Camp Hill Crest - The UK's only on-site Residential Skateboard Camp
After seeing this amazing looking place pop up in a few edits and Instagram clips of late, we figured it was time to find a little more about the back story from one of the owners, Thomas Seaton.
Nestled in beautiful surroundings in rural Gloucestershire, Camp Hillcrest is, right now, one of a kind, offering a residential base for skateboard camps with an indoor DIY build, outdoor skate obstacles and a host of other activities that take advantage of its idyllic setting.
We sat down with Tom to shoot the breeze, find out where the idea came from and generally fill in the gaps concerning Camp Hill Crest - The UK's only Residential Skateboard Camp.
Read the interview, peep Lee Dainton's clip below and consider where you want to take your kids (or yourselves) during the next school holidays.
Photography by Siobhan Fedden
See more of Siobhan Fedden's photos here.
First off Tom, can you please give us a little background on Camp Hillcrest? Is the site in St Briavels a pre-existing home for yourselves, or was the whole thing built with the idea of the camp in mind?
Before setting up Camp Hillcrest I was living with my wife (Corinna) in Bristol. I was teaching art and she was teaching deaf children. I grew up in Epsom with an off the wall pastor for a dad. My dad built a mini ramp in my garden and let all my friends skate the church hall. He used to drive us to loads of spots too, which was rad. With the religion there was a strict TV ban too...but I was allowed a monitor and a VHS player and as a result I watched skate videos every day. There was an issue of 411 video magazine which had the Element skate camp in it and I loved the way kids made boards, lit fires and found animal tracks.
"There was an issue of 411 video magazine which had the Element skate camp in it and I loved the way kids made boards, lit fires and found animal tracks"
I wanted to go there so much and kept following the place over the years. After a few years teaching I showed my wife a film of the camp with Ray Barbee teaching guitar and loads of other cool stuff and she was inspired too. After this we trained as forest school leaders, with the idea to move away from school, find a place and start an Element style camp. Before settling in Bristol we had lived in a truck and played in a band together, during this time we spent a lot of time gigging in different communities and learned a lot about cooperative living and how to set up a community. We looked for two years and eventually found the site in St Briavels. We could never have afforded it, but two other couples agreed to move out with us to help out and pay into a mortgage - so we all moved out together, two couples into the property and one couple into a truck in the yard. This is where the mission began.
Where does the story start in terms of where you began and how the site evolved into what it is now?
We moved out to camp in 2010. The camp is remote, the nearest shop is four miles away. I was wondering how I was going to get other skaters out here regularly to help push the project on, with a new a baby and very little budget. I started applying for planning permission to become a skateboarding and forest school education centre and we originally planned for an outdoor wooden park.
I used to drive through Monmouth to teach art in Hereford at this point, I’d pass Lidl on my way home and all these kids were skating the carpark in the evenings. I pulled in one time and got out of my shitty Transit with a chimney sticking out and wearing really boring teacher clothes. I spoke to a young lad called Josh Haddock and said 'Hey, I’ve got a few kickers and rail. Do you want me to bring them down here? By the way, I'm building a skate camp down the road.' I think they thought I was a confusing hippie weirdo in a suit and tie, but of course they were up for the ramps and I took them down. They ended up with a rad little DIY spot down there and the Monmouth crew soon came up to camp and helped out. We built two wooden minis under a shelter; one was 12 foot wide and the other 20 foot. They had trees coming out the platforms, they were sick.
"I think they thought I was a confusing hippie weirdo in a suit and tie"
After this we developed the accommodation. The bunk house was really ropey at first, but I wanted to get a proper crew up anyway. Flynn Trotman, who had some idea of what I was up to, brought 30 skaters from Bristol up to camp. It was total carnage and a legendary night. We then realised it was time to build a skate park indoors otherwise we’d get shut down and the dream would be over. The building is predominantly made of straw - to keep it quiet from the outside. Concrete was chosen as it is longer lasting and much quieter than wood. These were the main reasons, but also we really wanted to try building a concrete park and learn how to do it. I think concrete creates smoother lines too.
Are you and your partner from that area originally? If not, how did you find yourselves living in rural Gloucestershire?
Corinna is originally from Weston Super Mare and I am from Epsom, Surrey, south of Wimbledon and just outside south west London. We looked for ages to find a spot for camp, but when we drove up the drive to the spot, we knew instantly it was the one.
Can you give us a little overview of exactly what's there please?
The camp has a bunkhouse that sleeps 18 people, with a pool table and projector screen for films. We have the indoor concrete skate park, a skateboard shaping workshop, a screen printing workshop, a pizza oven, two hot tubs, giant tree nets, two fire pits, a slack line, goats, chickens and dogs and a BBQ area. There is also our family home and some other friends and skaters as residents.
How many people can your dormitories accommodate?
The dorms sleeps 18, we have a caravan that takes four people too.
What about the indoor skate park - is that all a DIY project? Where did you draw the inspiration for what you built? Presumably with the place functioning as an educational resource, the bowl and other obstacles need to suit absolute beginners as well as offering opportunities to more experienced skaters - how does what you've created reflect that?
Enrico, who project managed the build with me, had built a few ramps for councils and festivals. The rest of the build crew consisted of the boys that built the M32 spot in Bristol - Tim and Joe Hill, Tim Bertelot, Mark Penman and Olly and Dan, who live and skate at Hillcrest. We had a local digger driver, Jamie and Nick Smith helped out at the early stages. He has built a fair bit out in India. Many others popped in and out to help.
We also had a secret weapon though. There is this old guy called Mickey the Mixer. He came to camp for two days to render a wall on the house. Someone told us he’d do it for a few bottles of cider! That was three years ago and he is still helping out at camp. He taught us everything; how to mix concrete just right, how to float and trowel properly. Absolute total legend.
"The park is tight, but it has something for everyone and people really enjoy skating it"
Stewart Payton (M32) drew the first design, then Enrico did numerous designs. I thought they were all too packed in and busy. I had a real idea of the space we had to work with because I’d been going through all the planning permission for years. I went trekking around loads of parks with a tape measure seeing what would realistically fit in and work. Filton Skatepark was the biggest influence on my drawing. Rico made my drawing into proper plans and we started. The park is definitely designed by a goofy skater, you can tell when you ride it.
The park has a range of really small quarter pipes that are great for beginners and a low ledge. There is a street section with flat banks, pyramid, hubba and a big ledge, then there is a gnarly bowl and massive wall ride. The park is tight, but it has something for everyone and people really enjoy skating it.
What's your own personal skateboard story?
I started skating in 89. I grew up skating my home town of Epsom with a crew of friends that I’m still close to now. My dad used to let us all skate the church hall and in the early 90s used to drive us all to Hook Skateboard Club near Chessington. We used to skate the red ramps in Dickerage Lane, New Maldon. I used to be in awe of characters like Gorm and Mark. Jason Lunn and Davros used to skate all these spots too, with interesting body odour, doing laybacks and shouting 'o my death!' Later we'd skate Fairfield halls when Paul Shier and Billy and Barrington were down there a lot. We were always our own crew, but I remember following Paul Shier to the pub a few times all stoked that there was a pro around. We also used to skate Southbank and trek around London.
"When I was younger I built a fire pit in the woods near the house and was always the kid dragging everyone out there to chill after a skate"
There was a big group skating all through London on Sundays at that time, I used to love the old Cantelowes too, the jams up there were so good. Later we all loved the old Crawley skate park and skated there loads. In my university time my friends were becoming graphic designers and getting pretty trendy - I was different to that, studying fine art and learning about traveller life style. I craved adventure and moved west to peruse horticulture, art and music. I always kept skating, but I had to stay with my character and leave the rat race. When I was younger I built a fire pit area in the woods near the house and was always the kid dragging everyone out there to chill after a skate. I just thought I was made for that stuff and that thought never went away.
Syd mentions in the video how UK kids love the idea of Camp Woodward and how Camp Hillcrest is a uniquely British take on that - could you expand on that a little please?
Woodward is definitely a direct comparison but as I mentioned before, the camp is more based on the Element Camp. I guess the best thing to do is explain my logic on the project and why it’s a passion. Skateboarding gave me a real sense of meaning in life, because its art and culture is so rich and rebellious and the actual act of skateboarding teaches you strength and perseverance - it’s pretty hard to be good at and it hurts when you fall down. I believe its rebellious culture is a great tool for young people. This mixed together with the fact that you are rolling around on a piece of Canadian maple ply, just lent itself to what we've created at camp. A space to ride wood, sculpt wood by making boards, chop wood and burn wood for fuel and cooking, share music and make art, all in the middle of the of trees in the Forest of Dean.
"A space to ride wood, sculpt wood by making boards, chop wood and burn wood for fuel and cooking, share music and make art, all in the middle of the of trees in the Forest of Dean"
The essence for this idea was with me from seeing Element Skate Camp in videos in the '90s, it deeply affected me and my life choices, thinking about it I would never have done anything else. Our camp is different though because, as well skate camp in term time, we work with a lot of young people that are marginalised from society for various reasons and help them learn through skateboarding, forest school activities, construction, animal care and making grime music and hip hop.
As far as I can tell, despite there being a fair few other UK skate camps running, yours is the only one that is residential in this way, with a permanent base so to speak. Was the idea to combine the notion of a family holiday with the skate camp? I'm assuming that you have entire families staying there where not everyone is there for the skateboarding aspect, right?
We are the only fully residential skate camp with everything here onsite. Without wanting to sound cheesy, it has a kind of a holistic approach to skateboarding and the place functions differently depending on the group that is here. For example one weekend we may have three families with kids that skate and a couple of dads that do, another weekend we may have a group that’s all skaters of any age, some people are just holiday makers that may do lots of activities in the area and throw a skate lesson into it to the mix. Some groups are here just for education, some for holiday and some just to skate. Most groups are here for a bit of everything or to stay on our week long residential skate camps.
What other activities are on offer besides the skate-related stuff? From the testimonials on your site it sounds as if there's a more traditional 'adventure holiday' aspect too, with canoeing, hiking etc. Is that all part of the Camp Hillcrest experience as well?
We offer a lot of educational stuff for schools including skate classes and forest school, which includes fire lighting, wood chopping, tool making, shelter building and all sorts of woodland based stuff. We offer screen printing workshops, making hoodies and tees, we provide board shaping with Ken Gear from A Third Foot Skateboards. We have some canoes, wood fired hot tubs and the bunkhouse, we teach a lot of rural skills here and music. This is all continuously developing. Our wood fired hot tubs and pizza are very popular too. We also function as a holiday place for groups of young people, families and all sorts really. Term time is fairly busy on weekdays, with kids mentioned above, evening is skate classes and school holidays is often skate camps.
So who are your average customers?
Skaters, schools, families, holiday makers, all sorts.
You work with a couple of existing skate camp organisations already, (Camp WESC etc.) but are you approached by schools and/or local youth groups as well?
We are approached by loads of different groups including schools and local authorities, pro skaters, families, groups of young people, all sorts. With regards to residential skate camps; some skate camps are run by Mark Baines (The Story Camp, formally Camp WESC), a legendary English pro for Fabric Skateboards, and some are run by me in conjunction with A Third Foot and Fifty Fifty Skate Store or with Freestyle Skate Store. Mark’s camps also use Rock City in Hull and Hillcrest is more of base that they use for Mark’s personal approach to skate camp. He uses our grip tape artist, Mike the grip wizard, and they use the park here a little bit but he has larger groups of international and English visitors sometimes - so they often need more space than our park has for a big 25 person session. They use our park in mornings and evenings and make more use of the skate vibe, big screen projector and pizza oven, whilst daily travelling to Cirencester, Hereford and Campus. They don’t have a workshop focus as such, but he has some really good skaters come as coaches and kids are provided with some great products from his sponsors.
The ATF/Fifty Fifty/Freestyle/Camp Hillcrest residential camps are more in the holistic/DIY/Element camp vibe. Our camps are for twelve people maximum as our park functions well with this number. We visit other parks too, Hereford, Monmouth and Cirencester. We have some rad leaders including Lucas Healey and Henry Fox and every camper makes a board and prints a hoody on camp, we have a lot of activity around the camp fire and chop wood and skate every day.
The weekends and other free times are really varied as to the customer base. Anyone can book really, but there is a high number of customers that are here for skateboarding and the related workshops.
Working with schools and with kids more generally brings with it a great deal of bureaucratic red tape - can you give us a little insight into the logistics involved in running a place like this from that perspective please?
I was an art teacher in mainstream secondary school for nine years and I still do it here and there. Corinna still works as a sign language interpreter in school. I have had to deal with all of this stuff for years, and forest school training also helped a lot with analysing and understanding risks in outdoor education stuff. Red tape is laborious but in the end sets you free to do what you want, within boundaries that eliminate some worries if you can manage to interpret your way through it and stay up to date.
Can you tell us a little about some of the activities you've run over this summer? You've worked in conjunction with A Third Foot, Fifty Fifty and various other people recently - how do these parts combine to form the overall Camp Hillcrest experience?
These are my favourite parts of camp, where it’s all about skateboarding intensely. Seeing kids really vibe off our camp leaders from A Third Foot seeing everyone hyped on making boards, it’s intense! A whole week of it, but the atmosphere is so good, everyone literally loves it. It’s where we pull out all the stops and there is structure to every day and activity. It’s becoming like a family in some ways and we are putting together a little skate team of young rippers including Roxanne Howlett and Liam Minter. Seeing these kids skate is so good and seeing them immersing in skateboard culture and the countryside is really amazing.
"Seeing these kids skate is so good and seeing them immersing in skateboard culture and the countryside is really amazing"
You’ve mentioned what you're doing being in a more holistic capacity than it being a case of just 'come and stay and skate our park' - how do you see the educational aspects of what you offer fit with the skateboarding element?
Skateboarding and the education is all related; ride on wood and chop wood, sculpt wood into a board and ride it. Print on boards, paint, print hoodies to skate in, design grip graphics, use cameras, make music, keep warm, make fire, eat food cooked in fire by the skatepark and the trees, it’s all linked.
Is the camp a seasonal thing in terms of paying guests? If so, how does that work?
Residential skateboard camps are mostly in the holidays with some weekend skate camps in term time. We are bookable for a visit all year round though.
What about during the off-seasons? Do you still live there during the down-time?
There isn’t much down time! I live here all year round with my wife, Corinna, two kids, Penny and Otto, old Mickey the Mixer, an old friend Ric and two other skaters, Rico and Olly and his girlfriend, people visit all year round.
What else do you have planned for 2017 in terms of events?
In terms of skate camps we will be doing some weekend ones, all the future week long residentials will be next year .
We have a got a few skate crews popping through over the next few months including Dave Pegg for a birthday bash, the Coventry skate park project may swing by with Lucas Healy and Welsh crews are always in and out from Freestyle, 420 Store, Vale Skateboard Co, the M32 crew from Bristol, Caldicot, Chepstow, Monmouth, Haverford west. A lot of time is booked up, some is still free.
What about in terms of expansion? Is there scope to build more skateable obstacles on the site? Or perhaps to expand what's already there?
We are always making new stuff, we have new long ledge between the park and the bunkhouse. Who knows what the future holds, we are definitely making another mini at some point soon. I would love to expand the park, but I need a rest from intensive concrete building for some time at the moment.
How do people find out more about what Camp Hillcrest offers with a view to visiting themselves?
Instagram @camp_hillcrest is the best place for up to date skateboard related things, the Camp Hillcrest website offers prices and pictures of what’s here and workshop info. Availability is just through enquiry by phoning or messaging on social media or email.
From your own perspective, what do you hope that people take home from a stay at Camp Hillcrest?
Skills, friends, ideas, freedom, new tricks in the park, happiness. A love and broader understanding of nature and woodlands, a stomach full of wood fired pizza, a board they’ve made themselves, memories of the best get together with friends, a relaxed feeling from chilling in the tubs, a warm glow from the camp fire and sense of community.
Camp Hill Crest - The UK's only on-site Residential Skateboard Camp