Schools of Somerhill invests in Baroness

The Go Anywhere Mower

Somerhill opts for Baroness LM281

Amidst all the focused hard work involved in maintaining 175 diverse acres of school grounds, there are some especially proud moments for Ben Sceal. None better than when a visitor pauses during a tour to take a photo specifically of the landscape that he and his team of four have honed to perfection. 

“I treat every event and visit as if it were an interview,” says Ben, who is Head of Grounds and Gardens at the spectacular Schools of Somerhill on a hill overlooking Tonbridge in Kent. “It’s very rewarding to know that the grounds have done their bit to create a good overall impression.”  Those who compile the Good Schools Guide were certainly persuaded – they refer to it as a ‘stunning setting’.

With a 400-year-old Jacobean mansion as its centrepiece, Somerhill is one of the most impressive and historic of school settings — yet it has only performed that role since 1991. It’s new beginning came after many years of neglect in which decay, storm damage and vandalism took a heavy toll. The repair and restoration of the house was a huge project, and that in turn then necessitated bringing the grounds into a state that would provide the right setting for a high flying educational establishment. 

Over the past few months, a key contributor to the quality of the school’s high presentation standards has been a flexible friend in the shape of a  Baroness LM281 four-wheel drive triplex cylinder mower from Lister Wilder’s Ashford branch. While its 28hp Kubota diesel engine gives it the power to cut large swathes of longer grass, it also has the finesse to deliver an exceptional level of  finish. It’s other great beauty lies in the fact that it can cover large areas at a good speed, and in doing so save precious man hours. What’s more, with its renowned Baroness cutting cylinders and tungsten-tipped  bedknives, the quality of cut persists month after month.

As is the way with all Baroness machines, simplicity is the key, with the minimum of control systems and no complicated electronics, yet still retaining exceptionally high levels of engineering integrity and quality.

At Somerhill, the L281 goes just about anywhere in an estate that has two large terraced playing fields plus much more grass in the fine lawns, parkland and grassy paths that line its lake and ponds. The picturesque playing fields are the main venue for a full range of sports for some 600 pupils ranging from mixed pre-prep to single sex upper schools from seven to 13 (11 for girls). Match days are each important for the impression given by the grounds, but it’s on sports day, with the individual running lanes each striped-up, that Ben gets most satisfaction. 

He first joined the school in 2000 and played a key role in the initial renovation and drainage of the sports surfaces. Returning after a spell away to take the lead role, he has pushed the standards still higher with a regular programme of slitting, verti-draining,  top dressing, scarifying and re-seeding. It is a plan that keeps the sward in top condition and, given the sheer extent of the grass, daily cutting is needed to stay upsides with it during the active growing season. 

With all but Ben and one other groundsman furloughed as the 2020 cutting season began, it was clear that the tired previous machine that had been handling much of the workload needed to be replaced. With Lister Wilder’s Baroness L281 recruited to the role, much-needed time was saved because it also had the flexibility to handle areas that had previously been hand-mown.

“It provides such a great finish on big and small areas,” says Ben. “We have tennis courts with banking that have always been hand-mown and were amazed to see how well the Baroness handled it while also applying nice big stripes. It is also a back-up to our fairway mower – its flexibility is absolutely brilliant.”

While the L281 comes into its own on slopes and banks, the main front lawn and other small ornamental lawns, it also earns its keep on the cross-country course, the various pathways and on the roadway through the parkland. It also ably supports the school’s fairway mower on the playing surfaces.  As a result of all that, it is at work all day, every day between April and August.

“We have been able to cut down quite a lot on on our hand mowing,” says Ben. “We really like the quality of the cut, the fact that it stays on-cut, and the grip and stability. You feel safe because you are so low and wide – there’s absolutely no fear of it tipping or sliding. It’s a very solid and well made bit of kit. It’s also comfortable and that’s important if you are on it eight hours a day.”