Tonbridge School invests in Baroness

A stable relationship

Versatility is the name of the game in the relationship between Lister Wilder and the prestigious Tonbridge School in Kent. The school turns to the company’s Ashford depot’s Area Sales Manager Oliver Gerrish for anything from portable lighting towers to a scarifier … plus one of the most versatile of all mowers. 

The Baroness LM285 was a perfect fit in the brief for a mower that could deliver a quality cut on wide expanses of playing fields, but equally on banks where competitor machines could not offer comparable levels of stability.

Tonbridge is one of the leading boys’ boarding schools in the UK and is known internationally for the quality not just of its education but also its facilities, which include glorious gardens and 150 acres of beautifully maintained playing fields. As well as rugby, football, hockey and cricket pitches, there are three astro-turf pitches and courts for tennis, rackets, squash, fives and hockey. 

The standards that are maintained mean that the playing fields are used not just by pupils but on occasions by elite sportsmen and women, notably during the 2012 Olympics when the Australian team did its final preparation there. Likewise, the setting is very popular for weddings with up to three sometimes catered for around the site on any one day.

The all-round excellence was what attracted horticulturist Simon Willems to take the role of Director of Grounds and Gardens in the middle of pandemic-struck 2020. “I was really happy in my previous role at Sevenoaks School but I couldn’t resist the attraction here of leading a substantial team of 17 and the sheer commitment to the grounds that goes with it,” says Simon. 

That dedication similarly applies to sourcing the best machinery. Simon saw a gap in the mowing fleet for the Baroness LM285 on two counts. “I particularly liked its ability to work on a wider range of terrains than the mowers we already had,” he says. “While they could work on banks at up to 15 degree slopes, the Baroness is stable right the way up to 20 degrees. The fact that we no longer need to hand mow our banks saves a lot of time.

“But we can also use it on what we call our Lower Pitches which were previously cut with gang mowers. We use it with one of our other mowers and between them they can get all those pitches cut and striped up significantly better than you could ever achieve with gang mowers. The standard of presentation it helps us achieve is really important.”

The LM285 achieves its stability by being up to 40% lighter than similar mowers in its class, and then combines that with high traction and a wide wheelbase at the rear. The twin-traction drive pump arrangement means the machine has particularly strong climbing ability as well as balance. Simon also likes the further versatility he gets from being able to operate it as a triple rather than five-unit machine for tight areas.

Simon believes the standard of the sports fields can be driven still higher and is developing a proactive long-term management programme structured around the rotating cycle of sports and their individual needs. Irrigation and drainage will be priorities, but more immediately his team is tackling thatch problems using a Ryetec P1600 scarifier and Charterhouse DS1200 top dresser, both sourced from Lister Wilder. Over one recent half-term, a total of 800 tonnes of sand was applied.

A SnowEx gritter is another machine from Lister Wilder, along with 12 Stephill SLT5000 mini LED portable lighting towers powered by diesel generators for evening sports training sessions. Each tower illuminates an area greater than 3,200 sq. metres at 20 lux average intensity. 

“Lister Wilder have been very good on all fronts, both here and at Sevenoaks School,” says Simon. “Oliver Gerrish was very proactive in helping us choose the right equipment and we have had all the support we need from Tim Cottrell (Service Manager) and Jack Blood (Service Engineer). I can’t speak too highly enough of them both. Our arrangement is that Jack comes in for a couple of days at a time and generally repairs and adjusts. That works well – I am a strong believer in buying the best equipment and then looking after it for the long term.”

Lockdowns have posed some tough challenges for Simon’s team. “They are absolutely top-notch and I am very proud of how they have coped,” he says. “When we started back in September the pupils played just about every sport going in order to social distance, and my guys got the cricket season going while also preparing for rugby and football. It was the same with the gardens to get them looking good again. It really was phenomenal.”