British wasteland is dying out, making it harder for the next generation of Olympic skaters to learn their skills
With council skateparks popping up in prominent places in towns and cities you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain’s emerging skaters are well catered for. But in reality, many just want peace and quiet — something increasingly hard to find. Georgie Reid reports on the last kickflip in Halifax
In the light of the evening, a train slows slightly to rattle between the two tiny platforms at Sowerby Bridge. It does not stop, and carries on eastwards, towards Leeds. I scan the cluster of birches on my left for the well-trodden path through the nettles that leads away from the carpark and railway line. I know it’s there, but can never seem to find it on my first try.
As I get closer, I hear the first ‘clack!’, followed by a cheer. There’s a constant mechanical whirring, almost like a jet plane overhead, created by dozens of polyurethane wheels rolling slowly over concrete.
It’s a typical spring evening in West Yorkshire, and the clicks and snaps of the skateboards seemingly echo throughout the peaceful valleys. Separated from the rest of the tiny Halifax village by a thin veil of trees and a solitary wire (to call it a fence would be controversial), the remnants of an abandoned factory floor have flourished into a secret recreational area, and for some, a second home.
The factory floor
It is not the first time I’ve been here, but it’s different this time around. Despite the jubilance amongst the friends as one of them lands, it’s impossible to ignore the sinking feeling that their days here are limited. About two thirds of the factory floor is now fenced off and, as the skaters make use of the ground they still have, they occasionally glance over at their manny-pad trapped behind the metallic grate, knowing it won’t be long before it is dug up.
I first talk to Brad Hipperson-Race, eager to know the skating community’s history with the unextraordinary factory floor. He’s been skating over a decade, longer than many of the young men I talk to, and is more than happy to talk at length about his passion, so seems a good place to start.
“I was introduced to it about seven years ago,” he tells me when I visit his home. His bedroom wall behind him is an immense collage, mostly made up of photographs from holidays and his childhood, as well as concert tickets and wristbands. Despite this somewhat chaotic collage, it’s difficult to miss the subtle hints to his favourite hobby; a sticker bearing the logo of French brand, Cliché, a slim cardboard box that contained 11 years worth of decks; his current board, a brilliant yellow 8.5” Polar Skate Co. deck that is propped in between his desk and windowsill.
“Being on an abandoned factory floor meant that we could build things to skate down there which let us mould the obstacles to our skill level,” he says, smiling fondly at the memory of a bunch of teenage boys with hammers and nails. Being proudly born and bred in the same valley, he’s familiar with the larger parks in Ripponden and Hebden Bridge. I find myself asking why, after 11 years of skating, this small piece of wasteland still appealed more to Hipperson-Race and his friendship group than a large, designer park.
“Parks typically assume we’re all pro and can ollie about 7ft high,” is his answer.
“I’ve spent more time there than in my own house,” friend and fellow skater Joe Taylor adds. “I’ve learned all my tricks because of that place.”
The land does not belong to the skating community. In fact, it’s private property and a site primed for redevelopment. Over the years it has been slated to potentially host a wind turbine — but that was eventually installed further down the valley — a quarry, and a light-up billboard. It’s currently not clear what the owners have in mind for the place that many local skaters refer to as their second home.
Derelict buildings and wasteland, known as brownfield sites, have been dwindling over the last 15 years due to redevelopment, according to official figures. Building on this type of land is likely to continue to increase from this year as the government is now requiring all councils to publish a record of their brownfield sites, known as the Brownfield Land Register, which will make it easier for developers to find vacant land to build on.
What strikes me the most about talking to many of the skaters is their sense of community. They consider themselves a marginalised group in the UK, and the uptight restrictions on street skating, as well as the fact that the demand for space and facilities is not always met only confirms this. Meanwhile, local people in the village often see skaters as hooligans, linking them to vandalism, and say they’re unsafe on roads.
I also catch up with the newest team member of nearby Huddersfield’s Endemic skate shop, Freddie Halsey. Although stylistically taking inspiration from park skaters such as professional skateboarder Ben Nordberg, he confirms my perceived sense of solidarity among all the skaters, not just in Halifax and the surrounding areas, but all across West Yorkshire.
“It’s good for how rural a lot of the towns are here,” he says. “You even get people travelling from their farmhouses out in the sticks to come meet up and skate which is pretty cool.”
Halsey is well on his way to making his hobby a profession. Although Endemic is an independent skate shop which has been operating in Huddersfield since 2006 rather than a big brand name, it has a news page on which promotes the events put on to bring local skaters together to “keep the scene alive”. As well as this, it also posts many professional-standard skating videos, including one introducing Halsey as part of the “Endemic family”. It has given him the opportunity to skate all across the county, although he has not forgotten his roots.
“It’s nice,” he says. “Everyone from each town or city is sort of collective and cool with each other, there’s no rivalry, which I think you get in other sports and lifestyles.”
Hearing this, I want to talk more to the skaters about an issue that has triggered dividing reactions among UK skateboarders. In August 2016, it was announced that the 2020 Olympic Games, which is to be held in Tokyo, would see both men’s and women’s street and park skating be recognised as a sport. The World Skating Federation and International Skating Federation both engaged in a battle with each other about who should be allowed to regulate and judge, with accusations of disorganisation and doping flying from both sides.
“It’s like forcing a competition out of something that isn’t about winning or being the best,” Halifax skater Harvey Duffy says. Several of his friends agree, the general apprehension arising from how it would be judged. Although it’s been suggested that a points system like that of gymnastics would probably work well, many skaters see their activity as more of an art form, which they feel has too much variety and acceptance to be turned into a competitive show of sportsmanship. On top of this, some are concerned that it will lead to the development of a mainstream culture from what was once an anti-culture.
“That being said,” Taylor adds, “it’s cool that something we’ve been dissed for for years is finally big enough to be in the Olympics.”
Skating, unlike most other sports, isn’t an activity where genders are separated, or where only one style is accepted. Each trick has so many different variations: if you’ve mastered one thing, you try do it “switch” — that’s the same again but on your weaker side. There’s so little pressure, even the mildly competitive games of skate become huge celebrations of individual talent and skill level. As I watch them glide over the smooth, dirty concrete, it’s uncertain how much longer they’ll have access to it. Whatever is built here eventually, it’s obvious nothing would be a more popular choice for those who actually use the space than a DIY skatepark.