Sheenagh Burdell. Her parents would have been blissfully unaware when they christened her that when she was becoming a teenager, by basic word association alone, her name would bring to mind both The Ramones and Barry Sheene; two names that evoke breakneck speed, excitement and danger. With the recent global explosion of female skateboarding, it’s hard to comprehend that in the UK in the late 70s there were virtually no female skaters. I’m sure there were others that dabbled and I’m happy to stand corrected...but I can only think of Sheenagh who took it a step further. She spent three years at the forefront of the first wave of UK skateboarding, specialising in bowls, pools and vert skating, rather than freestyle, which most other girls seemed to veer towards. She is arguably the original Pool Kat. Based in Southport, and a Solid Surf skatepark local, Sheenagh was already well known within the North-West skate scene but her reputation quickly grew with some national exposure in the UK magazine, Skateboard!. These days she is based in Southern France, and after a lay-off of almost 30 years she is skating again. We sat down for an informal internet chat. It’s not really an interview, more of a loose conversation that meanders, sometimes going off at a tangent, yet hopefully staying relevant and interesting to those who care to read it.
Intro and interview by Dave Arnold - Photography by Darren Burdell
Let’s start by going back to the very beginning - how did you become aware of skateboarding?
I was infatuated with all things American. It’s possibly down to watching TV shows like, Charlie’s Angels and Starsky & Hutch. Maybe I saw a skateboard on one of those shows.
Did you see Farah Fawcett-Majors on a skateboard? I still have her foldout poster!
I don’t think it was that. I was just really interested in American things, and skating was really American.
I’ll tell you where I first saw it. The Charlie Brown and Snoopy cartoon. I vividly remember seeing it. Yes! You know what? It could well be that as I was mad on Snoopy!
So what year was this occurring?
I got my first skateboard for Christmas, 1976.
In the UK in 1976 it was pretty hard to even buy skateboards. My dad made my first skateboard out of one of his old steel-wheeled roller skates from the ‘50’s.
My dad didn’t have any roller skates (laughs)!
Your older brother Darren also skated. Did he get a skateboard for Christmas 1976 too?
No, I got into it before my brother. I got him hooked on it later on.
That’s very interesting!
I was 11 years old and I pestered my parents for a skateboard. They said I couldn’t have one.
They obviously relented. Did you get safety gear too or just the board?
Just the board. It was a blue, Surf Flyer Deluxe.
I got one of those at a car boot sale for £2. It was in brand new condition with instructions still stapled to it. Total garbage though.
That’s good! I paid about £2 for a G&S Fibreflex slalom board at a French car boot.
That’s even better! The first skateboarders I ever saw were at Southport, quite some time before the skatepark was built. Older guys not kids, shirtless, blond-haired surfer dudes in shorts. They were skating those stubby, steep paved banks on the seaside entrance to the funfair.
Yes, the seafront and the promenade along Marine Lake were the first spots where skaters would gather.
Sheenagh backside airs in her native surrounds of Southport, 1978.
Let’s talk about Solid Surf Skatepark. You are inextricably linked to that park. Was there any Burdell family involvement or influence in its construction?
None whatsoever. We somehow knew that it was going to happen and we hung around waiting for it to be finished. We jumped the fence and skated it before it opened.
Ruining the concrete by skating it before it has cured properly...you set of impatient ingrates!
Since working in concrete myself, I’ve learned that it takes around a month to fully cure or harden. That’s the reason the builders don’t want you on it...but it drives the skaters nuts!
I just thought they were trying to spoil our fun!
Rumour had it that you and your family were responsible for Southport skatepark getting built.
(Laughs) it’s not our fault, we aren’t to blame! It was a guy called Jimmy Rennie. I know Rodga Harvey had something to do with it. On the day it officially opened, we were waiting outside on the steps and Jimmy and Rodga rolled up in a taxi.
I know Rodga Harvey, but who is Jimmy Rennie?
He was employed by the Solid Surf construction company. He was from Florida. He didn’t skate. He stayed in Southport for about two months and then moved on to the sister Solid Surf skatepark in Harrow.
Don’t get me wrong, we thought Southport skatepark was the absolute bee’s knees, but looking back, comparing Harrow and Southport skateparks, do you think we were short-changed?
What do you expect? Southport was up north wasn’t it? I’m grateful we got something; it was better than nothing.
Without doubt better than nothing. Other options for us would be Edge Lane in Liverpool, or Bolton, which was dark and dingy. At least at Southport you could close your eyes (or even keep them wide open) and imagine you were at Venice Beach, even though the tide was always about two miles out. It genuinely did have that ‘beach vibe’ going on. To the point that if it was ever windy, the bowls and moguls would fill up with drifting sand.
Hey, occasionally, when the tide did decide to come in, it came in too far and would flood with water too! Talking about Bolton, that was the first commercial skatepark I skated. It was diabolical, really.
It was in an old cinema. That bowl was so kinked and bumpy. The majority of UK skateparks were built by folks who had no idea what they were doing, or what was an acceptable standard for a skatepark. Regardless, the locals seemed to have it totally dialled in though. That’s where I learned to ride a halfpipe.
Me too. That’s where I got my proficiency badge; I had to fakie in the pipe. I remember there was another girl and I thought, well if she can do it, then I can do it!
So there were other skateboarding girls back then?
There really was not many. I saw that other girl just once at Bolton, but I don’t know who she was. Once Southport opened I had two friends that I skated with, Jackie and Julie (nick-named ‘Inch’).
Do you wish Jackie and Inch had kept up with you as you progressed? You very quickly left them behind with the quality of your skating, and how powerful you became.
I think that is what happens when you skate with an older brother and his friends. I really didn’t think I was any different from them. I regarded myself as one of the lads.
You never thought about your gender?
No. Whatever they were doing, I was trying to do it too. They were constantly pushing me.
Did the guys buzz off the fact that you were a girl?
I was there from the very start and they were so used to me being around, I don’t think anybody gave it a second thought.
So you were not stigmatised in any way?
Not at all. A lot of girls nowadays seem to be frightened that guys will take the
mickey...but it just never happened to me.
Dropping in at Colne, 1979.
You were sponsored; can you tell us about that?
I skated for Lan Skateboards. Lan was a Canadian company. A guy came over from Canada, saw me skating and asked me to be on the team. Every time the team went anywhere, my mum had to come with me as I was only 13. They didn’t want me travelling up and down the country on my own. They were always there. I remember going to Harrow with my mum, dad and brother, but they went off for the night and we went to a party at Seth and Shane Cutt’s house in Islington. Everybody was there; Rodga Harvey, Mark Baker, Tim Altic, and the Liverpool guys - Stef and Dan-Z come to mind.
You were still only 13 at this point and skaters can be notorious for being a rowdy bunch, what were you exposed to at this party?
(Laughs) I’m not naming names, but there were a few well mashed folks! After the party, Darren, Mike Riddle, Rodga and I got a taxi back to Rodga's house. We slept downstairs on the settees. When we got up in the morning, Rodga had gone…I think he forgot we were there! We hadn't got a clue where we were. We had to go out and find a street sign so we could order a taxi back to Harrow skatepark; we didn't have any money either! I would just like to thank Rodga for that!
When you were travelling around, were there any parks that made an impression on you?
One of my favourite parks was Arrow indoor park in Wolverhampton. It was not so far away, and I loved it in there. So many different things to skate! The Spoon Bowl and The Drain.
Did you visit when the Traknology team were in residence at Arrow? Jay Adams, Bobby Piercy, Kent Senatore and Billy Yeron?
No. I had no idea it was happening.
Without social media you had no idea what was happening in your next town, let alone what might be happening in another part of the country. You relied on the magazine for news updates, but it could be a couple of months out of date by the time it even hit the newsagents.
We had Tony Alva at Southport though!
You most certainly did! I was there for that...and the time Shogo Kubo visited your shop Freewheelers! Shogo did not skate at Southport; he went straight to Colne, which was too far away for me to get to under my own steam as a teenager.
Before we went to Colne, Shogo came to our house. My brother says one of the weirdest things that ever happened to him was sitting on our settee, talking to Shogo Kubo whilst my mum served him tea and cakes.
I bet Shogo loved that! The full, quaintly British experience.
We also had the Benjyboard team come to our house too; John Sablosky, Jeremy Henderson and Mark Sinclair. They did a demo in Bootle, Liverpool. That was also in an old cinema. It was slightly better than the Bolton park, though. I also went to California in 1978. The skateparks out there were so much smoother and easier to skate. With hardly any effort you could really get up there. We went to the Big O, Lakewood, The Runway, Upland, and maybe a few others. We went with my mum and dad. Our nextdoor neighbours moved out there, and we went to visit them for a month.
How often did you skate?
Pretty much every day...but not always in the skateparks.
Glove assisted backside air at Sheenagh's home from home. Check that rig!
How did your shop Freewheelers come about, and when did the penny drop with your parents that there was a viable business opportunity for you?
The shop came about because Ricky Knight, the guy that owned Wheeler Dealers skateboard shop in Liverpool, actually lived next door to us on the other side.
Wow! Like in a sit-com and having a conversation over the garden fence: “Hey, skateboarding, that’s where the money is! You wanna open a skateboard shop!”
That’s pretty much how it went, yes.
So when did your shop open?
It was just a little before the skatepark opened in 1978, but initially at a different location, up a little backstreet off Scarisbrick New Road.
Was it instantly successful?
Not really, no…but then we moved to London Street in the town centre, near the train station, and then it kicked off.
We used to get off the train from Wigan and skate straight round to the shop.
That was a great location for us.
Obviously it was your parents’ business and it was their collateral you were spending, but were you and Darren deciding what products to stock? “Dad, you need to get some of those Wes Humpston DTS boards!”
Definitely, “…and we will test them out for you as well!”
As far as I can remember, the shop always stocked only the best brands.
When we first opened at the other location, we did have budget polypropylene boards, but once we moved, we decided to only sell quality stuff. We didn’t get a wage for working in the shop, but we got first choice of any equipment we wanted. To be honest, we didn’t take a lot of stuff from the shop.
This leads me on to my next question. Do you recall a father and son duo called Jeff and Jay Cunliffe, who appeared to be on a mission to buy every skateboard product available?
Yes, I do. I don’t think they actually bought that much from us. They tended to spend most of their money at Wheeler Dealers. I reckon there was some kind of shop snobbery going on.
They must be sitting on the most amazing collection of vintage skateboards.
I bet he has some good photos too, because Jeff was always shooting with his camera. No one has ever seen them, though.
Did you ever consider having a smaller shop at the skatepark itself?
Somebody else did it. I don’t know who they were. It was some Mormon guy and nothing to do with us.
I don’t remember that! Did that not bum you out?
A little bit, but I don’t think it was successful. Me, Jackie and Julie just used to go and take the piss out of the guy and mither him to death. He used to wish he wasn’t there. It didn’t last long. After that, we used to keep our skate gear in there. I don’t think we actually ever paid to get in the park. On the official opening day, Jimmy Rennie and Rodga Harvey picked a few of us out to be marshals. We got t-shirts and even got paid. It was beyond our wildest dreams! Free entry, free drinks, and we got paid to skateboard all day.
Backside kickturn on the vertical fibreglass of Southport.
I know you are into motorcycles and our paths have crossed in that scene, but do you think spending your formative years skating put you on a certain path? Allowing you to believe you can do these dangerous and intimidating things?
Quite possibly. I got into motorcycle drag racing in the early 90’s, and after attending the Bulldog Bash, I got addicted to it. It’s something I didn’t think about. You just get on and do it!
Sheenagh, most people don’t. They really don’t. You say you, “just get on and do it” but how many other women did you see motorcycle drag racing?
I guess you are right, not many.
What I’m trying to say is that being a female skater in a male-dominated scene didn’t bother you. Being able to carry that experience forward into later life must have stood you in good stead, because these kinds of activities simply are not for everybody.
I think it’s just me. I like doing things that are deemed out of the ordinary for women. It’s not intentional that I choose to do these things. They are just pursuits I enjoy really. I don’t want to do ballet or ballroom dancing. My mum tried to get me into ballroom dancing, but it just wasn’t for me.
Growing up you got fantastic support from your parents, making the time to take you around to all the skateparks and even opening a shop based around your hobby.
My mum and dad were brilliant. They would organise coach trips from the shop to various far away skateparks. A lot of kids wouldn’t have got the chance to visit these places otherwise. I remember a great trip (I think) to Colne skatepark with Mark Baker on the coach with us.
I don’t know his age, but Mark Baker always seemed to me to be a little older than other skaters?
Not really; when I was 13, he was about 16.
He just seemed like a ‘bloke’, especially when he rocked up with Alva at Southport for the demo.
He would only be about 16, but he was quite mature for his age.
Yes, he looked rugged, like he could have advertised cigarettes in a men’s magazine or something.
He was great. He sat on the back seat and entertained us all the way there. I just remembered that he was late getting to us. We were waiting outside the shop for him to turn up and Darren was sat on a Yamaha FS1E moped when it suddenly tipped backwards and smashed the shop window. It cut his arm quite badly. So everybody got on the coach and went to Southport Infirmary. Darren went into A&E to be fixed up, whilst everybody sat waiting on the coach. Mark Baker and I were having wheelchair races up and down the corridors while we were waiting.
It simply would not happen nowadays. “We are still all going on the trip to the skatepark, but just need to stop off at the hospital on the way, OK?” I only saw him skate that one time with Alva but there was something going on that day. I just remember Mark Baker out-skating Alva. He wasn’t in a good mood.
Alva didn’t like Southport. He didn’t cope well with all the kids. It was pretty badly organised and overcrowded.
Mark Baker just embraced the situation. He got my vote, not that it was a competition, but he was the better skater on the day.
I think everybody thought that. After the demo I was in the backroom office chatting to Alva and Mark, when Mr. Ayling, the Manager of Pleasureland Amusement Park, burst in, shouting at me to get out immediately. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me across a table. Wynn Miller, the American skate photographer who was also on the tour, grabbed hold of the manager and threw him out! His excuse for his actions was that he thought I was a boy.
Why would your gender matter? Was it maybe because you were in an ‘off limits’ area?
We were invited in there as my dad had helped organise the demo with Brian Sidley, who co-organised the coach trips too. Wynn Miller wanted to take Mr Ayling outside and give him a good hiding.
Grinding frontside, Southport, 1979.
Who do you think ripped at Southport that never got the full credit they deserved?
A guy called Glen Andrews was really good, then there was Mark Howard (aka Moony), Rick Lagden and Lee Meadows…and then of course, Stef Harkon and Dan-Z from Liverpool.
Dan-Z went on into the 80s and his skating became very trick-oriented, whereas Stef Harkon just continued on with a heavy surf style.
Stef just seemed to not have to put any effort in at all, he was just so smooth.
Let’s talk about the fibreglass vert ramps they had at the park. They were quite unusual with very tight 5-foot transitions and at least 3 foot of vert. We went there one day and they had been configured to create a makeshift mini-ramp. What do you remember about that?
I think they blew over in the wind and somebody noticed their potential.
Most likely a total accident, but by lying the ramps down in that manner you possibly created the first ever flat-bottomed mini ramp. Very innovative!
Yes that’s what everybody said. They were certainly much more fun to skate like that.
Yes but you skated them really well when they were in the upright position too. They were so lightweight and flimsy. I don’t think they were anchored to the floor?
That’s right, we just used to push them about to create different set ups, but they would wobble like mad when you rode up the vert section.
I look back and wonder why nobody thought to add some back supports to make them more substantial? There are a couple of super cool photos of you on those ramps where you are right up on the vert.
That particular day we set the ramps up with a long run-up across the freestyle area. You just had to frantically push in, as fast as possible, for a one hit run. There was no other ramp to help generate speed to get up there.
A towering Southport kickturn, 1979.
After you got the coverage in the magazine, were there any bullshit attitudes, or was it all positive vibes?
It was all positive, with people supporting you. One time we were at a televised competition in Southampton, on The Saturday Banana Show. It was our northern team against a southern team. I took my run and got a high score. The presenter then asked if they had given me that score because I was a girl, and the judges said, “no, it’s because she was good”.
When you have a shop they become more than just a place to buy things; they become a kind of drop-in centre with a social aspect to them. Do you think a scene sprang up around Freewheelers?
Most definitely. I’d say most of the customers became our friends and so it was like all your mates were always popping in. People would meet up at the shop, and then head over to the park.
That’s exactly what we used to do! Sometimes that skate over to the park would be just as memorable as actually being in the park. How did the shop end?
It just fizzled out in about 1980. The skatepark closed and people stopped coming. It became difficult to get product.
Sounds like it was just part of the global death of skateboarding, and there was not a lot anybody could do about it, sadly. Let’s move on to more recent times. I know you built a ramp in your barn…
It’s been there a couple of years now, and we recently resurfaced it because the roof leaked. It was in the best shape ever, then we had a crazy flood and it was completely trashed. Having said that, once the floodwater subsided, it actually went back together quite well. So I don’t think I need to worry too much about a leaky roof!
Is your partner, Edgar, supportive of your desire to skate at an older age?
Yes! We built the ramp together and he is very supportive. I don’t skate as much as I’d like to. It’s not like when you were a kid and you could just go to the park every single day. I try to skate in short bursts a couple of times a week. I feel like I’ve had to learn all over again because I stopped skating when I was 16. I had operations on both my hips to remove some lumps that had appeared, and that put an end to it until coming back at the age of 49. I never envisaged myself standing on a skateboard again, but then I picked up the old Fibreflex from the car boot sale I mentioned earlier. I took a couple of sneaky goes on it when nobody was around and surprised myself that I could still do it. Shortly after that, I got a new board and went to my nearest skatepark. I fell and hurt myself and decided I wasn’t going to do it unless I wore safety pads.
Sheenagh, back on board, 2021.
What do you think about the recent rise of female skateboarding?
I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the amount of girls that are now skating, also the standard that they are at, especially the really young girls who are fantastic. Sometimes I wish things would have been different for me, but then again, my time in skateboarding when I was young was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I’m really glad that I got involved with it.
As a youngster, skateboarding can teach you so much. A lot of life lessons. If you want something to happen you have to learn to deal with pain and failure, yet keep on trying. A lot of stuff you can learn, like building up your form and skill level, but one thing you cannot learn is momentum. You have to be able to give yourself the green light to gain momentum and be at ease with it. If you can conquer that, then it’s a quality that can help you through all aspects of life.
The older you get, it definitely takes more guts to try new things. The younger you can start the better. As an older person you really don’t want to be falling. I don’t try any heroics these days.
Just be at peace with what you are still able to do.
It’s a fine line between staying fit and knackering yourself up. I skate for about 30 minutes. If I do any longer, I can’t walk the next day. I don’t want to pretend that I’m some super-fit human.
Do you ever come back to the UK?
Every so often we come back to see family.
Next time you are in the area you are more than welcome to come over and maybe meet some of the Pool Kats.
Yes. I’ll bring my board.
Thanks Sheenagh, you will always be an honoury Pool Kat!