Until they take to the ramps, Jack Watts and Josh Crosswell look like ordinary teenagers hanging around on their bikes.
A few 360 degree turns off the top of a 12-foot ramp, handlebar spins and somersaults later, and the picture is very different.
Jack, 14, and Josh, 15, are making their mark in the world of BMXing, landing sponsorship and rising through the ranks in competitions.
And the way they improve and try new things is by having fun with other BMX riders at Southsea Skatepark.
‘You watch what other people do and it really makes you want to do it as well,’ says Josh. ‘And when you’re out having fun with your friends, you don’t think too much about the tricks and how scary they are. You just do it, so it’s a good way to try new things.’
The skatepark has been an important part of Portsmouth life for many decades and has launched several BMX careers, as well as providing generations of kids with happy memories.
‘They’re so young, they could be the champions of the future,’ says skatepark trustee Simon Tiller, as Jack and Josh perform their impressive BMX tricks. ‘This place has been a bit of a breeding ground for champions.’
Mark Webb, one of the world’s top BMXers, and 2010 BMX Masters mini ramp champion Alex Coleborn use the park. Effraim Catlow, 1994 world champion rider, works there and is devising a coaching manual.
It’s a place that deserves plenty of care and attention and that’s the reason why it has just been taken over by a new charity.
An opening ceremony was recently held to mark the handover from Portsmouth City Council, which had been running the site, to the Southsea Skatepark charity.
It means a group of trustees will make decisions about the running of the park and will take sole responsibility, instead of having to contact the council on a regular basis.
Up until the handover, the group have been working with the council to repair ramps and buy a new one. There is also now a cafe at the park at Clarence Esplanade and the charity has managed to secure a licence for music.
‘We can focus on this more as a group and the skatepark will benefit as a result,’ says Simon.
And trustee Chris Richards adds: ‘Council budgets are being reduced and it’s very hard to invest in this. As a charity we can do a lot more for this place.’
Plans include extending coaching, establishing a roller disco and perhaps hosting more competitions. Trustees want to move the park forward and give it more of a community feel. But the facility already has a special place in the memories of many skatepark users. And it has a more impressive past than some might realise.
Many believe it’s the oldest skatepark in the world. Its origins lie in the 1940s when there was a bandstand, which still stands in the park today. People began skating around this and in the 1950s the area was fenced to create a roller rink and stands were built. The skatepark was remodelled in the 1970s with concrete and then modified again in 1990 with a new bowl replacing the old reservoir. In the mid to late nineties the rink area was built on with new ledges, banks, rails and ramps and in the last 10 years two new mini ramps and a replacement vert ramp (a form of half-pipe) have been built. In the late seventies it was taken over and run by John Thurston and Southsea Roller Hockey team. The eighties was a golden era when international competitions were held at the park.
Effraim says: ‘It’s been really important to me and a lot of other people and I think everyone’s taken it for granted a little bit.’
And it isn’t just pros and champions who rate Southsea Skatepark. It provides hours of fun for kids and is a useful facility for parents.
‘It’s much better than them going off to an unsupervised place,’ explains Simon. ‘They have to wear helmets here and there are always first aid-trained staff around. It’s the sort of place where parents can go off and leave their children for a couple of hours. Kids love it and parents really appreciate it too.’
Simon was a regular at the skatepark as a roller-skating youngster. He is still a roller hockey player and also brings his son Noah, four, to the skatepark. Noah is developing his scootering skills.
‘I grew up here really. I had a lot of friends at the park and it was where I’d spend my weekends,’ remembers Simon. ‘And these kids will have great memories too.’
Of course, once they reach a skilful level, the jumps and tricks are classed as an extreme sport and with that comes a degree of risk. But a supervised skatepark is the safest place for them to be, say the trustees.
And Chris points out that most sports carry risk. ‘It’s all part of growing up,’ she says. ‘Learning to conquer your fear and take on challenges.’
Inevitably there are cuts and bruises, which any rider will carry like a badge of honour. But the skatepark is a very civilised place with its own etiquette.
‘There’s no trouble here and everyone gives each other space,’ explains Simon. ‘Even when it’s completely full, everyone knows where they’re going and people don’t crash. They tend to be very considerate and let other people have a go.’
Jack and Josh demonstrate the cordial atmosphere of the place when a little lad comes along on his scooter. Without question the older boys stop their tricks and let him take over the ramp, chatting together about new stunts as he happily practises his budding skatepark skills.
‘It’s the adrenalin rush that I love!’
Portsmouth BMX riders Jack Watts and Josh Crosswell have both competed in the UK and abroad and show promise and dedication to doing well in their sport. ‘I love the adrenalin rush and the freedom – knowing you can do whatever you want on your bike,’ says Josh.
Jack is sponsored by Total BMX and Josh by clothing company ArcEnd. Jack beat 85 other riders to come second in a BMX Masters contest in Germany and both lads are planning a trip to Camp Woodward in the US, which has some of the best facilities in the world.
They say that practising with friends is the way to learn and pull off new tricks.
Jack says one of the best things about BMXing is being at the skatepark and having fun with friends.
And Josh adds: ‘We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for this place, we wouldn’t have the chance.’
‘I have great memories of it’
Neil Willett has fond childhood memories of Southsea Skatepark. And now he is a regular again – taking his children to the facility every Saturday.
Sons Maxwell, nine, and Dillon, five, are happy to spend hours there – Maxwell on a BMX and Dillon on a scooter.
And Neil says it has one obvious benefit. ‘It really tires them out.
‘There are no problems getting them to go to sleep on a Saturday night.’
But apart from that, the dad thinks the skatepark is an important facility for families.
‘I’ve got a lot of good memories of coming down here in my BMXing phase, and they really love it.’
‘It’s nice to give something back’
Effraim Catlow has won world championship titles in flatland (tricks performed on flat surfaces) and plenty of other titles all over the world,
His latest honour is being offered his own signature bike – the chance to design a bike and endorse it.
Now 37, Effraim grew up in Portsmouth and started out at the skatepark.
‘I started here when I was 11. I don’t think I’d have done any of it if I hadn’t had this place to come to,’ says Effraim, who now works at the park.
The rider, who has also judged competitions around the world, is devising a new coaching manual to be used at the park.
He adds: ‘I thought it would be nice to give something back and teach the kids what I know. The idea of the manual is that anyone can learn, it’s about breaking it down to small elements.’
WHEN TO GO
Southsea Skatepark is open Monday to Friday (closed Tuesdays during term time) for two sessions at 4-6pm and 6-8pm. It costs £1.50 for under 16s and £2.50 for over 16s.
During the school holidays on weekdays, the skatepark is open 12-3pm and 3-6pm (plus 6-8pm on Wednesday).
At weekends, sessions are from 10am-noon, noon-3pm and 3pm-6pm. Cost is £2.50 for under 16s and £3.50 for over 16s.
There are also coaching sessions in BMX, skateboard, inline and scooters available between 10am and noon on a Saturday. For information visit southseaskatepark.com or call 023 9229 5360.