A cut above: inside the life of one of Britain’s premier groundsmen

Contrary to popular belief, being a groundsman is not just about cutting grass.

For Peter Craig, Grounds and Gardens Manager at the Lensbury Club, it’s politics, science and obsession all rolled into one.

The 62-year-old from Chorley realised his future career path when, as a schoolboy, his form master called him in for a meeting a couple of months before he was due to sit his A-levels.

He said: “She said to me ‘Peter, if you were to go home today, spend all day and all-night studying for the next two months before your exams, you’ll still fail.’”

It became clear that he had to find work quickly and fortunately it was around this time when his father first took him to Old Trafford Cricket Ground.

He said: “I remember walking out, seeing the outfield at Old Trafford for the very first time when I was 17 and I thought bloody hell, that’s amazing.

“So, I hand wrote a letter to Old Trafford saying in not so many words, give us a job. And they did.”

From there Craig worked his way up from apprentice to single hand groundsman switching Lancashire for London in 1986.

The pinnacle of his career came at the end of his first stint at the Lensbury in 1998 when he was made Grounds Manager at the 45-acre Hurlingham Club in the heart of Fulham, one of the most exclusive members clubs in the country and the home of croquet.

GREEN OASIS: The Hurlingham Club. Credit: Herry Lawford via Flickr

He said: “It’s a green oasis in a concrete jungle. You drive through the gates and it’s like you’re in rural Surrey.

“It was my dream job. But it wasn’t just my job. It was my identity. It was who I was, and it gave me great status in the industry.”

Craig managed 26 full-time staff looking after 28 grass tennis courts, a dozen artificial courts, eight croquet lawns, a cricket ground, two bowling greens, a nine-hole golf course plus countless meticulously cultivated flower beds and trees.

He described the first 16 years there as the happiest of his life, but a couple of years before he left in 2017 things took a sour turn.

He said: “I still think about it every day. It hit me that hard.

“Nothing compares to Hurlingham and it’s so upsetting. That’s where I wanted to end my career.

“I tend to move forward and not dwell too much on the past which is why what happened at Hurlingham frustrates me so much because I want to forget it.

“I want to wash it out of my system and get on with things, but it had such a deep impact.

“And I’ll always regret not achieving what I knew I could achieve because of somebody else, not because of something that I did.”

GROUND BREAKING: Craig’s move was big news. Credit: Peter Craig

Craig had few regrets over his four-decade long career, but one stuck in his mind after he narrowly missed out on the holy-grail of groundskeeping positions: managing the grass courts at Wimbledon.

He said: “When I went for the Wimbledon interview, they asked the most basic question you could ever possibly be asked for one of the top jobs in the world.

“And I didn’t know the height of a tennis net.”

This wasn’t the only mistake he made in his career, notably he almost halted a test match at Old Trafford in the 1970s after overwatering a repaired popping crease, an error that could have cost him his job.

But Craig went unpunished and other similar experiences moulded his own style of management.

He said “I’ve been described as firm but fair. I’d rather be given the chance, make a mistake and apologize than not be given the chance at all.

“I’ve gone into an industry and done things differently, presented myself differently.

“If you want to be treated with respect, then you’ve got to play the game.

“You people out there wouldn’t believe that cutting grass could be pressurized in any way.

“But the politics of working somewhere like the Hurlingham is challenging.

“I’ve always been very forthright and honest about how I feel and what I need.

“And I think it’s that forthright nature, honesty, determination and sheer bloody mindedness that got me where I got.

“But it’s also got me in trouble on several occasions because you fight your battles, so to speak.”

Post-Hurlingham Craig returned for a second spell at the Lensbury in Teddington, a resort, hotel and conference centre.

HOME TURF: Craig returns to the Lensbury. Credit: Squid45, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Lensbury has developed into one of the go-to bases for rugby teams in the past few years, hosting the likes of England, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Samoa.

He added: “For the first time ever, I had to turn that into a football pitch.

“Aston Villa came and they were over the moon with the facilities, plus we had the referees for Euro 2020.

“I’ve never had to do that before and I must admit it was nerve-racking, but it went like a dream.

“Surprisingly professional footballers are the ones I found the most pleasant and grateful.”

“I had this idea in my head that footballers tend to be prima donnas and entitled, and yet Aston Villa were brilliant.

Approval is incredibly important to Craig but as his career winds down, its his own sense of pride that drives him forward.

“I still get the same thrill when I stand back and look at the grass courts.

“I can’t wait for this winter to pass so I can get them looking their best. I’m so excited.

“I can’t help it. It’s like a drug.”

Feature image credit: Peter Craig

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peter craig
peter craig
17 December 2021 10:56 am

Great writing by the author. It was so good to talk with someone who showed a genuine interest in the profession.

Janet Gaunt
Janet Gaunt
15 December 2021 3:07 am

Awesome story, great work to be proud of! Btw most of the world does not know the height of a tennis net nor do they care! Cheers

14 December 2021 9:31 pm

Yes Peter is one of the best respected grounds professionals I had many happy times visiting him at the hurlingham hoping to go and visit him in the new year at the lensbury club

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