Grass Clippings

Reflections on SW19


Any other year than 2020, this would be LTA Finals Week at the All England Club, the highlight of the British tennis diary. It holds special memories for me, for it will be 30 years ago that as a fresh-faced student on my placement year, I was the chosen recipient from my college to go to assist at the AELTC for the grass court season.

During ‘Wimbledon Fortnight’, the whole place seemed to change rapidly during the last few weeks of June. Marquees appeared over hard courts and a battalion of ball boys and girls were taken through drills on ball retrieval. Students on summer vacation were shown the ropes (literally) on the essential methods of unfurling court covers on the outer championship lawns.

LTA volunteer referees were reacquainted with old comrades on line duties.  The permanent staff seemed unfazed by all the peripheral changes, after a decade under the reign of Jim Thorn – Head Groundsman. They had the Thorn methods drilled into them, routines that could account for almost any eventuality, apart from a direct nuclear airstrike I imagine.

For them the procession of incomers would be similar to watching the circus arriving into town. But in 1990 a sad tinge was palatable for all concerned, it was to be Jim’s last year at the helm before retirement and we all knew this. Eddie Seaward the incoming designate, had arrived in the spring, on the same day I had caught the train down from my Lancashire college to arrive at the Church Lane entrance. We were the newbies together and so all the hullabaloo surrounding the event was new and exciting. Probably the realisation that was a not just going to be a church fete, but a worldwide media show was when the BBC crew arrived with van after van load of cabling. All the TV cameras of this era where still direct fed by wire to the BBC studio suite at the Aorangi Park practice facilities, within the estate. Extra staff were also drafted in to assist the grounds crew for the event, a handful of chosen grounds and greenkeepers from local clubs who had past the All England test. Not fazed by the oncoming storm of player and public which were to invade sleepy SW19.

Everyone knew their roles without missing a heartbeat. During the tournament, there were two basic duties for morning set up, a team of court mowers, and a team of line markers who followed up the forma once the grass had been cut to 7mm. A small team also ensured paths and lawns were blown or swept clean and everything was ship shape. Jim, with his trademark cloth cap, sports jacket and roll-up cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth, would oversee every operation, a remarkably agile man for one reaching retirement age. A whimsical smile played up on his face most of the time, as though he waiting to tell a joke, then allowing the moment slide. He never got angry at any of the crew, but a stare was more than enough if he was displeased at a member of the team who failed to meet his standards. In tandem Eddie Seaward followed, in a smart broad pinstripe suit, probably feeling rather hot under collar in the sultry June heat of 1990, it was a humid month as I recall. The pressure was amplified by the growing knowledge that the eyes of the tennis world would soon be focusing on him alone. I was given the role as aid de camp, for the tournament weeks, which meant I was the runner between all the other departments, from referees office, the Club Secretary and any other section of the All England’ which needed to be relied upon at an instance. The role came with an all access pass card to all points of the estate except the royal box and I was able to roam every corridor and knew the short cut from point to point to avoid the crowds during play days.

From daybreak the set up was frantic until the gates opened for public access. Once play commenced, all of the grounds crew were on rain watch and the team knew to muster to either Centre Court, or next door to No1 Court which was at that time, firmly attached to the side of the Centre arena like an oversized  lean-to.

The original architecture of Charles Stanley Peach was still very much untouched in the 1990’s. The pre-formed concrete balustrades and 1920’s style industrial façade evident through layers of thick green paint and Virginia creeper. Jim had given me privy access to the plans for the complete transformation of the grounds. The roof extension, the underground rabbit warren to be burrowed out and the land grab that was to be instigated in the future. All this intelligence granted on the condition that I shared this with no one. ‘It’s going to take over twenty years plus years to bring this to fruition’ he said, and he was right on that account and the rest. The routine of the days of the tournament were long and enduring, post set up the staff were on standby.

Never far from centre of No1 court, you would rotate between watching tennis from the ‘pony roller’ corner of centre court or people watching from the players balcony or the gantry above No3 court, a crow’s nest to see all tennis life below. Occasionally a silver-screen personality or a VIP could be seen from this advantage point, ambling towards the south west entrance hall and onward to the royal box or court side seats. I recall seeing Charlton Heston, then in his 70’s and shrinking in stature walking this route and Jimmy Hill who was a keen tennis player as well as footballer and commentator taking to his regular member’s seat.

On several occasions during the Championships the staff were called to action stations on centre court as rain halted play. The cover was a one-and-a-half tons of heavy gauge canvas sheet which took around 18 souls to unfurl, run out and lash down to an anchoring rail the other side of the court. We had been drilled on to be sure of your footing while pulling the sail, as it was known, missed step then trip and this would mean you would be enveloped under the fabric. The advice was to stay put until the sail was raised, for behind each of the north and south end walls were masts which were elevated through a gearing system to raise it into position and a steel wire was drawn taught passing under the canvass (before the court was covered) so creating the largest tent you could imagine. The buried groundsman misfortune had happened to one of the crew before, to the glee of the bored damp crowd in the round and to the embarrassment of the individual who appeared from under this canvas bedspread. Court No1 had an even more Heath Robinson configuration where the canvas was drawn up two mast towers, on the side of the court closest to centre arena concourse. It was fascinating to watch, as the winding gear dragged ship grade cable work, followed by the canvass sheet up into position. There was a fair amount of apprehension on how much pressure could be exerted on the masts and wires to create a taught structure.  I am sure the current grounds team are relieved that the current system, the multi-million pound roof with computer controlled ‘electric actuation’ roof trusses are rotated into position, before air-conditioning is activated and monitored to keep the court in pristine condition.  All that is needed is a flick of a few switches when the rain drops appear.

Thirty years has now passed in what feels like a blink of an eye and there is only one of the ground crew left in harness of the original team I knew of that year. Sadly, both Jim and Eddie are no longer with us and probably a dozen faces I would have known are mowing great lawns in the sky. I had kept in touch with both these mentors over the years, even when work took me abroad. I would visit Eddie from time to time, when trips bought me through London, and I would visit the club and have a cuppa with the old boy. I would marvel at all the improvements that were instigated, with the secret knowledge that I had seen most of the plans decades before. The All England has an extensive library and photographic record section, in the museum on site, which tally’s the rise to fame of the venue from Walpole Road to international super star it is today. The celebrated home of the LTA tournament and the list of distinguished players who would have bowed as they pass under the Kipling lament, over the entrance doors to Centre Court. But the stories of the crew who made the tournament possible will not go recorded. I only know a fraction of the tales from SW19 and the stories of these characters who made the All England what it is today, still make me smile, in a Jim Thorn kind of way.

Peter Bradburn | Course and Grounds Manager |