Night tribes: London’s street skaters
“When you see us go past it’s like a hive of bees.” So says 26-year-old skating fan and LondonSkate regular Geoffrey. You may have seen this hive, cruising the streets of London every Wednesday evening between April and September. They’re part of an ever-growing group of skating fans taking to the capital’s streets with their inline skates – the boots with slim wheels in a row – and roller skaters – thick two-by-two wheels: think 80s roller disco and leg warmers. With boombox rucksacks carried by several members of the group blasting out dance, rap, RnB, reggae and everything in between, it feels more akin to an après-ski party than an urban amble.
Each session is smoothly orchestrated by a team of volunteer marshals who happen to be great at and, yes, love skating. The only requirement is that you must be able to stop at speed, be comfortable skating in large crowds and able to handle hills and sometimes less-than-desirable urban terrain. Routes change each week, it’s free and open to all. As well as the Wednesday sessions, skating sessions also take place on Friday nights – for the more advanced – and Sunday afternoons, which tend to be a little more chilled and attract families.
The idea was the brainchild of a group of Imperial College students who regularly played skate hockey by the Royal Albert Memorial, in Kensington Gardens. After a trip to Paris – where street skating is incredibly popular – in 1999 the group was inspired to set up a street skate of their own in London. The group has been mapping out evening routes that dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge through the city ever since, with numbers growing all the time.
Street skating – a European affair
Organised group street skating isn’t new, or confined to London. The Pari Roller is France’s most famous weekly skate and has been going strong since 1994, attracting as many as 35,000 skaters, depending on the season. It may well be the biggest weekly skate in the world, requiring 150 marshals to man the event as skaters glide through the boulevards of central Paris, Montparnesse, the Seine and the Champs Elysées. Barcelona also has a healthy skating community, including its own marshalled Friday night skate, which attracts inline, quads and speed skaters by the hundreds.
Back in London, we wanted to find out what was involved, so we went down to Hyde Park – at the eastern end of Serpentine Road – for the first skate of the season to meet a few fans.
First up, LondonSkate marshal Steph:
Steph, marshal in action
How long have you been a marshal?
Eight years and I’ve been skating for 12. The London skate scene is great, we have three skates a week, Wednesday night from 20:00, which runs in the summer, called LondonSkate, the Friday Night Skate which is held throughout the year as long as it’s dry – all sessions are weather-dependent – and the Sunday stroll, which starts at 14:00. Sunday is slower, Wednesday mostly intermediate. Friday is fast but the levels are all varied. We do different routes every week, which vary in length from about eight miles to the very top, which is 15 miles.
What do you like about LondonSkate?
The only reason we’re doing it is for fun and the love of skating, which contrasts us to Critical Mass, for example, the cycle ride that takes place on the last Friday of every month. That is highly political, there to ‘reclaim the streets’ and make a point that cities and drivers should be more accommodating to cyclists. We’re absolutely not that. We’re apolitical and just here to have fun.
What kind of crowds do you draw?
Everyone, we’re very inclusive. Obviously Sunday is more suitable for children because of the time and pace, but ages range from seven to 70.
"We treat ourselves basically as a very long vehicle"
How do you work out the logistics of the skate?
According to the law, the only people who are allowed to stop or direct traffic are the police but anyone can use the road as long as they’re not an obstruction. When the street skates first started in 1999 in London we were given advice by the police, telling us how we should operate. The objective is to keep the skate as one unit and continue rolling through traffic. We treat ourselves basically as a very long vehicle, so we obey the traffic laws and once the front has started moving, the back will follow. The marshals skate on through like a caterpillar.
We tell the police out of courtesy where we’re going and we have a very good relationship with them. The only time I recall there being a problem was the last time President Obama was in the UK and they wanted us to delay because he was somewhere near Park Lane. We were on the phone to them and they told us when we could eventually set off.
What’s the street skating scene like in general in London?
The London skate scene is pretty good, but relatively small, all told there’s probably around 2,000 people in the city who street skate. On the bigger skates of the year we will get 350, or so. We pale in comparison to Barcelona, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and especially Paris. Paris is the skate capital, the Friday night roller in Paris in its heyday would have 10,000 skaters, full police escort, the works.
The French connection
Twenty-six-year-old Geoffrey moved to London from his hometown in Normandy, France, a little over two years ago. He’s been an avid skater since he was five or six, during which he “fell over every time”, using his home and neighbourhood to build up his skate-legs.
“I heard about LondonSkate online. I thought since I was into skating, and I’d just moved to London, there might be a group of skaters around. It’s a good way to meet people. I found Friday Night Skate and thought I’d give it a try.”
"It’s fully mixed. It’s cool because everyone can join in the fun.”
So, when Geoffrey joined the hive of bees for the first time, what was it like? Amazing is the resounding feeling “with so many people skating around London with loud music, everyone on the streets was stopping, looking, trying to take pictures of us.” Inclusivity also seems to be a prime reason for joining: “It’s fully mixed. Last time I did it, there was a guy in a wheelchair with two guys on roller-skates either side pushing him behind. It’s really cool because everyone can join in the fun.”
And the appeal for someone new to London is abundantly clear – meeting new people and seeing the capital by night is double the fun on a pair of roller skates. Geoffrey says the marshalled aspect is excellent, perfectly complementing the effortless tourism “it’s great to travel around and see new parts of London without having to worry about the traffic.”
Ladies who skate
Hazel and Pamela are also seasoned members of the London skating scene, and between them and their friends have more than 28 years of roller skating experience.
Pamela explains that “It’s the meeting up with friends that I like, the social aspect. If I didn’t skate I would just meet the people that work in my professional circle. I like the diversity amongst all these random people who love skating. It brings people together, all ages, all nationalities, all levels.
“Really, the only thing that unites us is that we’re nutters who wear eight wheels. We all get on very well together and when you come for a skate with us, you’ll find it’s like a small village, a little community.
“They keep it quite underground, but that’s kind of how they like it. And it is like a community in that sense, you have to get involved in the running of it, get involved in the scene.”
Sounds fun, right? There’s a live video of the skate we attended on their Facebook page to pique your interest.
And if you fancy street skating yourself, you can get more information from LondonSkate or London Friday Night Skate, get some wheels and perhaps some lessons from one of their recommended instructors and join in the fun. Ultimately, the hardest thing about skating is the floor. So, everyone should try it.
All photos courtesy of Art Burasz, WoofSnap