Meet the man who has helped make Leamington's bowling greens and football pitch the envy of the world

In his latest column, Peter Bowen tells the story of a remarkable man who discovered the secret to what one international player said were the best bowling greens in the world.

The bowls greens at Victoria Park were described by a New Zealand skip as possibly the best in the world, and better quality than some greens he had putted on at international golf venues.
The bowls greens at Victoria Park were described by a New Zealand skip as possibly the best in the world, and better quality than some greens he had putted on at international golf venues.

Now the dust has settled on the successful Commonwealth Games, and the part played by Royal Leamington Spa in that success, tributes should be paid to one of the forgotten individuals, who made that possible.

Idris Elms, master lawns man, was one of the individuals who helped lay down the foundations for the bowls greens at Victoria Park, where the Games bowls matches were played. The lawns were described by a New Zealand skip as possibly the best in the world, and better quality than some greens he had putted on at international golf venues.

Now groundsman at Leamington Football club, Idris was earlier employed by Warwick District Council as a trainee groundsman from 1969 at various locations such as Jephson Gardens, Edmonscote Sports Track and Victoria Park. He worked hard at learning his trade and was particularly keen on the techniques associated with lawns and maintaining them.

Idris Elms

He explained that the first green at Victoria Park was built in 1909 on an old refuse tip. There was a programme of continuous improvement and laying down of new greens up until the present day. There are now five greens of international quality. World Championships, Commonwealth Games and National Championships bowls have been played at Leamington since 1974.

Idris was appointed greenkeeper at the bowling greens in Victoria Park in 1975. For him, the big break-through in laying down greens for lawn bowling came with the realisation that sand from the River Severn Estuary was the perfect base.

He explained that he found that the sand had an unusual quality in that when laid properly it would improve drainage and grass development because it created better conditions for a rooting system. Key was the fact that Severn Estuary sand had smaller, rounded particles which when laid would not move and created a smooth surface. There is an art involved in the cutting and levelling process however, only learned by experience.

Idris said contractors brought the sand up to Leamington in 20 ton loads. Five tons were laid on each of the greens by wheelbarrow. It was hard work and it took a whole day to spread and level the sand on each green. Watering and regular maintenance allowed the turf to grow strong roots and produce a perfect playing surface.

He left the council in 1989 and there followed ground keeping roles at Pottertons, Emscote Lawn School at Henley and in between times at Kenilworth Croquet Club, Avenue Bowling Club and Stratford Bowling Club. His reputation had grown to the point that by the eighties he was acknowledged as an authority in his trade.

In 2000, Mick Brady approached him after the ground at Harbury Lane had been purchased for a new Leamington Football Club. He was persuaded to look at the ground with the late Tony Gardner. Asked what he thought of the site, Idris told Mick Brady the ground was made up of blue clay and was rubbish.

“However, in time I was persuaded by Mick, the numerous volunteers and the enthusiasm and friendliness of everyone that in spite of everything, I would give it a go,” Idris added. The early games were played on blue clay but after two years trenches were dug two inches wide to a depth of nine inches to meet up with the existing drains.

Problems arose when Mick Brady said he wanted a sand pitch of the same quality as the old Windmill ground. What followed was the laying of 100 tons of estuary sand until 2019 and the pandemic, when only Mansfield sand was available. This did not create a good mix and the problem was solved in 2022 with the hire of an Ecodresser which allowed an acceptable mix.

Harbury Lane is recognised by footballers as one of the great grass pitches to play on in the lower FA leagues. Over the past 23 years, Idris has been recognised for his work and won no less than 13 awards for his skills since 2003 at a local, regional, and national level.

“It was a pleasure to work with Nigel Hodgkins and the band of other volunteers to produce a pitch and stadium where people could enjoy football for years to come,” Idris declared. He plans to retire when the club moves to a new site in two years' time.

Leamington FC chairman Jim Scott said: 'Idris has done a wonderful job for our club transforming a pitch that was not fit for purpose in the early days into one that was subject of much favorable comment. His guidance, hard work and commitment to the role over many years has been a huge asset to us."