The New Balance crew had not been on a trip all together for almost a year and arrived in the UK in great spirits but still questioning how much skating they would be able to do in the cobbled wet streets they assumed were waiting.
They definitely embraced and explored far more than I thought they would from Black Pudding to Haggis, Boddingtons to Buckfast on their 15 days of exploration. This was a skate trip but we can’t kid you, this was a holiday of sorts. The life of sponsored skaters seems idyllic to many: travelling the world, being taken to spots to slide, grind and jump down for the accompanying lenses but often there is barely any time to understand the context of the demo, signing or competitions or to explore the country. With no demos and no public appearance schedule of any kind the New Balance Numeric team got to live like natives for two whole weeks.
Stereotypes exist to be knocked down but always come from an underlying truth of some kind. No more so than in the UK where our humour, our music and so much of our culture are defined by the ever-changing nature of island weather particularly in the areas exposed to the North Atlantic. The Eskimos may have hundreds of words for snow, but for the average Brit it is another kind of precipitation that defines most of our days: Peter Kay said “that fine rain, the kind that soaks you through” or Morrissey sang “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town”.
Native Londoner Tom Knox can’t pass for a Northerner to another Brit but to his visiting teammates he proved an invaluable guide teaching them the fine art of crushing Poppadoms, handrails and games of Penny Up – a schoolyard gambling game that deprived many a yank pocket of pound coins.
Almost all of the team live in Southern California and for the most part this was their first time in the UK. Even seasoned travellers such as Arto admitted he had never spent any significant time in the stronghold of the Anglo-Saxons upon which his Viking ancestors had surely left their mark. Despite a three year long severe drought, Southern California’s lawns remain immaculate and the ease of having 300 sunny days a year to go skate is offset by the ever present threat of getting a ticket for skating in general, drinking anywhere in public, or not wearing a helmet within the skatepark. For the time allotted to this trip foremost in everyone’s minds was how many dry days we would get. Seven days in and with only one morning lost due to mild showers the constant checking of the weather apps on our phones became more about incredulity. Each day the threatening cloud icons continued to recede and the driest British September on record afforded us the luxury of exploring further afield from our chosen bases of Manchester and then Edinburgh.
The rough ground and the weather clichés most expected by the visitors were soon forgotten in the face of increasing acts of kindness and hospitality by almost all they met. The tight crew of skate shops spread across the M62 corridor from Liverpool to Leeds proved each day’s focal points for rendezvousing with local guides young and old. Note, Black Sheep, Welcome, Lost Art, Slugger and more such shops support a strong skate scene. Half of the UK population*, about the same number as live in California, are within a two hour drive of Manchester and we only scratched the surface of spots in each city. In Sheffield and Leeds all the spots skated were within a five-minute skate of the shops and the need to drive to each spot (typical of West Coast skating) was soon abandoned for rolling around each day by urethane instead of rubber.
(*33 million people live within 2 hours drive of Manchester. California has a population of 38 million.)
It was easy however to get locked into one location, as we never seemed to get busted anywhere we went. Liverpool’s New Bird home-grown spot proved an irresistible draw one day sucking us in to the fun nature of its quirky transitions and surrounding spots.
In Stockport we never left its central plaza for a whole day even after Jordan Taylor ollied a bus lane like it was a bicycle lane. Serenaded by a local horse-dealing gypsy with a taste for a tale or two between his drinks, Marquise Henry was not alone in laying down consistent lines on blocks that would have been skate stopped before they were even built back in the States.
In Manchester Tom Karangelov wasted no time in finding infamous locations from his favourite Manchester bands often before some of the team had awakened. He executed a gap to noseblunt one early morning through the commuting throng and under the watchful wheel of Piccadilly Gardens.
Halfway through our trip and with still no significant rain on the horizon we could have stayed in and around these northern English cities and found plenty to skate for the remainder of the trip. But we had a plan to stick to, and another country to explore, but first we made our way up to the UK’s factory for New Balance.
For most of the crew the defining act of Britishness occurred at the mouth of the River Cocker in the Lake District – one of the prettiest parts of this green and pleasant land. Skating a picturesque bench in the centre of a small market town on a weekday you would expect a hostile reception. Instead the local traffic warden came to chat, ignoring the team van perched across double yellow lines and half off and on the pavement. Shortly after an old lady brought a tray laden with tea and coffee for the young men who must be working up a thirst. Pinky out and sipping from cups she had apologised for not being “the Queens China” Tyler Surrey and Jack Curtin were not alone in embracing the tea drinking culture that proved to be more than just a stereotype.
Cockermouth provided a single night away from city life and the small town afforded a great opportunity for pub grub after we visited New Balance’s UK factory. The 28,000 pairs produced each week are all that is left of a shoe making industry long gone in favour of cheaper imports; we all left with a Union Jack embroidered pair as we got ready for Scotland’s vote that day. Whether they would still wave this symbol of a United Kingdom or proudly extract their beloved St Andrew’s Cross to represent an independent Scotland we had to wait and see. The momentous nature of this historic vote was not lost on us as we ventured across the border… “Just don’t wear your British flag socks in Glasgow” we advised Tom Karangelov.
We woke up with views of Edinburgh Castle from our hotel rooms each day. This only further reinforced the long history and pride of a nation who had rejected being governed independently from its Parliament in Holyrood extending the 300 plus years of government from London 500 miles south.
With the local shop Focus proudly wearing its independent heart on its sleeve they hooked us up with guides each day as the spot-checking continued back and forth between Edinburgh and its bigger sibling Glasgow. Both Tyler Surrey and Jordan Taylor proved that jumping in to cobblestones was only going to prove their love of Scottish terrain. With the weather continuing its uncharacteristic dryness we were spoilt for choice on spots once more even if they did live up to the rough nature they expected.
The stone and impressive architecture of the Scottish capital put in to context the state most of these guys call home; created only 164 years ago when it was bought or stolen from Mexico and where movie stars are elected Governor befitting of its most famous export: Hollywood. In contrast to the hectic nature of New York where Jordan Trahan lives, the ease of getting around Edinburgh and meeting the locals proved why the city was his favourite of the trip. Trahan put the curtains on our travels with an NBD leap over rail into bank proving that he could find something in every city we had visited that no human on four wheels had ever jumped before.
Hollywood to Holyrood – there is a pun there somewhere.
The grass is always greener on the other side but sometimes that colour comes at a price. Southern California is a beautiful place to live with abundant spots and opportunities to skate but the bust factor and traffic present its own challenges. For two weeks the UK showed that it could be just as accommodating for a skate trip if you’re prepared to take that gamble on the weather. We were fortunate that the ‘Britain always has shit weather’ stereotype didn’t prove to be true. But we can confirm that the bad teeth, rough pavements, sarcastic humour and tea addiction are all still alive and kicking.
Finally back Stateside I received a letter in the mail for “failing to comply with a traffic signal”. Two weeks without any police bothering us and I remembered one of the reasons I am happy I no longer live in the UK: cameras are everywhere!