In an era of total internet coverage and pins for most spots in the Western world available on Google Maps, Crowhurst Bowl is something of an anomaly – an icon of East Sussex skateboarding which, for whatever reasons, is little lauded outside of 1066 country. To rectify this, Tom Pickard has crafted a visual ode to builder and owner Dennis and to one of the area’s longest standing and gnarliest proving grounds. Have a watch and read some words on the place from Jono Coote, John Holdcroft, Mark Richards, Joe Sandland, Sam Roberts and Asher Thornton, then go out and weld your own ramp.
Introduction by: Jono Coote
Videography by: Tom Pickard
I can’t remember where I first heard about Crowhurst Bowl exactly. It may have been something we’d seen in one of Tom Pickard’s scene videos, but I’m pretty sure a location was pinned down after Asher Thornton stumbled across it whilst out walking his dog with his dad. Even as teenagers, we were aware that a sheet metal bowl with vert was something unique – the only skate footage we ever unearthed was on a UK Vans tour video, and you were unlikely to come across anyone there when you visited beyond the occasional curious BMXer wanting to see what kind of monstrosity could incubate a rider like Bas Keep.
Post-Hastings vert ramp and before Boyley Park was built, it was the only taste of truly gnarly transition skating to be found in the 1066 area and summer walks over from Bexhill became a tradition for a small group of us. A pint at The Plough would help deal with the pre-skate nerves and, we assured ourselves, was adequate protection against tetanus. The vert transitions were well built but slowly rusting into non-existence; while the surface was still technically stable, being able to see green fields and grazing sheep through the holes below the coping as you were about to hit the lip was a permanently disconcerting experience. It still sometimes haunts my nightmares.
The corners were bolted together in overlapping sheets and made an incredible racket when carved through; something between the sound of a freight train and an industrial accident. In fact, one of the only times I recall seeing Dennis, the owner, was when he came to tell us that we couldn’t skate the ramp on a Sunday – the din of us skating was echoing through the village and aggravating the farming community’s Sunday hangovers. After seeing Jake Snelling slam to flat after committing to an off kilter back boneless, however, I’m surprised that the residents aren’t still suffering from tinnitus – in the words of Discharge, “Can you hear the sound of an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell?” I’m sure a few lambs were stillborn that year.
While I don’t know Dennis personally, he is clearly one of those rare few who have the same DIY drive which pushes skateboarders and BMXers to make their own obstacles and ignore the often lacklustre efforts of the council in favour of taking matters into their own hands. He doesn’t ride four or two wheels yet has contributed more to the 1066 skate scene than most who do, from a purely community minded position. Like the mystery pond builder who poured the legendary Forest Row Skatepark in its original incarnation, he sensed the feeling of creativity, purpose and inclusion which suffuses those scenes and which councils can’t always seem to comprehend, and he threw in his own unique take on what that can be.
Over the years, the trailer upon which the bowl sits began to rot and the panels on the flat bottom started to sink to different levels, offering a unique way to send yourself to the skin graft clinic. My visits started to tail off at this time, as work got in the way of lengthy visits to the South East and the bowl fell further into disrepair, despite the Hastings BMX scene’s best efforts (big up everyone who has got on the tools there over the years). With the bowl being a no go in the winter months, my memories of the place are made up entirely of the hazy, sun kissed Cider With Rosie variety, but if Laurie Lee was describing a Thunderdome type scenario in Sussex rather than a Cotswolds village.
Listening to the interviews that Tom Pickard sent over to me and which are reproduced below, it is clear that what Dennis built has reverberated through the skateboarding and BMX scenes in ways he could never have expected. Memories are produced with the kind of crystalline clarity normally reserved for first fucks and motorway near misses, phenomena which come close to overwhelming the nervous system; which, however many times you visit Crowhurst, it continues to be. Obstacles shaped by this DIY fervour have a habit of lodging in the mind and, years later, I still find myself having the occasional flashback to the sound of those layered sheet metal corners or the almost subliminal sight of those rust holes.
In an era where skatepark building is increasingly based around low impact, accessible obstacles, when rumours are started to spread of Olympic hopefuls demanding certain specifications from their local builds, spots like this are increasingly important in that they remind us of the need for the pure white knuckle terror in our four wheeled diet. You will never feel closer to your own mortality than the moment you find yourself hurtling towards a flat bottom from which razor sharp sheets of rusty metal protrude like shark’s teeth; and, concurrently, never more alive. When Tom told me he was doing a documentary on the place – to give some well earned props to Dennis, to try and build some hype around fixing the place up and to hopefully entice a new generation of visitors (but not on a Sunday) – I jumped at the chance to put together some words to go alongside. Crowhurst Bowl has indelibly shaped the way in which many of us that grew up in the area appreciate and approach the rideable architecture around us, and the following interviews are testament to that. All Hail Dennis.
I guess it was built for a couple of the local guys there, but I think the biggest thing was that he enjoyed the challenge of making the thing; “I can make this, I can do one of those.” And he bloody did, because he’s such a brilliant engineer, albeit a hands-on kind of Heath Robinson type. I think that a huge part of it was satisfaction in building it for the local people, he was a big part of the community. He was always super nice, always had time for everybody and there was never a cover charge. We were young, but did we get him anything? I never even brought him a beer, which is terrible.
The place had a totally welcoming vibe. I remember going to places like Crystal Palace, for example, and it was great fun while there was nobody there. And then they’d start turning up, the really good guys, and they owned the ramp. I don’t think we were ever like some of the guys we’d see when we went to Crystal Palace in the early days, some of them were pretty intimidating. I hope we weren’t. We used to love seeing Marcus Levere or Joe Sandland do something.
Early on it was in good condition, although I think for a while one side had a deck and the other side didn’t. That was gnarly. I remember once looking down, just sitting there by the field with the sun out. Next door the straw was all cut, everything had been cut down and all the hay bales were bailed up next to it, it was just your absolute typical English summer. The birds were singing, the sun was out, we had water and, I don’t know, maybe a few sausage rolls, and it was just wicked. It’s given me a whole bunch of memories that are with me forever. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t taken the time, been good enough to see it through to the end and put in all that effort. I owe him a huge beer.
I did skate there from Hastings once, my car must have broken down or something. That was a mistake.
It must have been around 1989 or 1990 when there was a lot of talk of this ramp in Crowhurst, one of those rumours that goes around and you think it’s just bullshit. Then obviously it turned out it was there. It was amazing, like finding the Chin Ramp, you know?
Dennis is such a legend, he helped me out with the early videos we did like you wouldn’t believe. I hardly knew him, I could have been anyone, he didn’t know where I lived or my phone number. No-one had mobiles back then and he was lending me thousands of pounds-worth of video equipment. “Yeah, no problem Mark, just take it, bring it back when you’re done.” He obviously loves building stuff – he’s creating all this metalwork, he’s got the land, but I think what it boils down to is that he’s just a really nice guy. I couldn’t have done half the stuff I did with those videos without all the equipment he was lending me.
I remember once I was editing a video in the portacabin there and Dennis pops his head in, “Do you want a cup of tea Mark? You’re not allergic to unpasteurized milk are you?” It turns out he went and milked a cow because the shop was shut. Another time I was in the cabin and suddenly bang, the whole cabin just shook. Things fell off the table, I opened the door and went outside and bloody Dennis is there on his crane, with the front end of this juggernaut hanging off it. He’s trying to move the front end of a bloody lorry and it’s swung and smashed into the portacabin. I wish I had CCTV footage of that, it would be fucking brilliant.
There were a few skaters in Crowhurst at that time bombing the train station hill or skating a jump ramp in the car park, just kids riding around the skateboard pissing off the neighbours basically. There was probably a local committee discussing what to do about it, and he went, “I’ll build them a fucking ramp then, won’t I?” He had no preexisting relationship with ramps or skateboarding. He was the European hovercraft champion at one point, so he was into some sort of sports in that sort of way.
Dennis pretty much built everything really, we were all a bit clueless but he hand welded Formula One cars when he was young; he’s a proper engineer. He taught me how to use a lathe, how to weld, I even built a BMX there with his guidance. He helped us lathe all our wheels from 60mm down to 40mm, because we were all pricks and wanted to be like the cool kids.
It must be the longest standing private ramp in the whole country, and it’s had half a dozen redesigns while still retaining the original base of the old seven foot wooden ramp. The deterioration happened slowly and it became less skateable. Now you drop in and you’ve got to look where you’re going, otherwise you’ll eat shit. I’ve got such a long history of visiting that place at different times of my life, with different friends… but I don’t really think of Crowhurst as somewhere I want to actually go and skate anymore. A nearly 50 year old man, skating a savage cheesegrater?
We used to be there so much, in the winter it wouldn’t be raining, but the ramp wouldn’t dry because the metal would hold the moisture. So we used to have an oil barrel cut in half, we’d have a fire in that and we’d push it around the flat bottom, trying to dry the ramp out. We would be there most of the day drying the ramp and we’d get to ride or skate for about half an hour before the dew came again. That would be the whole day. Dennis was quite happy for a bunch of kids to be having this fucking fire on his ramp, pushing it around all day. “Put a bit of diesel in there, keep it going lads.” He’s quite an extraordinary man.
A group of us got off at the train station after hearing rumours of this behemoth out in the countryside. We started bombing down the hill from the train station, got to the bottom and realised none of us knew where we’re even going. We were wandering around the village, looking into everyone’s fields and gardens and I think we went into two different farms trying to find this thing, thinking, “Oh that must be it.” We’d get in and it would be a threshing machine or something. We came over this gravel hill and saw these hedges, an old barn, then something kind of sticking out the side of it. You really couldn’t tell whether it was just some piece of agricultural machinery just left to rust. We got closer and were like, “Fucking hell, that’s it.”
You go across a stream, over this pipe or something behind a post office, into Dennis’ yard where the ramp is situated behind a barn and an old crane that looks like it’s going to fall down. We snuck around the back, climbed onto it, and we couldn’t do anything there so we just slid down to the bottom and started pumping up and down. The noise that thing made was just insane, we were skating for maybe 10 minutes before Dennis came out and had a massive go at us for skating on a Sunday. You weren’t allowed to skate on Sundays because it was too loud for the neighbours. We left and were too scared to go back for years.
When we went back I’d been skating around a bit longer, but the ramp was always a bit sketchy and a bit scary, it was starting to disintegrate. People would try to tape the seams up, or try and screw the panels down, but it was just rotting wood underneath the panels. There was one point where all the panels were completely loose on it, you could lift up a panel and there would just be a load of earth underneath. You’d still be trying to skate over it and it was just fucking insane.
It’s that fundamental DIY aesthetic I suppose – Crowhurst is raw, riding away from anything there is going to make you feel amazing because you know that, if you bail, your kneecap will be sliced off. Literally. You’re dropping in and there’s a hole under the coping the size of your wheels, it’s rusted up, the coping is like an oil barrel on its side it’s so big, everything about it is just gnarly. It’s the scariest ramp to skate ever, but at the same time the transition itself is perfect.
Recently, seeing Reuben Cooke do the nosepick on it was seriously rad. It shows that the new generation are skating it and into it as well. It was also nice to see it skateable again, because me and Jono went back maybe two years before that and Dennis had just welded three inch plates of steel over the rust holes. You could still ride it, but not on a board, so it was rad to go back and see that it was kind of skateable again. Long may that persist, I honestly think it should be a listed building.
I think I probably first saw Joe Sandland footage before going there myself, but we used to walk our dog in Crowhurst so early on I would have gone there before I was skating it. Then once I started skating properly I’d take my board on dog walks and have a go. That was once I’d been skating a while, because you have to be fairly good to skate that thing, don’t you? Me, Jono, Egon, Jon Mullis, Murren Tullet and a few others would go over, part of it for us was walking along the old train tracks to get there. On a sunny day it was an adventure, we knew the route from Sidley all the way to Crowhurst. Seeing the sheep on the way, stopping at the pub on the way back, that was all part of the fun.
Aesthetically it looks so cool, I always thought it looked like some weird old pirate ship in the middle of a field. Everything about that appealed, even the crustiness was exciting. It’s kind of sketch, the bowl corners overlap, it’s like armour rather than a smooth surface. You can climb through holes in the ramp, it’s fucked and it looks great on film. If you do a trick at a random vert ramp it just looks like a random vert ramp, but a photo shot at Crowhurst looks sick. Things like Rogie doing a pivot fakie on it, it’s just a different trick there. I’ve got old footage of us climbing up the side with no deck, to drop in on that side. That sort of nonsense, playing on the sketchiest thing you can find. That’s a part of skating, isn’t it?