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A History of The Pioneer Club by Kelli Watson

Words by Kelli Watson

The Pioneer Club has been a registered charity since 1962. The charity was originally founded by evacuees who were relocated from London to St Albans in World War 2 and has since evolved to become a multi-faceted centre that extends far beyond its humble origins as a simple youth club, now boasting a skatepark, music venue, café and recording studio.

First Wave of Pioneer Skateboarding - 1986 -1997

In the late 80s, Rodney Clark, his brother Raymond Clark along with Dave and Neil Lovett, Alex Alderton and Stuart King were regularly skating the streets of St Albans, but were keen to skate more obstacles and not obstruct pedestrians or upset the authorities. They had ‘accumulated’ a pile of wood and used this to build a ramp on an abandoned plot behind the main high street. While building this, they were approached by the owner of the land who asked if they had planning permission (they didn’t know what this was!) and requested they remove the ramp, so they were forced to take it down.

Snapshots of a Pioneer past. Photos courtesy of Nigel Bryan.

Two members of the crew, Jason Talbot and Raymond Clark, approached The Pioneer Club’s coordinator Wendy Thomas to ask if they could use the space at the back of The Pioneer Club to rebuild their ramp. Wendy obliged and welcomed them with open arms. They relocated the half-built 20ft wide, 7ft high midi ramp to the outside area at Pioneer. The area was not fenced in, so the ramp was free for all to skate and was open all hours, giving the St Albans skaters somewhere to skate off the streets. The Pioneer Club was also used by many other groups, including as a recreational area for the Fire Service, for fitness classes, and as recreation for retirees, but was predominantly a youth club. The music venue was being used for hip hop events and legal graffiti, and although there were some rollerskaters and BMXers who used the hall, skateboarding was pretty much new to the centre at the time.

Inside The Pioneer Club, there was only one gnarly, unfixed quarterpipe about 6ft high, which was built by a BMXer called Ray and similarly relocated to the centre after the area that the local BMXers were using to ride on the outskirts of the city had to be vacated. The St Albans crew added to this with a couple of yellow pipes that were ‘acquired’ from the local gasworks. In the old days, all skate obstacles had to be put away at the end of each session, to make room for the other centre users. Wendy put the local skaters - including Dave and Neil Lovett and future Death Skateboards pro Mark Nicolson - in charge of running the skatepark, and their responsibilities included putting the obstacles away every evening. Gradually they recruited more and more skaters to the club. As there were plenty of non-skateboarding activities available and there was no requirement for any newcomer to already skate, new recruits were not necessarily coming for the skating - initially that is. As it turned out, they found that most of the young people they recruited ended up on a board. The Youth Club charged a small fee, but they made concessions for young people who couldn’t afford it.

Early 90s Tom Penny at The Pioneer Club. Photos courtesy of Dave Allen.

In 1988, Harrow skater Nick 'Zorlac' Orecchio alongside Dan Cates and Dave Allen found out about Pioneer’s developing indoor skatepark and legendary midi ramp, and started to come along to the cetnre regularly for nighttime and rainy day skates. The skateboard scene at Pioneer was growing and the skaters taught themselves to build moveable ramps using repurposed and recycled wood from older ramps and seasoned timber, usually sourced for free. As there were no power tools available back then, everything was built by hand. The knowledge and skills that the skaters developed was passed on from older skaters to the younger generation, who have continued to build new additions at the park to this day. Many of the original Pioneer skaters, including Andy Willis, Dave Lovett, and Rodney Clark, have turned the skills they developed through building the ramps into careers. Although having to move the ramps each night caused damage to the homemade creations over time, it also gave the crew the flexibility to change things around and create new setups every time. As well as building ramps, the crew brought items into the park, creating an indoor/street hybrid using everything from scaffold poles to traffic cones, and the previously mentioned yellow pipes. The local hardware shop would lend them all the tools to build all the ramps and, although they would never pass health and safety checks these days, Pioneer’s DIY foundations are part of what makes the place so special.

Eventually, through Wendy, the skaters built a relationship with the local council and would host their meetings. Wendy, who was the head of the centre at this time, was always willing to try new things and support everyone; she taught the skaters how to communicate with the council to get more done. To butter up local councillors, the skateboarders used to provide buffets and play music at these meetings until eventually they secured funding from both the council and from The Prince’s Trust. With this funding and support, they managed to build more sturdy ramps.

In 1993, the local crew cut down the original midi ramp and made it into a mini ramp. This slowly got the reputation as 'the best mini in the UK' at the time, and drew in skaters from all over the world. There was still no fence around the perimeter, so everyone could use the outside section of the park at any time. Indoors, the first official setup had a wallride ramp pushed against the wall, but was not fixed. Rodney Clark recalled Mike Manzoori doing a wallride over the door, and still says today that he saw some of the best tricks he has ever seen on that ramp. The Pioneer Club held competitions every six months that were hugely successful; the place was always rammed, with standing room only. The events were at first sponsored by the local skate shop Clarks, which would later become Conspiracy. Death Skateboards have sponsored jams at Pioneer since the late 90s and continue to support the events to this day. Later, sponsorship came from international companies such as New Deal and Vans. The Pioneer Club was featured in many of the top skateboard magazines including Read and Destroy (RAD), Sidewalk and Skate Action, which featured a legendary photograph of Jon Hayward ollieing a car inside the park.

Two Dave Allens for the price of one! Fakie ollie and a frontside smith on the outside ramp.

Between 1994-97, more indoor skateparks were built in the surrounding areas, and this saturated the numbers of skaters who would come to Pioneer. However, following the 1997 Generation97 Comp, which was held at Wembley, skaters from all over the world, including Rick McCrank, Ed Templeton and Ali Boulala came to St Albans to skate. It had become the place to skate if you came to the UK, and homegrown talent such as Tom Penny, Danny Wainwright and Geoff Rowley were regular visitors to the park, along with Deathbox and Flip Skateboards overlord Jeremy Fox. Mathew Prichard, before his Dirty Sanchez fame, could - on occasion - be found skating naked around the park... The fact that Pioneer was attracting so many people meant they were able to get the funding they needed to repair the building, and thus build and maintain more ramps and obstacles. Sessions were held every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and eventually at the weekend too, and were run entirely by volunteers. Rodney unofficially started coaching younger skaters on Thursday evenings in the 1990s, and his skate school was made official in 2001, helped by Will Ibister and Andrew Willis. The community café, run by the late Ian Chorley, was also bustling. Ian worked hard to support the skatepark and was also a mystery benefactor supporting the Pioneer financially where he could.

Following an incident sometime around 1997, in which a park user was injured, the skatepark was closed completely to the public for three years, whilst legal issues were ironed out. The youth club and music venue remained open throughout this time, but the skatepark was officially closed to the public (although, unofficially of course, the SAS crew and the Harrow crew still used the park). For it to reopen, they now needed insurance, which was almost impossible to obtain because of the previous incident. However, RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) did an extensive health and safety inspection, and following this, many new rules were implemented to allow them to reopen. One of the stipulations was that the ramps had to be permanently fixed. This meant that the other hall users had to move, and the park became solely for the use of skateboarders.

Red Harrows! Dan Cates frontside smiths in 1996.

The Second St Albans Wave - 2001 to date.

When the skatepark finally reopened in 2001, the community vibe was still strong, and the park was still run entirely by the skateboarders themselves. Arguably, having the ramps permanent fixed in place affected the popularity of the park regarding international visitors. The moveable ramps, although gnarly, gave the park flexibility and introduced a variety of potential new challenges every time anyone visited. The comps also had to be scaled back because the new layout reduced the amount of space for spectators. Throughout Pioneer’s history, the setups have taken many different forms, and these have always been built and maintained by the Pioneer skaters. Between 2003 and 2011, the first layout that was built after the reopening stayed in situ, with the second layout being built in 2011, which stayed in place until 2013 when the current layout was built. To this day, the Pioneer locals are consistently adding to the park, with the recent introduction of a hip alongside a range of new movable obstacles and interchangeable rails crafted and donated by the skate community.

In the early 2000s, the local skaters and staff at Pioneer began to consider how they could keep the park thriving and introduce new skateboarders. Volunteer Joff Talbot came up with the idea to start a beginners’ session, with him and Will Ibister offering coaching. Rodney Clark later started his own coaching sessions which were supported by Will, Andy Willis and a few guest pro skaters like Greg Nowik and Mark Nicolson. In 2013, Alex Barton, the owner of Lariatt Skate Shop in St Albans, started coaching at Pioneer. Through his company, ABC Skateboarding, these coaching sessions are still flourishing to this day. Pioneer is home to both ABC Skateboarding and ASIS Skateboarding, run by Will Ibister. Thanks to this, the park now provides coaching for all levels and ages, including home skateboarding education and sessions for the deaf. It has always been important for The Pioneer Club to function as a space where young people can develop and build their confidence through skateboarding, and it is a perfect place to gain experiences and find opportunities. For example, The Pioneer Club, working with the local College of Further Education, recently ran a trainee programme for young people who have struggled with mainstream education. The Get on Board course ethos is that skateboarding can be used to develop transferable skills by building and developing resilience, perseverance, and an understanding that failing can be a pathway to achievement.

Mike Manzoori - kicker to kicker ollie shot by Leo Sharp for RAD Magazine, 1994.

Photographer, Jenna Selby, owner of the UK’s first all-female skateboarding team, Rogue Skateboards, became a cornerstone of Pioneer’s community after becoming a park supervisor in 2000. She says:

“It was such a family atmosphere working there and we all thought the boss at the time, Ian Marchant, was one of the most supportive and positive people you could meet! I remember when we had our very first meeting and he said something like, “I'm sorry I appreciate we are offering to pay you terrible money, but here's a set of keys each, and the trade-off is that you can skate the park anytime you like outside of opening hours". Everyone just had a huge grin on their face. I spent more time at Pioneer at that point than anywhere else”.

2010 Pioneer Girls Jam crew shot, by Sophie Allen.

An already established forerunner in UK female skateboarding, Jenna was organising female skate jams across the UK. When she got the job at The Pioneer Club, she teamed up with fellow skatepark supervisor Jenny England and brought these events to St Albans, holding the first Pioneer Girls Skate Jam in 2002. After an initial boom, Jenna commented how it saddened her that these events weren’t as well attended as the other events at the park:

“You'd only really see the same 10 faces at every event in the following years. I mean, it was great on one hand as it was like a small little extra family, but we were treated quite differently by the scene in general back then. This irked me and was one of the reasons I developed the Girl Skate Jam. The idea was to offer a space where girls and women could come together, network (pre social media), and have a laugh”.

Aside from the Girl Skate Jam, Jenna, Jenny and Alice Davidson developed a girl’s night very early on in the 2000s, called The Pioneer Girls Crew. Through this, the park developed a core female skate scene that has welcomed many new faces and still thrives to this day. The Girl Skate Jams have been running periodically at Pioneer for almost 20 years. The latest Girl Skate Jam was in 2019. Like many of her comrades, Jenna credits her time at The Pioneer Club for being a pathway to her current career as a professional photographer.

Pioneer founding father Rodney Clarke, 1991 melon, shot by TLB for RAD Magazine.

Charlie Spelzini of Death Skateboards is one of the many pro skateboarders that cut their teeth at Pioneer. Charlie recalls finding out about the skatepark through the local skate shop Conspiracy in 2002. At that time, Charlie had never been to a proper skatepark and had only really skated street locally. He arrived with his dad and was welcomed by the St Albans skaters who allowed him free entry as he didn’t have the required fee. Charlie says that as soon as he laid eyes on the park, he was overwhelmed and felt he had found a place where he could practice his burgeoning passion. Charlie had never skated a park before and was excited that he could finally skate the quarterpipes and the mini ramp for himself. It was here that he met Alex Barton and Lee Burton, and they established The Riot Squad skate crew that was supported by Conspiracy.

During late 1990s, when the Pioneer was officially closed, Lee Burton was skateboarding in the Judo Hut car park opposite and heard noise coming from the park. Lee hated school and was bullied there, and, like many of us, really feels that skateboarding changed his life. He became a regular Pioneer attendee, and later a volunteer. While studying painting and decorating at college, Lee painted the park and community room for practice. Like many people who have come through Pioneer’s doors, Lee turned his painting skills into a career, now running a professional painting and decoration company. Lee also played a big part in uniting the music side of Pioneer with the skatepark.

Curtis McCann at the November 1992 winter contest, shot by TLB for RAD Magazine.

The Pioneer Club, alongside the skatepark, boasts a 500-person capacity music venue that has seen many legendary arts throughout its history, including: Motorhead, The Zombies, Bring Me The Horizon, Friendly Fires, Gallows, and Don Broco. With a state-of-the-art sound system, The Pioneer Club is a hugely significant part of the St Albans music scene. Enter Shikari played their first gigs there and have recently become investors in the brand new music studio that will be opening its doors later this year. Enter Shikari were among the first acts to feature in the line up of the all day music events that Lee Burton, The Riot Squad and promotional company Trashcan held throughout the 2000s and early 2010s. Recent years have seen the skatepark and music venue synergising through Lovestock Festival and Jakestock Festival, The Jam Jam open mic and skate events, and most recently, The Death Jam. The Death Jam was organised by the trainees on Pioneer’s educational programme Get on Board to celebrate 25 years of Death Skateboards, which featured music from a range of up and coming musicians from the South East. From 2014 to 2016, Crowd began promoting events at the venue, attracting large numbers of young people and launching the careers of many budding musicians and creatives, including bands such as Trash Boat, who toured the UK supporting legendary bands such as The Offspring and Sum 41. Today, The Pioneer Club has its own in-house promotion team who have brought even more notable acts to the venue, such as Declan McKenna, DJ Hype, Judge Jules and Seth Lakeman. Local grassroots bands have also been making noise onstage.

Arron Bleasedale floats over the hip, 1992-ish, shot by Skin for RAD Magazine.

Since the beginning, The Pioneer Club has embraced and nurtured young people. Wendy Thomas - the ‘head of centre’ who gave Rodney Clark and the St Albans skaters permission to build the first ramp back in 1986 - really believed in them. It was not just that she provided a safe place to skate, but that this, in turn, enabled them to develop transferable skills that they continue to use today beyond, the confines of the skatepark. What makes The Pioneer Club so unique is that it is founded on a community that has continued from generation to generation. For many, it is not just a skatepark, a music venue or a community centre, it is more a second home, and often considered a cornerstone of their lives. Today, the skatepark hosts skate sessions and/or coaching seven days a week, and is seeing a new generation of skateboarders embraced and mentored by the generation before them, maintaining Pioneer’s strong community spirit.

Rio O'Byrne in the St Albans rafters, shot by Charlie Eliza.

Looking ahead to the future, and, given that our current buildings are now some 60 years old and in constant need of repair and maintenance, a new Pioneer is at the drawing board stage where, working alongside our landlords, Herts County Council, a brand new building is to be built where the redundant fire station now sits, which promises to provide, not just a new skatepark, but a new music venue, recording studio and café/community room. A planning application is to be submitted to the council shortly, and the outcome eagerly awaited. For now, the park continues to thrive, and to welcome skateboarders new and old to skate the legendary wooden waves of St Albans. Come skate them for yourself soon!

RAD Magazine scans courtesy of Science Versus Life.

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