I can clearly recall the first time I came across Southbank. Photos of Eric Dressen replete in blue Thrasher hoodie, Air Jordan’s and a back to front flat cap appeared in an article in what I think was still BMX Action Bike (or possibly an early incarnation of its re-branding as R.A.D.) circa 1987. Despite living about 550 miles away, in an era before each of Britain’s towns and cities had their own purpose-built skatepark or Council provided mini-ramp, it felt as if we knew these far off spots. Latimer Road, Meanwhile and Southbank became part of our vocabulary.
Southbank in particular sent us out searching for something similar, for architectural features we could see through a different lens and where we could unlock new potential. We discovered the tight transition of the brick banked walls at Denburn Health Centre, a couple of mounds of concrete in Bridge of Don, an empty fountain in a public park, the smooth concrete of multi storey car parks, flights of stairs, hand rails, benches and walls that we would regularly wax. We dotted around our city on buses, on foot and by skateboard re-marking the map with new place names and spots we could session. In a pre-internet or social media age, it still baffles me how we found some of the places or people that we did. We began to scour Scotland after hearing rumours of fly off ramps or home-made half-pipes. Our trips took us from Aberdeen to Dundee and Livingston and to little known places far from the beaten track….to fun comps in Elgin or Keith and a host of other places.
I stopped skating at some point in 1991. Life was transitioning, but skating never really left me. I would regularly look at flights of stairs, curbs, embankments or a host of other pieces of public realm and find my mind subconsciously mapping out the possibilities. Flurries into snowboarding and surfing were all probably derived from the simple pleasure of the glide, so beautifully captured in the short video below.
On the relatively rare occasions that I’ve been in London over the years, I’ve often walked along the Southbank to watch those skating at the Undercroft. When a few of my surfer friends bought longboard skateboards for those landlocked or flat days, there was huge appeal coupled with a degree of self-consciousness. Whilst I found a new form of self-consciousness if caught rolling along on a set of 78As by parents of my kid’s friends or work colleagues, it was altogether usurped by a long-lost love of skating. One thing led to another and I began to skate the local skate park under the cover of darkness or when it was relatively empty. It’s funny how many other elder-skatesmen I have met – either those who never gave it up in the first place or others, like myself, who have had the stoke re-kindled through surfing or through their kids discovering skating for themselves.
Southbank’s creative arc has extended far beyond its natural reach over the past couple of years. With the Southbank Centre’s proposals to create a new festival wing at the cost of redeveloping the Undercroft, the struggle that has ensued has seemed like one of David and Goliath proportions and, yet, one that seems inherently conflicted. Why seek to foster and promote creativity and culture at the cost of decimating a rare place where those very things have abounded organically for close to 40 years? Southbank is a living British example of words penned by Craig Stecyk back in 1975, “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential”. There have been plenty of points over the past 24 months where it has looked as if the Undercroft would be replaced by retail units and lost forever. I’m sure that I’ve regularly bored people about this on my social media feeds…
Last year one of my surfer friends took his family to London for the day. In recognition of the threat facing Southbank they bookended their day with a visit there.They were so moved at seeing and experiencing things first hand. Their two young boys really engaged with the skaters at the Long Live Southbank campaign table. Paul wrote me a lovely letter all about their day and the impact that visiting Southbank had upon them as a family. They also very generously sent me a T-shirt, badges and a pile of stickers. A plan was hatched that we would spend a day in London as families and that the day would include a visit to the Undercroft if it was still there. At that point I genuinely wondered whether its fate would be determined before the end of 2013.
So, this weekend we made the journey and, quite simply, had one of the most perfect weekends I can recall. There were many highlights and I’m amazed at how much we crammed into a single day. The kids all got skate lessons at the hugely impressive House of Vans whilst Paul and I also managed a free skate session in the amazing indoor concrete bowl and street course there. We surveyed London’s staggering skyline from the vantage point of the London Eye and made it out to Moredon Park to catch a rare London gig by The Grenaways which also gave us the chance to carve out some sacred time with a couple of very special surfer friends from Cornwall. In amongst it all, we made it to Southbank.
After enjoying the patter of the street performers and a quick look at the Southbank Centre’s “Festival of Love”, we ambled along to the Undercroft from where the sound of wheels rolling on flag-stones and the thwack of ollies was drawing us.
On Saturday, for the first time we became participants rather than spectators. My tricks were far from technical and I found myself flat on my back on more than one occasion when I failed to land a re-entry out of the bottom of the banks. What struck me, however, was how welcoming and respectful the vibe was. There was no sense of it being for locals only or of there to be some sort of rite of passage or initiation process. Our kids rolled around and no-one seemed in the least bit put out by that. There was an authentic sense of acceptance and community. I was so stoked to be cruising, popping and rolling along the banks that have accommodated the wheels of many skate legends and locals for almost as long as I have inhabited this earth.
As we headed off to the London Eye, there was just enough time for my daughter to add her signature to those supporting the campaign to save the Undercroft. As I proudly watched her choosing to add her voice to the campaign, I noticed that I was stood next to pro-skater and contemporary artist, Ed Templeton who was doing exactly the same. I overcame my natural disposition not to engage and told him how much I have thoroughly enjoyed his curating of the latest edition of Huck magazine. He was engaging and I spent a few genuinely beautiful moments chatting to Deanna and him about some of the things their articles and work have caused me to think about and be inspired by. I wrote a blog post about some of that last month and you can read that by clicking here. Ed was happy to pose for a selfie and then helpfully suggested how I could shoot a better one which we then took. As if I wasn’t stoked enough already! What a happy coincidence.
So, there you have it. The ramblings of a 42-year-old who has been in a long-term long-distance relationship with Southbank for more years than I care to remember and who eventually got to skate it this weekend. Sharing that experience with friends, family, strangers and people whose contribution to skate culture I have respected for years was pretty sweet!
You can’t move history.