The start of August saw the Vans Shop Riot return to Leeds, with various teams from across the country descending on LS-Ten to give the indoor park a seeing to and try out the DIY spot newly finished out back. With various events taking place across the weekend, we chased the session across parks and spots and enjoyed the gloriously shambolic spectacle of a city-wide skate takeover.
Heading into Leeds from the West, around the student haunts between Kirkstall and Burley, the city skyline opens up before you suddenly; catching you unaware after the previous stretch of suburbia. It is a silhouette seemingly permanently dominated by cranes, looming above the city like the legs of some great insect shorn from its body but somehow still standing. When a new building project is embarked upon, rats’ nests of great age are disturbed and the bodies of huge rodents, killed by car or by poison, are to be found scattered in a grisly halo around the site. Travelling in from Kirkstall Road, from the bus which passes the fire station, you can for a time glance to your left down a particular alleyway and see them bloom from the tarmac like a grotesque fungus.
Entering the city centre itself offers an impressionistic blur of roadworks and scaffolding, hi-viz and signs reminding that safety helmets must be worn in this area. The southern side of the river, having passed through the city, is especially ripe for construction at the moment. For the most part this is the expected urban expansion that can be witnessed in cities worldwide; luxury housing, student lets, all-in-one retail parks where you can furnish your house, eat three square meals and hit the gym then go to the cinema and follow it all with a drink without ever having to endure the inconvenience of the outside world. The obscenity of homogeneity, the debasement of the public sphere.
Pass through this zone, however, and you will come across a building project of a much different nature. It is one based more around ideas of community, the sharing of ideas and values, all those things decried by the Murdoch press as outliers of communist takeovers or loony left whingeing, unless they are used in the context of football, or xenophobia. Behind LS-Ten skatepark, since that heady pandemic spring of 2020 where furlough saw an unexpected shift in society’s expectations on the individual, a DIY skate spot has been slowly gaining momentum. Its progress had caught the attention of the wider scene, and wheels were set in motion for what would turn out to be the biggest skate weekenders the city had seen in years.
Vans Shop Riot has long been lauded as one of the UK’s best skateboarding events, with good reason – 20 plus shop teams descending on a city and skatepark for a weekend, the pot is stirred with a glut of free booze, and you see what floats to the top. It has been twelve years since the last time Shop Riot came to Leeds, for 2010’s ‘throwing cutlery at bouncers’ event. This was officially meant to bring together Welcome Skate Store’s ten year anniversary with the ten year return of the Riot, but for obvious reasons things got put on hold and the anniversary had a couple more solar revolutions tacked on. The pent up energy stored after two years of waiting exploded into a whole weekend of skateboarding chaos courtesy of Vans, LS-Ten, Welcome, The National Skateboard Co. and Baglady Supplies. Events were organised from straight after work on Friday evening until the early hours of Sunday morning.
The Hyde Park vortex was the locale for Friday night’s warm up, with the addition of temporary obstacles courtesy of The National Skateboard Co. and Baglady Supplies. Obstacle-wise The National went for pure White Rose nostalgia, conjuring up a replica of the Leeds University curvy benches – these days a prime security guard lurking spot – while Baglady went with a far too real kicker to electric box, which took more than one prisoner before the night was out. The free booze courtesy of Northern Monk also took its toll. It was only around 9pm when I turned around to see Harry Townend trying to drop in on T-Bone’s head, I reminded myself that I had work to do the next day, and I headed for home.
A fairly grey skin tone is in evidence the next morning at LS-Ten; with the cream of the UK skate scene attempting to recover enough lost serotonin to handle even being able to step onto a skateboard, let alone compete against the various teenage rippers too young to sabotage their own skate sessions. The day is divided into two sessions – the main, shop-versus-shop event taking place indoors, and a Spitfire Wheels-hosted best trick contest over the brand new DIY doorway outside. The winner of the latter would take home £500, while the winner of the best trick during the indoor event would win a glass dragon filled with brandy bought that morning from the Costco next door.
The sun was ripping apart the cloud cover overhead, a constant session was underway on the concrete, and the thought of standing in a warehouse-sized oven was not particularly appealing. It is, it must be admitted, a warehouse-sized oven which has seen some incredible skateboarding over the years. From Tony Hawk to T-Bag, and from War of the Roses chaos to Shecks at his ‘Double Pits to Chesty’ era peak, those white brick walls have borne witness to some of the heaviest skateboarding to go down on these isles. Today’s event would undoubtedly add to the building’s folklore.
I stick my head inside, sweat starts to drip down my back, my sinuses are suffused with that peculiar indoor skatepark odour which materialises itself in the same black snot that you receive on the London Underground, and I turn back around to a concrete masterpiece baking in a haze of vitamin D. Joe Howard and Harry Townend, with the rest of us lost to employment just as the build hit a crucial stage, have had the dubious pleasure of completing work, and hats off to them (and Snoz, who jumped in on the build for a couple of months) – they’ve done a banging job and you should probably get them a beer if you see them. They have also emphatically told me that the spot isn’t called Wernside anymore. In the spirit of Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’, however – the idea that, in order to unearth that deeper reality which lurks beneath the surface like woodlice under a rock, you have to play fast and loose with the facts – I’ll keep calling it by its original name, in order to connect it to a wider ethos of DIY building and as a reminder that facts create norms, and truth illumination.
The sun bounces harshly off of the freshly poured concrete, pizza and tacos are being dished out from opposing stalls, the beer is flowing and the hair of the dog is starting to do its work; people are looking less ‘Nic Cage hallucinating iguanas’ stage of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and more ‘Timothy Treadwell before he got eaten’ stage of Grizzly Man. This may have something to do with the quality of food at hand, which is great. In many cases, however, re-establishing the previous night’s blood alcohol level is the real decider.
As shop riders from across the UK battle it out for a cash prize and a place in the Shop Riot finals in Berlin, I sip coffee, watch people get to grips with the spot’s rougher features, attempt to figure them out myself. Time slows, warps, drags, mutates into a strange amalgamation of frontside grinds, slams and steadily warmer beers. By 4pm the previous 24 hours of people’s chosen poison – skating, booze, miscellaneous, or a combination of the above – are taking their toll. Not many people get involved in the best trick over the doorway, but those who do make sure the session is heated. A Vans-branded beach ball appears from somewhere, not seeming out of place when the concrete dust lies thick as sand; once nuclear winter has descended, all beaches will resemble Wernside.
I don’t witness the entirety of the doorway best trick contest; finding myself as I do at the bar, coming to terms with the fact that the beer has run out and subsequently steeling myself for the revolting mouthfilm unique to a can of Strongbow. I do witness Jesse Thomas stick a kickflip lien; George O’Neill spin a flatspin 540; Jasper Clough bang out two inverts over the door, despite an earlier collision with Dale Starkie giving him the mother of all dead legs; and Dean Greensmith land multiple ridiculous manoeuvres, including a switch dragon grind and a guvnor grind to switch front rock slide, to take first place. I don’t see Denver Adams’ back lip, but he turns up at the bar behind me with an air of triumph that can withstand even the blow of finding out that only cider remains.
I am reliably informed that Route One got first place and a trip to Berlin later this year, with Black Sheep coming second and Flatspot third. While I miss the trick that wins Aaron the brandy dragon, an alley-oop back lip down the handrail inside, I do see him manage to run up one of the quarters with it cradled in his arms and not send an explosion of glass and booze across the flat bottom – which, to be honest, is probably gnarlier than the trick itself.
The sun is dropping low over the lights of the ring road as the crowd disperses towards Hyde Park, neon splendour of Jet Garage offering vitamin drink and corn snack sustenance before urethane hits beautifully new tarmac bike path towards the city and the few wisps of cloud in the sky are bathed in orange and pink afterglow. Serious Sam Barrett and The Burner Band will be turning it up at Hyde Park Book Club, but at this point my night detours via Leeds’ Playhouse Theatre and a set from reggae legend Freddie McGregor. A rapturous, psilocybin-tinged evening culminates in his biggest hit ‘Big Ship’, an anthem of travel and diaspora with the chorus line, “Big ship sailing on the ocean, we don’t need no commotion.”
I sit back with my pint and revel in the presence of a reggae legend being treated to a tipsy Yorkshirewomen stage invasion, handling at least mild commotion with aplomb. Hyde Park, I imagine, is now at maximum commotion levels. As expected, by the time I reach the Book Club the evening has reached critical mass for the various day drinkers and fun chasers; I have a couple of drinks with those bound for the city lights, but Horsforth Skatepark is calling the next day and in the spirit of journalistic integrity I sacrifice 3am insight for waking up before midday and doing anything other than shaking and sweating.
The next morning, the weekend survivors form in huddled pockets across the city. I skate Beeston with people from Kent and London, Horsforth with visitors from Bristol and Wales. Once the last grinds have been dispensed with, and everyone has departed for their respective hometowns, I stop to grab a pint on the walk home and mull over the weekend. I am left with a strange feeling of sudden, unexpected quiet, elated deflation, deflated elation, the sensation of having briefly made contact with some immense and luminous truth. The big ship has sailed on into the ether, moving off at lightning speed, and I am left stranded on the shore but my brain is buoyant; afloat with the potential of a hundred other weekends like this, hordes of skateboarders washing up wherever the session may take them, adrift on the concrete seas.
Big up Vans for keeping the fire lit all weekend, through all the booze, blood and stupidity ensuing; LS-Ten, for facilitating one of the north of England’s gnarlier DIY builds; Welcome Skate Store, for everything they have done and continue to do for the Leeds skate scene; and all Wernside builders past and present – foot soldiers in the real culture war on Bonanza.