Running a commercial skatepark – and by that I mean charging for entrance, buying and building professional ramps and providing a legit facility worthy of the ticket price, and thus having to run it as a business – is notoriously hard no matter what the economic climate. Countless commercial parks have arrived on the scene, promising plenty, and then go by the wayside when the finances don’t stack up. Much respect is due to anyone who can make a commercially-run skatepark last longer than three years – but what about a park that has lasted three decades?
Southsea Skatepark has been on the skate and BMX scene for over 34 years, so they must be doing something right. What started out as a council-built rollerskate rink has progressed with the times, added distinctive features along the way and built some of the gnarliest concrete in the UK. The staff have worked tirelessly to keep the place open, the facilities top-notch and the vibe welcoming. Sure, it’s been a bumpy ride along the way and it has been threatened with closure numerous times – but to be honest, now it’s in the best shape it’s ever been in. It goes without saying that this is down to the locals and the guys who run the park. At the helm is none other than Effraim Catlow who, like the park itself, has been on the BMX scene for a long, long time, riding at the very first UK freestyle contests as a wee lad, growing with the sport, rising through the ranks and reaching the pinnacle of flatland riding – and he still kills it on a bike today. He truly cares for the sport as a whole – you could say that he’s the perfect manager for a skatepark.
So we spoke to Effraim about the park itself, the decades of history and heritage that comes with it, the events that they’re running there, and the short-term and long-term future for one of Britain’s most important skateparks.
So how’s it going down in Southsea today – what’s on your to-do list for a typical day at the skatepark?
Today started out with a heavy shower before we planned to open at 10am. So drying the skatepark was my first priority of the day. Updating Facebook and Twitter with opening times and weather updates, which of course can vary day to day with the English weather. Daily walk around before we open checking ramps, and quite often I do a few ramp repairs before we open. Once the park is open, marshalling the park and working on reception, first aid when required, tidying the park, minor ramp repairs if required. Delegating staff duties. Website updates also. That’s pretty much a normal day.
How do you balance your work at the skatepark, with also running a flatland website and riding at the standard you do, being a sponsored rider?
That’s a good question. Basically my day can be broken down like this – first job, Flatmatters updates. During the summer holidays I work nine thirty to six, after work I ride for two to three hours. Any time out of holiday season, with school-time opening times four till eight, I have a lot more time to ride, so it’s pretty much an ideal job for me so I am not complaining at all. After the summer holidays I’m itching to ride, come September/October, which ironically are normally the best months weather-wise! I’m lucky enough to have an indoor riding spot also, whilst the weather is warmer I’m trying to enjoy as much outdoor riding as possible… just not as much as I would like during the summer.
Trying to bring everyone up to speed, with anyone who may be completely unfamiliar with Southsea, what’s the brief history of Southsea Skatepark?
I could write a book with the history, so I’ll keep it really brief. The skatepark was built in 1978, so it’s one of the oldest parks still around. The park was originally a roller rink, then the concrete bowls were added in ‘78. For many years there were never any ramps on the roller rink, then slowly ramps were added. For as long as I can remember the park was run by Portsmouth City Council. That changed in 2011 when, after years of park closure talk, the park is now no longer run by the council and is run as a charity. All the profits from the first year were put directly back into the park. Now we have a decent street/park course in the rink, wider fun-box and spine, big quarter after the box. Added a plaza area to the bandstand area. We have added a park cafe, and Farren Downes runs the Donald’s store in the main skatepark building. We are trying to grow steadily rather than all at once.
What do you think makes Southsea Skatepark special and so enduring? Not many UK parks have been around for so long... how does Southsea stand out – is it the park itself, or the people behind it, or both?
As you say, a lot of factors, the location for one, right on the seafront, the iconic bandstand, the history/contemporary mix of modern day skatepark and historic bowls, the riding scene has always been amazing, having the King Of Skatepark here, then King Of Concrete for many years, have embedded the skatepark into people’s minds and thoughts I guess. A lot of people have a passion for the place, so much history. On a sunny summer day I don’t think there are many better places to ride than Southsea.
Can you try and put a number down for how many comps there have been at Southsea? How many years has the King Of Skateparks been running?
I only remember one King Of Skateparks contest with Craig Campbell debuting the green Haro tyres for the first time, but there may have been more, Peter Hawkins ran the Easter jam every year for four to five years. My dad Geoff Catlow ran the King of Concrete contest for 17 years. We took a few years’ break from KOC, now I have been running the King Of Southsea contest for three years. And in between those big events there have been small local events. I would say close to 30 events have taken place Southsea Skatepark, pretty much one event per year.
What about the KOS in the old days with Campbell and co, do you remember those comps? How different were those to the modern day?
Of course, the King of Skateparks contest really helped me get motivated to ride during my younger years starting out. Being a young kid and seeing riders such as Craig Campbell, Neil Ruffell, Jess Dyrenforth, Carlo Griggs and many more. I guess the King Of Skateparks event isn’t that different than the highest air in keyhole that I run at King Of Southsea, it has that same sort of vibe, where I don’t think it’s so serious, riding bowls to me has always been something beautiful and unique, you can see that these days with riders like Ruben Alcantara. Of course there was no internet and just word of mouth back then, and you wouldn’t know what to expect from the riders, so it seemed more exciting back in the day. Nowadays with the internet, you do have a pretty good idea who will do what. Nature of the beast I guess.
King Of Concrete went through some really good times - what were your personal highlights?
Oh wow, so many good memories, from famous pros staying at my parents’ house when I was a kid, Zach Shaw wallriding the reception building – but I forget the year of that one – Dave Mirra breaking the World Record highest air in ‘93. Personally riding wise, my flat runs in ‘95 and ‘97 were some of the best of my career and to ride well on home turf is even more sweet. The mini ramp comps at the back of the park at night, the atmosphere, Dennis Wingham’s massive 540 in the keyhole and Gerry Galley the year he destroyed the street course. Chase Gouin’s run in ‘92, I could go on and on. We need that level of event back in the UK for sure. Just amazing memories thanks to BMX!
So what’s the plan for the next comp on August Bank Holiday weekend?
The King of Southsea follows a pretty similar structure to what my dad used for King of Concrete. Events are Spine Mini, Vert, Flatland, Best Trick on the fun box, Best Trick on the plaza, Highest Bunnyhop, Park/Street, Highest Air in Keyhole. I pretty much have in my head a five year plan, this is the third year, by the fifth year I hope to have the contest in all the pro riders’ minds, as a must-attend event. It would be great for the park and the UK scene to have the event return to its former glory, I think it’s had enough of a break.
So having said that, what’s the future looking like for Southsea?
Short term we are just looking at keeping the park open as long as possible, what I mean by that is, we have changed opening hours so the park’s open longer during the summer, added late opening a few nights a week, we are trying to raise money to start building a new concrete bowl. The first bowl project is what most people know as the Pool, we hope to get a unique modern bowl in there within the next year. So right now, everything is working towards that goal. Long term, applying for grants, covering areas of the park during the winter so we are always open, whilst trying to keep that outdoor seaside feel that is unique to the park. As long as we are paying to stay open, and can invest the profits into new ramps, repairs, I don’t think you can ask for more in this day and age. We are only a year and a half into the business...
For more BMX action:
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