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Rolling Thunder Renew: A UK Vert Skating Story

For Sam Bosworth, sometimes the ramp just isn’t quite big enough. Pivot bash fakie on a few feet of extra vert. Photo: Leo Sharp.

Text by Ben Powell.

Let’s be clear before we begin: the text that you’re about to read is in no way intended to function as a history of the UK vert scene. Such an endeavour would require far more space than is available here and would need the voices of many more people than those included. If a comprehensive overview of the origins of the UK vert scene is what you’re after then you ought to get yourselves a copy of the excellent 8 ft Tranny and a Foot of Vert book by prolific skate historian and elder vertical statesman Mark ‘Trawler’ Lawer. Trawler’s book will guide you through the beginnings of the DIY era in the dead time of the early ‘80s from the perspective of somebody actively involved in building, and then skating, the wooden ramps that kept the vert scene alive when skateboarding had, to all intents and purposes, died completely.

Instead, the aim of what you’re about to read is to provide a little insight into some aspects of the journey that the UK vert scene has undergone, as told by some of its most active participants from various eras.

As you’ll see from the photographs surrounding this text, UK vert skateboarding is currently undergoing an infusion of new blood. The emergence of this contemporary generation keen to master vertical terrain follows a five decade tradition, with the last bloom of new rippers taking place in the post-Tony Hawk Pro Skater era of the early ‘00s, exposing the nation to the talents of people like Sam Beckett, Paul-Luc Ronchetti and Alex Hallford, to name but three.

What began on the concrete transitions of the 1970s has since evolved through various incarnations and arrived at the situation of today, whereby those people who kept vert skating alive through the dead years now mix and shred with the pint-sized vert heads of tomorrow.

Ruari Britee-Steer contorts one hell of a crossbone on the Queen’s Park ramp, Glasgow. Photo: Kerr Melville.

“The level of UK skateboarding at that time, in that park (Rolling Thunder) at least, was on par with American skateboarding.” - Steve Douglas

Roughly speaking, UK vert skating, in the sense of people riding their skateboards on transitions that went vertical, begins in the mid 1970s at the height of the skateboard craze and the associated skatepark building boom that followed. At this point, rudimentary skateboards had already been around in the UK since the ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the global craze that skateboarding, as we conceive of it now, really took shape.

Original Harrow local Steve Douglas started skating in the mid ‘70s, in the roller rink next to what would become Harrow’s Solid Surf skatepark in 1978. Some of his earliest memories are of seeing the first generation of UK vert skaters tearing up the parks of the original boom era. “I saw all the first generation vert guys at Rolling Thunder skatepark in Brentford, West London. The level of UK skateboarding at that time, in that park at least, was on par with American skateboarding: it’s important to stress that, I think. If people look on there’s a whole archive of photos, coverage and interviews with the Rolling Thunder locals of the time, like Marc Sinclair and Jeremy Henderson, with the magazines talking about how either one of them could’ve ended up in the finals of the big Californian contests of the day. That kind of gives you an idea of how good some of those first generation UK guys were”. Growing up on the outskirts of London, Douglas had an opportunity to see, if not actually skate, some of the best parks of that era, and to bear witness to the possibilities of vertical skating at a point where everything was ripe for the taking.

Two vertical generations for the price of one! Joe Atkins airs whilst dad Jim the Skin crails. Photo: Rob Whiston.

“Nobody was interested in skateboarding at all, only a year after it being the hottest new trend in the world.” - Sean Goff

Sean Goff might have front smiths on lock, but that Dab needs a bit more work. Photo: Leo.

Second-generation skaters such as Kidlington native Sean Goff, who started in 1976 right at the beginning of the craze, experienced that period differently, due mostly to geography. “It took a while for me to experience any sense of a wider scene because I was very young when I first started skating. I was lucky in that my dad would take me to skateparks twice a year, so I visited Rolling Thunder on my birthday once, and Spandrel Skate Dome in Uxbridge a couple of times, so I did experience those ‘70s parks, but I was too young to really be exposed to much of a scene. But not long after I started, skateboarding completely died. Almost literally nobody was interested in skateboarding at all, only a year after it being the hottest new trend in the world”.

To those who didn’t live through the ‘70s craze era, it’s almost impossible to comprehend both the immediacy and the seeming finality of skateboarding’s first extinction-level event. As Douglas recalls: “When all the ‘70s parks started to close suddenly, the effect on UK skateboarding was awful. The scene was so very facility dependent at that point. When Rolling Thunder died, I’d say 95% of those first generation vert skaters completely disappeared; the biggest decimation of the cream of UK skateboarding talent in the history of the culture happened almost overnight, and this was repeated across the country”.

Goff’s experience was very similar: “1979 and 1980 were completely dead. There were no magazines, no way of getting any information about skateboarding beyond it being a thing you did on your own. During that period, you’d just go to whatever parks were left, and if there were any other skaters there then you’d become pen pals, and awareness of the scene would spread like that. Then, in 1981, I started going to the ESA contests, and that was when I began to meet a lot of other skaters and feel like I was part of a scene”.

Like a glitch in the Brummy matrix, Ethan Hardiman Doody attempts to get himself mangled in the Creation rafters. Photo: Rob.

“We never had permission for any of the earlier ramps; I don’t think we even thought about that aspect of it.” - Dave Allen

The ESA (English Skateboard Association) contest series took place on the few existing vert ramps of the time, linking scenes across the country together through events held in places like Crystal Palace, Farnborough, Andover, Ardwick and Warrington. In many ways, the connections and friendships that would go on to shape the UK vert scene of the next 40 years were forged during this period. Skaters like Douglas, Goff, Lucian Hendricks, Phil Burgoyne, Barry Abrook and Bod Boyle frequently traveled around the premiere ramps of the era, taking part in a series of contests that featured both vert and freestyle skating.

In a move that would echo through the next four generations of UK vert skating, certain ramps became crucibles of progression and culture, with contests and demos at the heart of this process. As Goff puts it: “Farnborough definitely became a focal point of the UK vert scene once the ESA contests started. With that said though, this ‘scene’ we’re talking about consisted of maybe 20 people at best”.

The Farnborough and Crystal Palace ramps were important in other ways too, in so far as functioning as stop-off destinations for American pros on their way home from the Eurocana Skate Camps held across Sweden from 1977 to 1987.

Eurocana was hugely influential in European skateboarding history, providing a platform for progression - Mike McGill invented the McTwist at Eurocana in 1984, followed by Hawk with the 720 the following summer - as well as allowing skaters from across Europe to mix with the top US pros of the day.

The early ‘80s saw the first American pros visiting the UK since the hey-days of Tony Alva opening Harrow in 1978. Mike McGill and Steve Caballero were the first, followed by G&S pros Billy Ruff and Neil Blender in 1983 who also ended up skating Farnborough’s vert ramp, which was reportedly erected without proper permission and located in a pedestrianised area in the centre of the city, however unbelievable that might seem today.

I think Ready or Not is probably the most apt Fugees track to reference here. Lola Tambling rock n’ roll slides with both eyes fixed firmly on the future. Photo: Leo.

Midlands vertical new-gen Lilly Strachan gets inverted on a school night. Photo: Rob.

For a 15 year old Douglas, seeing Blender at Farnborough was a watershed moment: “I have a vivid memory of him doing this eggplant in a way I’d never seen anyone do it before, and then going straight into a frontside invert. In my head I was going, ‘what the fuck did I just witness?’”

Likewise, for Goff the inspiration came from skating with the Americans, rather than passively spectating. “Blender, Spidey (De Montrond) and Steve Keenan came to Farnborough in maybe ’83; I was there for that. Lance Mountain came over too, and stayed at Shane Rouse’s house in the caravan outside; allegedly that’s where Lance’s son was conceived. Getting to skate with those guys made tricks seem possible, and made it easier to learn”.

Greg Nowik - the man with the keys to the Gregtopia kingdom - melons to fakie in his own backyard. Photo: Leo.

Jack Wallbridge tweaks out at Gregtopia. Photo: Leo.

With Derry Thompson’s ESA running regular contests across the country, and various zines (including Steve Douglas’ Go For It, Mark Abbott and Don Brider’s Jammer, and the ESA Newsletter) creating a much needed conduit through which to further spread skateboarding, slowly but surely things began to look up. Along with the 1985 release of Back to the Future, which created renewed global interest in skateboarding, new larger vert ramps and the first iterations of public access mini ramp skateparks began to appear. Several vert ramps were constructed in this period, alongside what remained of the still in-use ‘70s concrete parks like Southsea and Stevenage, with new vert builds in London, Swansea, Glasgow and Bury to name but a few adding further capacity to the re-emerging UK skateboard scene.

With more contests and demos taking place at each of these new facilities, a familiar cycle of UK skateboarding revolving around boom/bust, DIY survival and re-birth was established. The experiences of skaters like Goff, Douglas, Bod Boyle, Davie Phillips, Danny Webster, the Abrook brothers, Paul ‘Jim the Skin’ Atkins, Sue Hazel, Arwyn Davies, Jamie Blair, Dan-Z (Neil Danns) and the rest who had weathered the dead era of the early ‘80s would be mirrored by that of the next generation of vert skaters who followed in their wake.

Wales waited decades to get a new ramp, and since Spit and Sawdust stepped to the vertical plate, Sam Pulley has been able to freely dragon grind whatever artefacts Jake Collins drags to the platform. Photo: Mike Ridout.

“Having somewhere guaranteed, lit and well-built after so many years of temporary ramps was amazing.” - Wingy

The early days of Steve ‘Wingy’ Wilkinson and Dave Allen are remarkably similar, despite them hailing from different ends of the country. Both count themselves as third generation skaters who started skating properly around 1984, after the first green shoots of recovery following the dead era were emerging.

Other similarities between their first exposure to vert ramps are equally telling and of the time. For a Morecambe raised Wingy, his first experience of vertical terrain came during the DIY ‘build your own halfpipe’ era: “Our first ramp evolved from a quarterpipe that we’d built to BMX on initially, we then built another quarterpipe and shoved both sides together, and we had a halfpipe”.

Similarly, Allen’s first forays into vert skating were on ramps that he and his friends built without permission in woods local to his Hertford home.

“The first one had been a BMX ramp, so it was two quarterpipes with 20 feet of flat bottom. We cut the flat down to eight feet and used the excess to widen the walls”. Word of mouth quickly spread about their DIY vert ramp in the woods, and soon a scene grew around it.

Those first BMX-influenced builds were done with only the vaguest notion of ramp building techniques, or of what the end result was meant to be. As Wingy recalls: “We weren’t even thinking as far as ‘we’re vert skaters so we need a vert ramp’ at that point. To us, we were just riding skateboards on this thing we’d built”.

Ryan ‘Clev’ Price crosses the Severn and indy airs as the Cardiff dusk sets in.

With the DIY bug firmly taking hold, Allen began constructing more and more ramps, and in doing so, linked up with other likeminded ramp building enthusiasts. “Through our ramp in the woods, we met Paul Wright, who’d built the vert ramp in Chingford. That one was in a public park, and he’d done it proper renegade style. The council found out about it eventually, but it was too late at that point; it was already there and being skated, so Paul got the permission after the fact. We never had permission for any of the earlier ramps; I don’t think we even thought about that aspect of it”.

Both Wingy and Allen describe formative experiences gained by visiting ESA contests that echo those of Goff and Douglas a generation earlier. For Allen, Crystal Palace in 1986 was his first exposure to the existing UK vert scene, and the wealth of talent that had survived the dead years. “Seeing Phil Burgoyne, Lucian Hendricks and Bod rip Palace was eye-opening, because I’d never seen skating of that level in real life before”.

Likewise for Wingy: “Myself and Jon Nixon went to Warrington for the European Championships in ’86, the one where Nicky Guerrero’s board shot out of the side of the ramp and destroyed some lady’s teeth. We were blown away by the fact that skaters had travelled from Denmark to skate a ramp in Warrington; that was a total mindfuck for us”.

Dave Allen - still sailing eggplants into the Balsall Heath evening after nearly four decades of vertical service. Photo: Rob.

With Allen and Wingy representative of the new blood of the UK vert scene, alongside the likes of Andy Scott, Mike Manzoori and Andy ‘Renty’ Williams (RIP), inevitably the invigorated UK scene began to travel en masse and encounter the wider international vert scene at various overseas events.

For Allen, his next watershed exposure to pro vert skating came at the nominally BMX focused Holeshot event in 1987, which brought Christian Hosoi and various other top US pros over to the UK. “Seeing Hosoi and those guys tear the hell out of what was one of the worst ramps ever was a big moment for the UK vert scene. It was phenomenal to see skating of that level on Peter Noble’s awful little vert ramp; it blew away the idea we had about the limitations of skating ramps of that size. In the UK we had a lot of small, badly constructed vert ramps, but Hosoi had just proved that it didn’t matter”.

Ironically, as the late ‘80s momentum built, many of the vert ramps that had nourished this burgeoning UK vert scene started to disappear, in a move reminiscent of the closure of so many concrete parks a decade earlier.

Crystal Palace was demolished on Christmas Eve of 1986, Farnborough fell into disrepair, Warrington and Wigan’s indoor ramps closed, followed by Bury’s in the early ‘90s, Glasgow’s Church shut down, and the potential of Ewer Street’s indoor vert oasis in London remained unexplored with it shutting after six months due to bad (or non-existent) management. With few permanent ramps remaining, and only a couple of privately owned indoor ramps in the country, the vertical outlook of the early 1990s seemed bleak.

Then, in 1992, the Ince family opened Radlands skatepark in Northampton, complete with the original iteration of their vert ramp, which fast became the home of the UK vert scene. As Wingy recalls: “Having somewhere guaranteed, lit and well-built after so many years of temporary ramps was amazing. The only issue was that with the death of vert and the movement of the skate industry towards street skating, we had no new vert skaters for at least a decade”.

Over the intervening years, ramps cropped up and new but short-lived micro vert scenes appeared in places such as Wakefield, Stockport, Bolton, Aberdeen, Blackpool and London, but it was Radlands that held the UK vert scene together during a period where very few kids showed much interest in padding up.

“We had to wait nearly 15 years before the next injection of truly new vert skaters happened”, Wingy states. “Throughout that whole event push at the turn of the millennium, there was nobody new on the platforms. Then, all of a sudden, we had both Sams (Beckett and Bosworth), Alex Hallford, Paul-Luc Ronchetti and a few others padding up and joining the weekly sessions in Birmingham”. Goff continues: “I distinctly remember in the early ‘00s turning up for a Wednesday night session, and somebody saying, ‘it’s busy!’ and that being a big deal. Like, ‘what do you mean ‘it’s busy’? It’s been just us forever. Who the hell are all these kids?’ It took a long time for that to happen”.

As with previous eras, the old guard took up the gauntlet and forged a new nationwide event series out of existing contests run by the likes of Jim the Skin and Goff (Birmingham’s Blockless Combat), Wingy and Big Woody (Blackpool’s Seaside Sessions), and Mike ‘Pike’ Pardon’s Manchester events. With an aim to replicate the community-building spirit of the ESA contest series that had been so crucial to previous generations, the UK Independent Vert Series was born. As Goff puts it: “Events are the excuse to get people together at a ramp. That was the idea behind the ESA series, because the contests were interconnected, so it made people eager to go to as many as they could. That was something we tried to replicate with the UK Independent Vert Series. You can see how that idea worked – how else do you think we ended up with an X-Games gold medallist? Beckett came up through that event scene. Events created a platform for that new generation to shine”.

The slob air was invented by Blair Watson in 1979, named by Mofo in 1982, and performed in the present day by Sam Beckett at Taunton. Photo: Leo.

“I distinctly remember in the early ‘00s turning up for a Wednesday night session, and somebody saying ‘it’s busy!’...” - Sean Goff

In an echo reverberating back to its earliest days, Beckett’s exposure to an existing UK vert scene made progression and inclusion seem tangible straight away. “Seeing people like Pete King, Andy Scott, Dave Allen and Ali Cairns skate at those Red Bull events led to Paul-Luc and I having the realisation that ‘these are the guys we want to be like’. Having those direct influences on the same platform was a huge deal for us”. By the time of the mid ‘00s new vert generation, the situation as regards indoor vert ramps had stabilised sufficiently to offer opportunities for the likes of Beckett to progress as quickly as they wanted to; provided, of course, they had supportive parents prepared to put the miles in.

The importance of having ideally one local ramp to frequent in order to aid progression is a topic that has reoccured during the conducting of interviews for this article, and is something that Beckett elaborates on further: “To get comfortable enough on vert to be able to progress you have to learn the muscle memory specific to each ramp, so that you can get the rhythm of pumping needed to keep your speed. We call it ‘getting your vert legs’ – you need to skate regularly to develop those, and it needs to be on the same ramp really so your muscles remember the transitions. If you don’t get to that stage then you end up relying on strength alone to get speed, and that’s just too knackering”. By the time of Beckett and co’s arrival, there were enough indoor vert ramps (in England at least) to allow this process to happen.

With regular, guaranteed sessions at various ramps across the UK happening on a weekly basis, and a committed crew of vert heads turning up week after week, the new generation had walked into an atmosphere conducive to nurturing an explosion of talent unseen in the UK vert scene for a great number of years.

Beckett carries on: “Vert is a very particular kind of skating; it’s hard to be spontaneous because skating vert on your own isn’t really a thing. You accept early on that riding vert in the UK means driving a lot, and it means having prearranged sessions with enough people to get a hype going. If you’ve driven for a couple of hours to get to a ramp, then you’re not really going to want to just chill. People get stuck in”.

George O’Neill escapes both Leo and the Mount Hawke vert by way of a channel clearing backside ollie.

When asked about for their thoughts on the latest injection enthusiastic new talent into the UK vert scene, all of the established UK vert heads are sanguine. Even Wingy, a man not known for his ‘glass half full’ perspective most of the time, freely recognises that the future is looking bright, despite acknowledging that vert skating is never going to be a mass participation thing: “It’s really hard to do, it fucking hurts, and it’s scarier for kids today because whereas we started out on eight foot ramps, they’re starting out on 11, 12 foot ones. With that said though, I do think the UK vert scene looks healthy at the moment, and I guess that vert skating is aspirational for young kids again. Look at your George O’Neills or your Lola Tamblings – we do have a lot of potential in the next generation, and we might see a woman become the face of UK vert again, for the first time since Sue Hazel in the 1980s”.

Goff is equally cautiously optimistic, but goes on to add: “For me, what needs to change in the UK is that skatepark construction needs to catch up with the rest of the world. We’re still building too many small skateparks. We need bigger bowls and bigger transition so that our younger skaters have the same opportunities as people in Sweden or America. I don’t mean that every skatepark needs to be vert, just that new skateparks should have a useable section that goes to vert so that younger kids can get their vert legs and get confident riding big transitions”.

Adam Halvorsen pays Kernow homage to Phillippe Mentone with a boosted Japan air at Mount Hawke. Photo: Leo.

So there you have it. If the content of the preceding pages has even remotely piqued your interest, then the next logical step is to make your way to your nearest platform, pad up, and get involved yourself. Your local park should happily tell you when the best nights for vert sessions usually take place, and in attendance you’re likely to find heads from almost every generation (some of which may possibly have been featured here), eager to welcome, encourage and inspire in equal measures. At the very least, I implore you to attend any of 2022’s UK Independent Vert Series events and witness the unbridled passion of the country’s home grown vertical fraternity firsthand.

As it always has been when it comes to flinging about seven plies of Canadian maple - regardless of whether you’re 13 foot in the air or rolling around on the floor of your local car park - the only thing standing in your way is you.

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