London Calling James Davis gives us insight on the land of the free health service, home of the brave weathermen.
Look at you, reading this magazine–have you thought much about your country, wherever it may be? How does it stand in the scheme of things? Do you really know your way around? Are you proud or ashamed of what you see? I am both. My country is England, and my home now is London. It’s the best place I’ve ever lived.
I skate along my streets, you skate along yours. The cracks on my streets are bigger and more frequent–rivaled only perhaps by the cracks in your society. I can skate ancient sidewalks half the age of this millennium, if I want to vandalize or disrespect. They were laid down while Indians still roamed your plains, but like you, I choose to skate more modern architecture. Newer design is more offensive to classic sensibilities, but you and I live far from that realm. Hence our shared love of the accidental, the brutal, the rundown, and the aesthetically uninspiring–sounds very much like modern England.
London is not quaint; it is indeed brutal and very unnatural. Yet millions of people live, work, and play here, including thousands of skateboarders amongst them. We squeeze ourselves onto the oldest underground rail system in the world to travel small distances at walking speed. Or we sit on the top deck of buses stuck in traffic watching pedestrians breath toxic fumes, while fencing with umbrellas or briefcases, or whatever their weapon of choice might be. To get from A to B you have to go via Z. You have no choice.
There is no grand plan for London’s design. It’s full of secret places and secret histories, all of which lie waiting for discovery by the inquisitive or the unfortunate. After two-and-a-half years of living, working, and skating here, I’m still taken to brand-new skate spots at least once a month. They never seem to end, and they probably never will. To the east of the city lies Docklands, and the area around it is the Isle of Dogs. A developer’s dream is a skater’s dream, yet this enterprise zone is still relatively uncharted by the wheeled masses. Every month a new glass-fronted temple to capitalism seems to rise from the marshes, complete with its car lots, loading bays, and supply roads. However, current skate explorations there are solitary experiences, enlightened only by the novelty of driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway, and the boundless optimism of foreign mega-corporations. Skaters in London tend to inhabit more central areas, where cars become less of an asset and the efficiency of leg-power triumphs over all.
You can’t do better (or worse) than starting at the South Bank. A skate spot with real heritage (and plenty of ugly history); it’s arguably the spiritual home of English street skating. The banks are still in fine condition after more than twenty years of being attacked by everything from Bertlemans to hardflips. On school-time Saturdays, kids will literally queue up to session the famous “seven.” Throwing themselves straight onto hard, gray slabs in the name of potential glory, or perhaps just to wage a more personal battle. The sight is, of course, reminiscent of lemmings plunging to their deaths. More discerning skaters will leave the South Bank early and head either east or west in search of some of the more secluded spots that lie in all directions. Heading east brings you to St. Paul’s Cathedral, home of a rather famous wedding, and a skateable square or two.
Beyond that is the financial district. This area, known as The City, is a schizophrenic zone where different laws apply. For one, the sidewalks are beautifully smooth, yet the security is twice as ugly. Police checkpoints are skillfully avoided by the knowledgeable, who know that constant movement is the key to success. CCTV cameras silently record the scarring of marble by metal and help coordinate the melodramatic swooping attacks so favored by the bored officerss of the law. A ticket is avoidable, however, by the diplomatic and the apologetic, or simply by those who know the myriad alleyways, courtyards, and backstreets.
Those who decide to travel west from the South Bank have equal delights in store. Two minutes away stand the barren wind tunnels of Shell Center, where steps and ledges keep the unadventurous minions happy for hours at a time. Across the River Thames to Big Ben, where foreigners look up and locals look down, one can find a quick session at Parliament Square with its inconvenient location as an island between four main streets, and you can head toward Victoria. In this area money becomes evident again, with its direct affect on the smoothness of the street and the height of the buildings.
The police outside Scotland Yard frown or smile as you skate by, depending on the weather it seems, but they rarely stop you. Unlike the toy-town atmosphere of The City, real crimes are committed in these parts, and skateboarding is thankfully low on the threat list. Numerous spots around Victoria Coach and train stations are sessioned by travelers at the beginning or the end of their journeys all over Europe. This transport hub has its fair share of hustlers, whores, drunks, and bag thieves, all plying their own trades, earning their own livings. These mini-industries run by the guilty and supplied by the innocent are similar to skating in many ways. Only the enlightened will step back and take note. The rest unwittingly take part, gazing at the semi-pornographic cards in the phone booths, or handing over useful coins to useless abusers.
These spots are all within skating distance of the South Bank, and subsequently represent only a tiny glimpse of what London has to offer because this sprawling city is so big. Toward the north are two other major train stations, King’s Cross and Euston. Both are surrounded by similar human depravity and architectural wonder. Amazement follows accident, 60s brick stupidity creating 90s skate sexiness. Further still by Northern Line tube (itself a perfect example of rundown Englishness at its best), you arrive at Camden town. This fashion freak center hides the small but excellent, recently renovated Cantelowes skatepark. Past that lies a plethora of spots like Archway Banks–even more hidden, even more fun. But I can’t guide you through London’s skate spots, not even North London’s skate spots. They are found by word of mouth, not by map. By experience and accident, not by a plan of any sort. This is the way London and England itself grew and developed, changed and destroyed, forgot and remembered. I haven’t even mentioned yet any of the legendary 70s concrete parks still around, like Harrow and Romford or Stockwell, Meanwhile I and II, Kensington Park. Or the more obscure places like New Cross, Bloblands, London Fields, and Clockwork Orange Banks. Not the several mini ramps and concrete fountains dotted all over the many parks.
Cities all over England contain a similar wealth of skate locations to London, many only known to locals and the well- traveled. But there is no guide, and there shouldn’t be one. It isn’t necessary. We like to forget and remember later. We enjoy seclusion as well as activity. We appreciate irony and understatement. We bump into friends, not strangers, who impart goodwill rather than suspicion, and leave us wanting and knowing more. Reminding us why we came, where we are going, and how we will get back, metaphorically speaking, of course.
You are cordially invited. Please bring wet-weather gear. You will not need health insurance.