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Groundsman Martin Cross reflects on life at Queen's as he retires after over 30 years' service

18 March 2021

Our very best wishes to Martin Cross, the College's groundsman, who has retired after over 30 years' service. We asked him to tell us a bit about his time at the College; please read on below to hear his reflections on the past three decades.

'I started at Queen’s on 1 February 1990.  It was a big move for me leaving my wife and three boys behind until the College found me somewhere to live (in those days accommodation was part of the deal. On arrival in Oxford, I met Nigel Lewingdon the College Steward; he was a smashing and friendly man and made me very welcome from the get-go. He took me to the Florey building where I was to stay. The room was on the top floor and the front wall of the room was one huge window. It had a mezzanine floor with the bedroom up top.

Besides moving, other major things happened at that time: the contractors who extended and modernised the pavilion started work. I also had my first College football game that day. So, as you can imagine, my first day was full-on, but it didn’t stop there. By teatime I was starving but I knew no-one, I was in a strange environment with no internet or mobiles in those days. So, I had no-one to talk to. I was to get my dinners from the Hall and eat in the Buttery. Now, I’m a shy man and a working-class boy away from home and this was very strange environment. To make matters worse, I found the two people serving dinner totally intimidating: there was no friendly smile or hello there. (Over the years I’ve grown to know them and found them to be warm, friendly, and helpful.)

After tea it was back to the Florey. Remember: this is the middle of winter, February, and the room was one huge sheet of glass and there was no heating. (There was actually underfloor heating, but I didn’t know that, or how it worked.) I have never been so cold, miserable, and lonely in my life; by gad it was freezing. I lay in bed fully dressed shivering thinking ‘oh my God what have I done?’.

The extension to the pavilion didn’t go well and I can honestly say there was nothing on the building that Fred Simpson, the Clerk of Works at the time, didn’t have to make the contractors do again. Things didn’t get any easier. It was one of the driest springs and summers I can remember and the grass on the field burnt off; by the start of the cricket season the ground was yellow, and the grass was turning to dust. It became so bad that during one cricket game the players came running in demanding dustbins and buckets for water because someone had discarded a cigarette butt and the field was on fire.

There was a delay in signing the contract on our house in Lincoln Road, so my family moved into Florey with me for about a month until the house was ready in April 1990. I was entitled to one College dinner a week so that was always on a Friday after meeting the Boss, Martin Edwards. After getting dinner, I would go down to the Beer Cellar, have a beer with Nigel, Sean, Ken the Gardener, Alan Adams the Sparky, Roger the painter, and sometimes Fred, the Clerk of Works. These were great, great times - good men all.

Queen’s was a great sporting College and throughout the summer term many a great game was played. Teams would come from all over to give the boys a cricket match, and the College would give them a good day out and crowds of students would come down and support the players. (In those days Oxford University was one of a small handful of establishments exempt from having a bar license and so every college sports ground had a bar and a good time was had by all until the noughties when everything changed…unfortunately for the worse.)

My wife, Shirley, and I would provide lunch and teas. The atmosphere was great with the front of the pavilion full of cricketers and students, some doing their work, some picnicking and having a beer or two, and others kicking a ball around; truly halcyon days. The best of these days was an Old Members’ cricket match with the Crocodiles, always on Saturday of Summer Eights. What a day. Shirley and I would be in early; she would go shopping for the food and I would be getting the wicket ready - no covers in those days. It was quiet and still; the only sound was the birds and the noise of the little mower cutting the wicket. Shirley would be back by 9 am and she would start prepping food while I finished off my chores. By 10 am the teams would arrive and show their heads through the kitchen door. The Crocodiles are the College’s oldest Old Member team led by Jervis Smith and Charlie Anderson and a really great bunch. Pots of tea were made and there was banter and laughter as old friends met up after a long time. The students would arrive from 10.30 am onwards and by 11 am ish the game was on. By now the rowing had started too and the boathouses were filling up; the Pimms was flowing.  Students would wander down as the day rolled on and the Pimms and the beer flowed with the noise growing louder.  When there wasn’t a race on the river, the boaties would cheer on the cricket and the atmosphere was loud and charged.  At lunch, one of Shirley’s legendary spreads, the noise in the pavilion was amazing - 22 friends plus guests having a great time; it was magical. Then it was out for the second round. Old Members would come down to watch cricket, rowing, or both. Peter Southwell, the then College Chaplain, would always be there - a great supporter of College sport, even to this day.

Then we had to wash up all the plates, bowls, and cutlery, clear the tables, and get ready for tea. No such luxury as a dishwasher in those days: it was all hand wash. We barely finished clearing lunch and making sandwiches and laying out and they were coming back in for tea! Then it was another round of washing up and serving beer. In those days, the Queen’s ground was called the Queen’s Oval. The rowing would come to a climax on the last race at 6 pm then things started to quiet down as supporters drifted back to their colleges. At about 7.30 pm the game was over, stumps were pulled and put away, and 22 tired players were ready for a beer and a rest before going on their way to wherever their roads led them. And as the last one drove away, we had silence once more.

Throughout the nineties and the noughties the College was at its peak for sports. We won Cuppers in every challenge going, not only the big ones like rugby, football, hockey, netball, and cricket, but also thanks to the marvellous Baker boys, darts, table tennis, and spitting the furthest: you name it we won it. Some great sportsmen and women have passed through the College in my time as Groundsman at the College.

Martin Edwards was always the Captain of the ship and without his steadfast control the ground would not be where it is today. In my opinion it is the best ground in Oxford; we have great facilities, every team marvels at our changing rooms, we have a fully licensed bar and a five-star food hygiene rating from the City Council. Our hockey pitch is second to none, our football pitch is firm and dry - while others cry, we play. And our cricket square is not too bad either. Martin Edwards has been the greatest supporter of College sports in my 31 years as a Groundsman, a good boss, and a bloody good chap.

It’s been a privilege being Groundsman for Queen’s. Everyone has to set their stall to their abilities and work ethic coming to Oxford; I got it spot on and I’ve lived a charmed life for the last 30 years. And I’ve worked with some great people - Sue, Sean, John, Tracy are especially a great team - without them my time would have been a lot harder. The same with Gillian and Angela.  You’re all diamonds.

Finally, I must give a big thanks to my partner, best friend, and wife Shirley. She has been by my side every weekend for 31 years making sandwiches and teas, salads, and huge lunches, sometimes working a 12-hour shift, holding down a full-time job, and bringing up our three boys with no complaint: now that’s loyalty.'

Martin Cross

Martin and Shirley Cross