Cantelowes – Unleashed

Photo’s by Matt Elms, Zac & Gorm


Address(Click for map): Cantelowes Gardens, Camden Road, London – 11am – 9pm

London does not seem to be as blessed as other City’s in the UK for decent concrete skateparks, in fact most councils believe that ye good olde 70’s manufactured potholed spots are just as good as they were when they opened. But thankfully one council decided that this was not going to be good enough for Camden and decided to chop out the old and get in with the new.

But this could well have been another Council disaster like Cantelowes rival bowl at Finsbury Park. Everyone knows that this is a perfect example of how not to design a skatepark in the year 2000 and fortunately the locals made sure they had a say before the cowboys came in and ruined another great session.

But how did this all come about? How did Cantelowes actually get a decent skate park? Crossfire did some investigating to find out as these steps could pave the way to future builds to come by talking to designers Jeremy Donaldson, Hareth Pochee, Jon Sheldon, Matt Elms and skate park builder Nicholas Fyfe from Wheelscape who built the park.

Hi Nic, congrats on the build, just so readers are in the know, what other skate parks have Wheelscape been involved in to date?

Nic: We built Whites Grounds (London Bridge/Southwark) in December, this is supposed to be the first “Indoor skate plaza” in Europe. Larger parks we have built include St Georges in Bristol, South Molton in Devon and Perdiswell in Worcester, and a number of smaller parks.

How was the Cantelowes project different to others?

Nic: The main difference was the enormous amount of users involvement in the whole process from the Cantelocals, a 150 strong user group, and the amount of support and goodwill we received from them while building the park, a very welcome change from some clients who just bung in a park and have no idea how to, or even see the need to involve the users, which is the main reason for 90% of the skateparks built in the UK in the last 30 years being pretty crap.

How was the design agreed on with so many influences and ideas kicking about from many locals?

Nic: Although a lot of people were involved and had their say, the process was well organised and democratic, and there was a good amount of confidence in Matt Elms, Jeremy Donaldson and Hareth Pochee who were the main reps of the group. I was given the end result, a 3D design by Jeremy, so it was easy for me, but it can’t have been so easy for them!

So Jeremy, was this easy?! Tell us how did this all begin?

Jeremy: No, never easy. Back in 2003 I was asked to look at the design and to try to hook up the Northwest crews on the build. Matt Elms worked out a brief with the rest of the Cantelocals setting out the mix of terrain and I picked up there, working out a range of about 6 sketch plans for the weird boomerang space Landscape Architect left us for a skatepark. I took these back to the Cantelocals and we firmed up the ideas a bit before doing the first rendered 3D design drawings (the one with the full cradle). It probably took longer to get to that point than it did to do the redesign but there was a whole saga in between. Over the next couple of years Matt and I worked with the council to try and get one of the three Northwest crews hired to build the project. The plan was for Dreamland to come over to build Camden and then go up to Saffron Walden to do their park. They really wanted to do the project but Camden’s conditions were too difficult to meet. Ironically, little Saffron Walden was able to get through all the red-tape with exactly the same overall team – largely due to the tenacity of Jane Clarke up in SW.

With Dreamland out of the picture by 2006, Camden put the landscape architect in charge of the design at that time. The design was generated between all of us, Cantelocals and the landscape architect, who had a snowboarder in their office draw it up. (Un)fortunately, the scheme came back 100k over budget for a design with bowls that looked like they’d been tipped down a hill or something. At that time, April 2006, I saw the opportunity to get the design back on track, and more critically for Camden, cut over 70k off the budget for starters – I presented an alternative design with a steep bank retaining the football pitch integrated into both the bowl & street areas. At the end of the meeting they asked me to draw it up for them and submit it – we were on!

Over the next couple of weeks, I refined the design for the bowl and, in meetings with the Cantelocals began work on the street stuff that was to be built after the bowl and the OG Cantabank. Just before they were about to dig the hole we were told that the bowl was to be reduced by 20% in size. Of course, you can’t do that without ruining the lines – the best thing was to do a new design based on the decisions already taken. It was at this point that the over-vert pocket returned to the design, instead of a deeper deep end and to tie the whole thing together – can you imagine how differently the bowl would ride if that was just a regular corner? – Too slow!? So, after 3 years, we had the bowl design and part of the street but mostly we had worked on the contractual stuff.

Hareth Pochee got stuck into drawing up the new street course in Autumn last year and I was juggling work, architecture exams, a baby on the way and the park. As it came closer to getting Wheelscape back on site to build the street stuff I was able to put more time in again to work with Hareth and get a few more tweaks in like sloping the side of the driveway and the escalator hip on the crazy bank thing. It was definitely better working as a team, especially as Hareth and I both have pretty demanding day jobs. Also, gotta give a shout out to Tamsin who accompanied us on our skating-with-tape-measure-missions and encouraged calm in the design!

Hareth, did they come out as good as you expected?

Hareth: In terms of the how the built item compares to computer/paper designs I’d say pretty damn good. There are a few glitches that will get ironed out like the street course drainage which is temporarily blocked up with concrete while the grates are manufactured. Also i’m thinking of moving the grind bar to inbetween the curving block and the mudchute to give it a better line. The coping on the flat bank opposite the mudchute is pretty mental cos it sticks out like an angry zit but in a way that makes it better cos its another different thing to skate.

Jon, how you think your ideas for the street section came across once built?

The need to keep some elements of the original bank an hip set-up was most important, and this has worked really well. There were reservations from the start about completely loosing the original lowes, and hopefully everyone is happy with whats been fit in to the space. It’s not the same, it was never going to be, but its got some of the same quirky features. My favourite line in the original park was out of ‘The Steep‘ into the side of the pyramid, and although we don’t have ‘The Steep‘ anymore the big hip is loads of fun. People would show up at the old lowes and hate it. Either they expected something else, couldn’t see any obvious lines, or just couldn’t work it out. We’ve created a monster, now everyone loves the lowes, and we have try hard to get a go!!! The quirk rules! The little banks round the sides, the wall ride on the side of the drive way, the banana-wedge rail, the ‘Lizards finger‘, it all has the spirit of the old Cantelowes.

What other ideas for the street section were put forward that didn’t work?

Jon: I think someone suggested that there should be a section for bladers constructed out of wax!

Ha! – How many tweaks did you have to make before Wheelscape poured the concrete?

Jeremy: When I’m using the 3D CAD model to develop the design, I build the model in a very similar way to how you set out the skatepark when you build it. So, when it came to finessing the things on site that had already been done in 3D, there was little work to do on site. At one point we considered changing the location of the over-vert pocket, we moved the coping one way and then the other until we saw that it was in the ‘right’ place all along; I had this weird sense of deja-vu as I realised that I’d done exactly the same thing before in the virtual world of the computer model – it was reassuring to see that the decisions taken that way so closely mirrored what I did with the real thing. It’s good for the confidence and it’s always cheaper to change a drawing that to pull out a load of concrete.

With the street stuff, we spent more on site time, with Hareth and I literally drawing designs out on the concrete, skating things to try and test the lines, adjusting as a went. Without having put so much time in at the early stage we ended up moving a few things around to get them to work better but, as these were simple box moulds, it wasn’t a problem. Having to move walls of a bowl around, that would be another story entirely, so for that sort of work, serious time has to go into assessing the lines well in advance of digging holes.

How important is this design influence to a project for Wheelscape to be involved in?

Nic: To us its very important, as we are well aware that unless the users have “ownership” of the design process, the park is unlikely to be either welldesigned, or well received, and this does no one any favours, least of all the users. We always struggle to find a coherent user group, and at the end of the day many Councils either do not want the hassle, or dont have the resources to do this properly. There is also a stigma attached to skatepark builders who try to make direct contact with the user group, this can seen as “bypassing the Council officers”, and may infringe the Competitive Tendering laws in some cases.

This has changed, first with the Local Govt Act 2000, which places obligations on Local Authorities to do proper local consultation, and various directives from the EC, which require the involvement of young people under 18 in all local planning decisions as far as possible, which is very far thinking, though it hasent yet trickled down very far. The Big Stash, a project grant designed so that young people are directly involeved in the design, selection and running of granrt funded projects , is one recent example. The whole industry needs to mature, but this is happening and in the last 2-3 years huge advances have been made.

Do you think that Wheelscape came good with the build once your designs were in place?

Jeremy: Wheelscape were a real unknown quantity to us when they were awarded the sub-contract to build the park. Nick Fyfe seemed really keen to do a good job with the concrete but favouring high-tech building methods. We, of course, favoured the skater’s eye and good finishing skills. I’d factored in a level of relative simplicity for a non-skater understanding and building the design but it was still going to be tough. I knew that we had to get some serious skater/finisher experience hired onto Nick’s crew for the concrete pours and he agreed. I had a few contacts and it was coming down to some of the Airspeed guys who were finishing up in Dublin or Dave North, who had just built a massive park out in New Zealand.

In the end, I put the deposit down on Dave’s flight, Nick picked up the rest and a couple of days later Dave and I were sitting in Brixton with a few beers and the design for the bowl. Dave and Nick’s crew bust their balls for 12-14 hour days for the next 2 1/2 weeks pouring thebowl. I was talking to Brett from Dreamland the other day and he’d was really impressed with Dave and the crew’s work and I just want to take this opportunity to thank Dave for coming all the way over here to get the bowl right and I wish he’d had the chance to ride it before he went back to NZ.

How long was the process to build Cantelowes once the designs were approved?

Nic: We were on site for 13 weeks doing the bowl and 5 weeks doing the street course.

Did Camden Council respond well to the decision that the designs were going to be skater influenced?

Nic: I think Camden LBC, Martin Stanton and his team deserve a lot of credit for the way they allowed the extensive public consultation to happen, while constantly being under attack for the time it was taking.

Jeremy, the cradle seemed to kick off a bunch of negativity on the web – why are there none of the negative remarks now it’s opened?

Jeremy: Maybe the negativity came from what they thought it was going to be like rather than what it actually turned out to be? About half the folk wanted over-vert in there some how, it was only one corner and I think it’s an important part of how the whole bowl work. If you want to carve it like a ‘normal‘ corner you still can, if you want to go upside down you can, if you want to get gnarly on it, call in the Plasterer or Stevie Thompson!

What is your favourite part of the bowl itself now you have skated it?

Jeremy:The bowl was designed to provide years of challenges from mellow to gnar, so, for me and hopefully everyone else their favourite bit will always change. But, first off, I just liked getting to skate whole thing as one bowl, as it was intended, feel the speed and start turning the casual lines in my head into bruises on my arse.

What do you all think of the park overall compared to the original?

Hareth: The old park was loved and cherished like a scruffy mongrel dog. When Camden first mooted the idea of a whole new Cantelowes Gardens we actually campaigned to keep the old park a perhaps extend it. When this notion proved to be to much for Camden to stomach we began floating ideas about the new park design. We actually considered making a replica Cantelowes 1 and I drew the whole thing out in Autocad on the new site. No matter which way we bent and stretched it we couldn’t make a Cantelowes 1 design fit into the new site plan. From here we took elements of Cantelowes 1 and incorporated them into the new park design. The new big hip by Camden Road is a take on one side of the old Cantelowes giant pyramid. The “Thing” in between the street and the bowl is inspired by the old Cantelowes back bank with the coping on the top. For me the new park is different, not better, not worse just as rad.

Matt: There is just so much more to skate/ride compared to the original Cantelowes. We were conscious that we should keep the spirit of the original with the banks and hips, and I think that works well, but overall there are just so many aspects to the new park, and its so smooth, it’s a massive improvement! The best thing, I think, is that you don’t get tired as quickly as other spots… as soon as your attention leaves one part of the park you just go and find another. You can have the most fun sessions there, whether you’re skating little weird stuff or flying round the bowl – for example that micro mini / bank is joke! As a result you stay at Cantelowes for much longer than other skateparks, having a really good laugh, and then emerge happy and exhausted hours later!

Jon: It’s too damn busy, all these people from all over the place coming down and taking over our park! Seriously though, it’s amazing, i’ve seen so much sick skating since it’s opened, feeble fakie on the cradle/clam shell, both ways over the roll-in, small kids flying around the place, the older generation popping up again, even a viking metal style guy the fastest thing on four wheels. It’s great that everyone is out enjoying it, but really for the younger kids it has changed their future. The standard just ollied up several steps (excuse the pun), and if they can ride this now, then who knows what they’ll be doing in the future.

So Jeremy are you going to be solely responsible for little kids ripping like Trujillo in London from now onwards?

Jeremy: Nah, it’s up to the kids to rip but they usually do! As far as being responsible for more terrain in London, yeah, I’d like to do more and keep progressing the designs.

Will you be designing more bowls for the South East?

Jeremy: Right now, I’m doing a couple of parks with bowls about the size of Cantelowes (in area) but with bigger street areas. We’re also close to getting going on Stockwell – that will be a bit looser – it’ll have tranny and hips, jersey barriers, blocks, wall-rides – not a bowl in the traditional sense – more like a combination of all sorts of terrain in one whole piece – we want to make that place rip again.

Why will users have to wear a lid in the bowl at all times, will this not change?

Jeremy: I’m not sure what the latest is on this from the council – they are having some serious problems from the neighbours complaining about noise from people using the park when it’s closed amongst other thing and they are trying to work out how to keep everyone happy. Jon and Tamsin are trying to sort them out some safety data re: helmets. Personally, I don’t mind the lid based on riding the whole bowl and having a family to think of.

What other plans do Wheelscape have up their sleeves for future builds?

Nic: We have had a lot of positive feedback as a result of Camden, and we aim to capitalise on it to build more high quality parks. Though there seems to be a move towards freeform concrete, we also have a factory for precast concrete. Bendcrete have done a pretty good job of meeting a demand – they don’t for example have a precast bowl system, and the joints between their pieces are a disgrace. We feel that Bendcrete have given precast a bad name, and we intend to develop more parks which combine the benefits of the precision and economy of precast with the design flexibility of freeform. But at the end of the day, we are here to respond to demand. We are looking forward to working with Jeremy on design, and as he is highly regarded as a designer, we feel we wont go far wrong as long as his watchful eye is on us – you see we’re umm…. not actually skaters ourselves …..(sheepish grin) – just concrete cowboys!!

What should councils avoid most when looking into building a skatepark? What is essential to a successful build?

Nic: Well obviously they shouldnt just charge ahead with ordering one without making some effort to find a user group. They tend to be seduced by nice brochures, (which in fairness portray a steel skatepark looking as good as a concrete one). There needs to be a massive campaign to make Councils aware that steel skateparks are horrible , and long term very bad VFM. (we know, we have built them and we have the engineering capacity same as GBH but we wouldnt touch it) Definitely some kind of concerted effort to establish the UKSA as a nationally recognised consultative body, from whom more Councils take advice before going ahead, and avoid the obvious pitfalls (bad transitions, lack of water runoff, coping details etc) This is important, as the demand is absolutely staggering, we estimate the UK skatepark market is worth £15m a year, and with that sort of allure, there will be opportunist who try to jump on the wagon.

Where can people find you on the web if they would like advice on building skateboard parks?

Nic: Our website, which is becoming a bit overblown, but still has a lot useful information aimed at buyers. We would welcome feedback on it.

Do you guys want to thank anyone or add anything relevant here?

Jeremy: My wife for putting up with the weird hours, long drives and numerous afternoons sat beside skateparks whilst I do ‘research’; Dave North for busting his ass for a bowl he hasn’t ridden (yet!), Nick, G, Marcel and the rest of the Wheelscape crew, Andy and Robbie from Charter; Matt Elms for getting me on the project and for serious project managing skills, Hareth Pochee, Tamsin, Homage, Stevie and the rest of the Cantelocals, Johnny Tuesday-shop; Martin Stanton, director of Camden Parks; Danyel & Dreamland for their efforts trying to get over here & Jane Clarke for getting them to SW; all the dudes enjoying the park.

Hareth: Big up to the skinny kid that told Me and Matt that “Whoever designed the park must have been a complete idiot. Probably some 50 year old fat blokes sat in a boardroom who used to skate in the 1920’s” Yeah kid, you’re cool, can we be in your gang?

Jon: There seems to be an new era of concrete parks popping up all over the UK and Europe, and its great that Cantelowes can be part of it. I think it’s been about 5 years since the first consultations with Camden, but it’s been worth the wait. I hope it never takes anyone else that long, but if it does hang on in there, its worth it!