ON SITE: House of Kings

More than one million tourists visit Westminster Abbey, in the heart of London, every year. As Great Britain's “Coronation Church” for the past 900 years, Westminster Abbey frequently hosts church leaders and statesmen from around the world.

Special events at Westminster Abbey in the past few months included the service marking the 50th anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. President Putin of Russia and President and Mrs. George W. Bush were among official Westminster Abbey visitors last year.

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The Abbey's religious and historical significance, along with its location in London's Parliament Square, draws visitors from abroad, while daily worship services and a number of special events throughout the year bring London and United Kingdom visitors. All of these activities keep the staff and caretakers of Westminster Abbey at a high level of activity year-round.

TOURIST FUNDING

Although it is an Anglican church, part of the Church of England, the Abbey receives no funds from the state or from the Church of England. Funds to operate and maintain the Abbey complex, which includes St. Margaret's Church, several gardens and more than 7 acres of lawn area, come in part from donations and bequests. By and large, however, annual operating income comes from the entry fees of the one million paying visitors. In fact, tourism accounts for about 80 percent of the Abbey's income.

With London's usually moderate climate and a busy year-round schedule of tourist visits and special events, maintaining Westminster Abbey grounds and lawn areas is an on-going project.

OLD GARDENS PUT TO GOOD USE

The Abbey's College Garden has been cultivated for more than 900 years; old stone walls on two sides of the garden date to the 14th century. The original garden goes back as far as the 11th century, and was used to grow medicinal herbs for the Monks' Infirmary. Some herbs, such as fennel and hyssop, are still grown today.

The garden also provided much of the Abbey's food. Apple, pear and plum trees were planted and grape vines were cultivated. Some of the grassy areas were actually harvested for hay.

MAINTAINING FOOT TRAFFIC

The grass areas aren't used for hay production now, but they get even heavier use. In addition to the regular high-volume of foot traffic, lawn areas are also used for outdoor events and fund-raising activities.

Maintaining the lawns and garden areas that are now open to the public is the responsibility of two full-time gardeners and one part-time assistant. Decorative garden areas, such as the Knot Garden, require detailed maintenance and extra time. This means lawn care chores have to be handled as efficiently as possible to get everything done and keep the lawns presentable.

Efficiency was a key factor when Westminster Abbey purchased its mower some 10 years ago. Cormac Connolly has been part of the Abbey grounds care staff for nine years, and is the primary mower operator. He says it is important that the mower was maneuverable and compact, so that it would take him less time and save on trimming.

“The … collection system is a great time-saver as well, especially for picking up leaves each fall,” says Cormac.

Westminster Abbey grounds have many large trees, including a number of plane trees (Platanus × hispanica). Five of the trees were first planted in 1850. “Plane trees were planted in great numbers 100 to 150 years ago because of their resistance to pollution,” Cormac says.

The trees have extremely large, numerous leaves, which are dropped throughout the fall, primarily from September through December. “Due to the size and quantity of the leaves, leaving them on the turf would be disastrous.” Cormac adds that one of the mower's main functions is sucking up those leaves so they can get them off the turf in a timely manner.

ROUTINE LAWN CARE

Abbey lawn areas are primarily perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne). Crews aerate turf only in high-compaction areas, usually in the fall. Typical fertilization includes a spring and fall feeding with standard fertilizer mixes. Gardeners water turf as needed during summer months. No herbicides or pesticides are applied.

“With the limited time our gardeners have to maintain the grounds, our turf program is fairly basic,” says Cormac. He adds that the mower gives them the added efficiency and time-savings they need to keep the lawn neat and presentable.

He says the mower is pretty easy to maintain, too. “The engine is very accessible, which also saves time meeting regular maintenance needs.”

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer who resides in Lincoln, Neb.

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