Heaton Moor Golf Club, who wanted some to lay as link paths between holes, so we supplied them with off-cuts too.”

The shale tennis surface, replaced in 2003, also found a home on the course, complementing the synthetic turf along paths. Even tennis balls are recycled.

Several years ago, in typically creative mode, the club spotted an opportunity to create something really special – its own kitchen garden.

Waste ground used for tipping rubble, grass clippings and other leftovers was transformed into a fruit and vegetable oasis, lovingly tended by Peter’s wife Una and a team of volunteers.

“The soil quality was phenomenal,” Una recalls, “with plenty of mulch and organic matter. Peter and I had visited family in Guatemala and returned keen to create an organic garden. Peter built a retaining wall and away we went.”

That was some six years ago and the first plantings included pear, plum and apple trees, followed by tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, mangetout, spring, red and white onions, potatoes, kale, spinach, runner beans and green and yellow courgettes. Complementing the fruit trees are soft fruits – raspberries, strawberries – and rhubarb.

“We wanted to include wildflowers, so planted a patch of them, plus calendulas, to attract pollinators.”

I leave the club with Una and a member volunteer chatting about the next work planned in the garden. “The winter cabbage has to go in,” says Una, “then there’s the broccoli and runner beans to pick. The apples, plums and pears are coming on now too.”

A more productive use of waste ground would be hard to find and, in keeping with the trend among football clubs to sow, grow and harvest their own kitchen produce, West Heaton is helping to ease its bottom line in an era when every penny counts.

Article by Greg Rhodes

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