Wimbledon’s head gardener shares his planting tips – and an easy hanging basket recipe
Are you someone who wishes this fortnight of all-white, immaculate, world-class tennis action could go on all summer? Then here’s an idea that could take you from your sofa straight to Centre Court, no queuing necessary.
We’re talking about the 200-strong army of volunteer “honorary stewards” who assemble every year to ensure that the Championships’ 500,000 spectators receive a warm, Wimbledon welcome and enjoy their time inside SW19’s prestigious tennis club.
Nick Pearce, 60, from Surrey, has been stewarding for 23 years. And for the last decade, he’s been Wimbledon’s chief honorary steward, managing a team of volunteers who happily put their lives on hold and forget their families for two weeks of the year to “eat, sleep and breathe Wimbledon”.
This year will be Pearce’s last as chief honorary steward, an opportunity that has given him a front-seat view of the game’s most memorable recent moments.
“Witnessing Andy Murray lift the trophy for the Men’s Singles in 2013 was really special, as that was my first year in this role,” says Pearce. “And I’ll never forget the atmosphere when Rafa Nadal clambered onto the [commentary box] roof in the pitch black to greet the King and Queen of Spain after his win over Roger Federer [in the 2008 Men’s Singles final, which finished in the dark]. That was a real moment.”
The answer, really, is anyone. Pearce explains: “We have a cross-section of people from different backgrounds and with different skillsets, and all different ages, from people in their twenties to their late seventies. Most come back year in, year out because they just love being involved, but we take on around 20 new people every year.”
That heady, quintessentially British mix of top-class sport with a side dollop of strawberries and cream is what makes volunteers return. Many have their own stories of how they caught the Wimbledon bug – for Pearce, it was visiting Wimbledon in the 1970s as a child, and watching Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe battle one another on Centre Court. When, years later, a family friend mentioned the opportunity to volunteer as a steward, he jumped at the chance.
“My favourite moment is on day one,” says Pearce. “When the first ball is struck, the courts are pristine, the grass is looking immaculate and the grounds look spectacular. There are just so many good things about it.”
Applicants need to be able to work for the first full 10 days of the Championships, and those who become full members of the Honorary Stewards Association commit to being available on an annual basis. There’s lots of walking to be done so volunteers need to be in good physical shape, and open to the prospect of early starts and late finishes, as shifts often last for 12 hours or more.
Pearce’s day begins at 6am when he drives into London, and he doesn’t usually leave until 9.30pm. The stewards’ first job is to wake up people who have been camping out overnight and usher them to form Wimbledon’s world-famous queue, which has become something of an institution in itself.
Stewards then give out wristbands and dated and numbered queue cards to the legions of fans desperate to get through the turnstiles. Wimbledon is one of the few major sporting events for which you can buy premium tickets on the day of play, so spectator demand is huge. Then, it’s a case of keeping fans moving through to ticket sales, security, entry gates and finally into the grounds and courts.
This year saw a problem with people waiting up to 10 hours in the queue on day one of the Championships, which Pearce says was due to enhanced security: “The searching is still very thorough but the process is working much better now.”
Essentially, stewarding is a customer service role, says Pearce, who, in his “normal” life, runs a party retail business. He explains: “Most people are here to enjoy the tennis. Inevitably certain people might have a few too many drinks, so you might need to have a quiet word and ask them to quieten down for the sake of other ticket-holders, but usually we can deal with that quietly and discreetly. And we work with other teams, like our London Fire Brigade volunteers, if any problems crop up.”
In exchange for their time, stewards find themselves immersed in Wimbledon’s unique atmosphere and enjoy privileged access to one of sport’s premier global events. And of course, if you’re stewarding on court, you can enjoy some top-class tennis.
“You get to watch it in a different way because you’re also watching what’s going on around court, and answering questions or dealing with day-to-day issues like someone spilling a drink,” explains Pearce.
In taking part, you become part of the fabric and history of the Championships. The very first stewards took up their posts in 1927 – there were only six of them and they were chosen because they had experience of handling large crowds at rugby matches at Twickenham.
Pearce says it feels very special to be among likeminded people, who all have the same, simple goal: “We all really care that everyone who comes to Wimbledon has a fantastic day. There is so much camaraderie and friendship and teamwork. We only see each other for two weeks of the year but we all pick up from where we left off and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
At the end of this Championships, Pearce will step down from his position, but he intends to keep stewarding for many years to come, as he couldn’t imagine his summer without Wimbledon: “The year that the Championships didn’t take place – in 2020, due to Covid – just didn’t feel right at all.”
How to become an honorary steward at Wimbledon
Written by Fiona Cowood
Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones.