At the tail end of last summer we conducted an interview with the crew at Empire Skatepark in Colchester, covering the story behind the extensive ‘Outback DIY’ build behind the unit which housed the indoor park. The photos which we were reliant on to embellish and aesthetically enhance the text were then pushed further and further back due to a combination of oncoming winter weather and conflicting schedules.
Finally, around a month ago, the weather cleared for long enough at the right time for us to head out and film a heavy session go down at a Wednesday skate night session – which, completely unexpectedly, turned out to be the last. A week later, Harry and Lewis turned up one morning to find the locks changed and a notice taped to the door informing them that they had twelve days to recover the contents of the shop and vacate the premises. Coming as it did alongside various other ill-fated events, the loss of this lynch pin of the Colchester scene was a bitter blow, although the rallying together of local skateboarders, parents of children who used the park and farther flung folk since it happened has been incredible to see.
As such, and ignoring the implementation of some miracle, this is more an ode to a departed skatepark than the inspiration to pay a visit that I expected it to be. Here is the original text intact which hopefully, as well as having you raise your glasses to the crew who kept the fire burning for five years, will inspire you to go out and give back as much to your local scene as these guys have. Props to Harry, Lewis, Jack, Toby and all the others who made Empire the special place it was – we all owe you a pint. One love!
Edit by Warren Munson
DIY skate spot building is one of the purest distillations of skateboarding culture; fully taking matters into your own hands and trying to create something that you want to skate rather than waiting for it to come to you. From massive, time-consuming projects ending in world famous parks like Burnside and Mechelen, to a dab of concrete used to make a village jersey barrier slightly more skateable, these spots are built with a dedication to skateboarding which instills them with a certain aura. It generally makes them more fun to skate than your bog standard park, regardless of, and sometimes because of, the strange lumps and bumps which are the end result of people with limited or no knowledge of working with concrete.
This summer, the crew at Empire Skatepark in Colchester dedicated long hours, overnight building sessions and plenty of blood, sweat and beers into getting the Outback DIY behind their building up and running. We caught up with four of the people who made it happen – Harry Wilson, Lewis Hall, Jack Kenward and Toby Gozzett – to find out more about the project.
Sidewalk: First of all, let’s have a little history about Empire – how long has it been running for, and how did it come to be fully skater owned? That’s obviously a rarity with indoor skateparks…
Harry: The park basically started as Ramp Rage back in December 2012. It was run by a family whose children were interested in scootering at the time, however their children grew out of it after about six months and after the first tough summer the owners realised it wasn't a big earner, and lost interest in it all. Lewis started having meetings with them, put in everything he had and basically took it off of their hands before it would have gone under. He kept me and Jack on, it started off as five staff members and now it’s gone down to two in order to keep it running, so for the last year and a half or so me and Lewis have had it.
Jack: Harry ans I worked there from when it first opened, back when Potter was managing it. Harry worked at the skate shop in town…
Harry: I did the opening jam here and after that I became shop manager, then started working for them. After about a year, when Lewis took over, we pretty much went 50/50, along with about three others working with us part time and helping out. We’ve got a huge team of volunteers as well helping to keep the place afloat, good kids in the area who get a free skate for hanging out, doing stuff for us like skate lessons etc.
And Empire Skatepark is now the possessor of a full DIY Skatepark out the back of the building, as of this summer - but building started a couple of years back right? What prompted the sudden surge of productivity?
Harry: What prompted the sudden surge in productivity was basically the summer.
Jack: We could see it really…
Harry: Up until the start of this year pretty much everything bar the top surface was ready to go. It was more a case of getting the final details, getting the transitions perfectly cut to sit on top.
Jack: We’d done the flatbank over winter, got all that real nice and that was the first pour this year – one side of the big flatbank. That kind of spurred it on from there, it linked the top to the bottom then you could just sort of see it do its thing after that.
The hype built…
Lewis: That was it, we saw we could have it done this year so we just cracked on.
Harry: The deadline was Lord of the Swords in our heads, because every year we try and do something for that – the out of the shutter jam and things like that. We’ve had a million deadlines over the years, but we made this one…[laughs].
Lewis: It was down to money at the end of the day…
Harry: And money has held us back; we’ve had to blag all the materials, there have been times when we haven’t been able to get materials but then all of a sudden there’ll be a surge and we’ll be able to get loads of cement. Some of the parents have helped us out with that stuff, which is incredible.
You had help from two of the South East’s most focussed and creative DIY skatepark enthusiasts in the form of Paul Carroll and Steve Barrow right? What input did they have into the final design?
Jack: DIY gods mate!
Harry: Both of their spots are incredible so we’re honoured to have had their help and advice. We’ve learnt so much from just from watching them both…
Jack: It’s mad watching Paul mumble about, he’ll come out with some crazy contraption and it’ll be spot on!
Harry: He’ll literally cut a five foot tranny more perfectly than you could with a jigsaw, just by hand.
Jack: And Steve obviously just smashes it…
Harry: He knows how to run a group of people! Had us all grafting hard, he’s the perfect people manager.
Jack: He somehow kept the momentum going and everyone fully hyped the whole way through…
Harry: Giving advice, cracking jokes constantly and drinking beers.
Jack: And they’ve got a good eye; we started pouring the big one out there and it started dropping out. Instantly Steve knew that we needed a different kind of sand, spotted the error, went to Wickes and bought it back, which saved the big quarterpipe basically. You can tell that he’s worked with a lot of concrete at once before. Obviously they do massive pours down at their spot.
Yeah they don’t fuck about! Who else was heavily involved in the building process?
Lewis: Warren Munson, definitely.
Jack: I feel like Warren should be here really. Warren is Mark’s younger cousin or nephew and he’s an absolute man machine – got that Munson blood in him. You could hear him within five minutes of him walking out the back going “Oh that needs smashing down" and picking up the sledgehammer.
Lewis: “Oh you want that done do you?", and he’d pick up the tools. He knocked down the jersey barrier which was here single handedly with a sledgehammer until two in the morning, if that gives you some idea…
Harry: He started, realised what he’d started and that he had to get it done because it looked a state in the park. He just got himself stuck in after that.
Jack: So he’s definitely a big piece of the picture, he’s done fucking loads and he’s just a machine. He’s one of the ones who you know that if you start and you’re going until the end then he’ll be there until whatever time it’s done by. But mate, there’s been so many people…
Harry: Yeah there has been a huge amount at different points. It’s four years, getting on five if you think about it for this to be done. The original owners had all the hardcore delivered, they had a vision to build a pool but their eyes were just way bigger than their budget.
Jack: It started off with a big pile of dirt and Carl telling the geezer where to put it, then we thought to get cages – you know the motorway ones you see at the side of the road? We got a bunch of them, started to lay it out and got a guy to clean it all up with a mini digger; but he was a bit of a twat, gave a dodgy invoice and fucked it all up. This was all the previous owners…
Harry: A lot of people used to take advantage of them. So they went, “Hold on, if this is costing what it is then how are we going to budget for the rest?" We realised we couldn’t do it with diggers, so Carl said let’s just do it ourselves. We then built a couple of tiny bits, they were alright for a while but that was real early.
Jack: It was the first time anyone had built really, I think we’d clocked a documentary on Youtube of someone building a DIY skatepark.
Lewis: And Urbside, that set things off.
Jack: So then we decided we could do it, built a couple of bits, built a couple of more bits and then we decided to actually get stuck in. One guy’s dad works on sites and he managed to get loads of concrete one time, dropped it off in a pump truck.
Harry: He was pouring a load of house fittings and said if he got the opportunity then he’d over order and give us a call with as much advance notice as he could. He’d ring me up some days going “Someone’s coming down now, give them 20 quid when they arrive". Some days I was literally on my own, it happened on one of the hottest days of last year. We’d had a couple of rough plans for the underlay but nothing proper; it turned up, we undid the back, threw down a load of sheets of wood and a load of it got dumped. We’ve only had one wheelbarrow the whole time, it’s fucked! I just started throwing it on and trying to get a rough shape. But once we had that rough shape man, it was on – we had to get it done. There was some stress on the fact that every year we’ve kind of done something different, whether that was change the driveway, build extensions, whatever else. We kind of like to reinvent ourselves as best we can, keep it as fresh as possible and bring people in over the winter. Now hopefully next year and in general, people will be down making use of the space that we’ve got that’s never been used before. It makes it feel a lot bigger!
Its early days, but what’s some of the gnarliest shit any of you have seen go down on it so far?
Jack: Jordan stepped off the plane and just destroyed it…
Harry: We knew he would all along…he was away for a few days when it got finished and we’d been looking forward to him coming down. Potter’s absolutely annihilated it. Potter, Munson, Jordan…Toby, he’s been absolutely killing it, he’s got his own style of skating it which is sick.
Jack: It’s just good – I was just saying this to Toby earlier – the coping is alright to do tricks on, but it’s not necessarily the trick you’re doing but how you get to it. That’s what’s trickier in there. It’s not so easy to get to everything, and if it was that easy then it would just be a normal bowl. I think that’s what makes it a bit different, it’s harder to find your way to things.
Harry: It definitely doesn’t skate how you think until you actually try it out a couple of times.
Jack: I know it fucking knackers me out, I know if I have a proper night on it skating it fucks me…
Harry: Raemers had a good session down here, he went in on it in an hour and a half. So it’s pretty much all the Essex boys who have been on it, putting in the time. I think it’s because they realise that word hasn’t really got out yet so they’ve been utilising the quiet period.
Essex has seen a fair few DIY spots crop up in recent years, from Paul’s Delside to Urbside and Kobwebs. What do you think it is that feeds this fairly high level of productivity?
Jack: I think that, even though there are a lot of towns, the scene is still pretty tight here.
Harry: Everyone talks to each other over here and there have been a lot of get togethers which have built up the strength of the scene. All the area codes have been skating together at parks like Dunmow or Urbside, everyone meets up over the years, and with things like Lord of the Swords running every year it’s given the opportunity for every skater from the county to come together with a common interest.
Jack: It’s like the jam they did at Urbside, a few of us went down and helped out, it’s that kind of helping out. Like Paul Carroll coming up here, now I’d like to go down and help him out with his DIY a bit more.
Harry: I remember when me and Lewis started skating in 1999 or so it felt like there wasn’t much going on. Then, with people starting to organise jams and whatever over the years, it’s just built up. There was Big Worms Skate Shop in Harlow, that was something we really looked up too; Nicolson and the Death lot, the Harlow scene has always been strong. Then Motel Six which came after Big Worms, it felt like they really had it going on. They were making the first Essex scene videos I saw with Fish and Skidding the Rim, really rad ones. There were the Switch boys in Leigh-on-Sea as well; there’s just always been good, friendly people it seems, when we’ve gone to a skatepark in Essex.
Jack: I think the whole DIY thing in skateboarding has popped off a bit, in general it’s become more of a thing.
Harry: People getting inspired with Instagram and things like that. What we were blessed with was that, where most people are in constant fear of their spot being demolished, we knew it wasn’t getting taken away. We bit off a bit more than we could chew with the project but we could kind of take our time to a degree. I mean things were against us at certain times…
Lewis: That’s how it is though – we’ve got to run this whole facility with a skeleton crew whilst doing that and it isn’t easy. But if you allow for that and compress the time you guys took to do it, it’s not that long.
Jack: Realistically if you put it into hours, it’s probably a healthy timescale for a project. In the time we were actually out there actually working it was probably down to a year or something.
Harry: There were points when there were cars out there, there were about ten sofas we had to remove from inside, just piles of stuff…
Jack: We had a four day fire basically, and there still is a shit ton of stuff. Which we didn’t really realise until we tried to pour the floor…that’s taking up parking spaces out the back now.
You’ve mentioned Lord of the Swords a couple of times now and I know Empire always runs a team and hosts part of the event right? Can give us some background on the event?
Jack: It’s just fucking sick man! It’s the best competition…well, I don’t even know if you can call it a competition to be honest.
Harry: It’s an Essex based King of the Road kind of thing pretty much. Teams of six to ten – or however many [laughs], we’ve never cared about that. It’s an excuse to get out and skate all together, which never happens as you get older. It’s great, Luke [Mac Duke] has worked hard on it over the five years, he kills it. He works out everything from mileage to the parks. You put teams together, you get a challenge book with something ridiculous like 150 parks, spots and DIY spots included. Then there’s a whole ten pages of challenges that can be done anywhere, all sorts.
Jack: You make your edit after filming it over the weekend, that goes online and people vote.
Harry: You get a month to edit, and to be honest everyone’s too broken to skate for that month anyway.
Jack: Lords is the summer finish for us – you do NASS, get hyped for Lords then everyone goes “right, we can sign our bodies off for winter now…" Everyone goes extra hard, gets a bit extra drunk, if you’re going to hurt yourself then that’s the time to do it.
Harry: It’s coming out this Saturday, we have a premiere here then straight after the premiere they go online. Then there’s a week to vote after that. The winners are announced next weekend.
And you normally do the jam for that?
Harry: Yep, we did the shutter jam last year; we’re going to do that one every two years we decided, so that will be back next year.
Jack: Megaramp time…
Harry: [laughs] Yeah, big ambitions for next year - manny pads, rainbow rails, the works. The full Burnquist! There’s talk of getting a car in the mix, a kicker over a car after the landing quarter. We’ll see about that. We love it, we love being involved in it and we’re stoked that Luke’s been choosing us for the venue every year. It’s a wicked thing to get everyone together.
Luke: It’s just Lords mate!
Harry: Exactly, if you go then you know. It’s rare to see a new team appear that aren’t back the following year. We’ve had people doing it from Australia, people from all over taking part. People from Essex who can’t be here end up doing it in their country, it’s wicked and people love it. Well done Luke!
And apart from that, what jams are coming up next for the park?
Jack: Well this weekend is the opening jam.
Harry: Saturday 24th, which will be done by the time this comes out. Before the Lords premiere we’ll be doing a fundraiser for the park because obviously it’s been a bit of a harsh summer, a lot of money has gone into it. So we’ll have a big old jam out there, we’ve got some awesome trophies that Steve [Barrow] has made for us – three huge metal swords, they’re incredible. Creature and Indy have helped us out last minute as well so we’re grateful to them. We’ll have the jam, a BBQ then everyone can stick about and enjoy the edits for the evening.
Jack: Then everyone come get it! Everyone come and skate it man, come and fucking get some.
Harry: Yeah, everyone come on down, we welcome you all and we’re looking forward to seeing the place getting torn apart after staring at it for so many years, visualising how it’s going to work and if it will work. It’s so rad to see it come together.
Jack: That’s the main pleasure of it; sitting back, having a beer and watching other people skate it.
Lewis: And seeing Munson and Potter enjoy all the tight tranny bits they said would never work as well...