The Grove DIY – An overgrown pub carpark transformed during lockdown22.12.2020 - Exclusive
Oh shit, we’re actually going to be able to stay
Positive pandemic stories are few and far between. In June we published one such story about The Bumps in Hackney, a neglected ’80s park resurfaced and upgraded by out-of-work locals during the first lockdown. While this was going on in east London, a very different – yet just as special – story was unfolding in the car park of a long derelict pub ten miles south, in Dulwich.
The Grove Tavern is permanently closed according to Google Maps. The dilapidated building is located inauspiciously on the South Circular on the site of an earlier pub, the Green Man, which later became Dr Glennie’s Academy, attended by the poet Lord Byron according to the Dulwich Society. Towards the end of its working life The Grove was a Harvester restaurant, before Stonegate Pubs purchased the lease from the freeholder Dulwich Estate in 2011. The pub closed for good after a fire in 2012. Since then the building has remained out of use. Its car park became overgrown and has been used for fly tipping. “It’s an eyesore. It’s not very nice to have on your doorstep… it’s just a mess,” said local resident Paul Ruffley.
In October 2019 a few miles north-west, Stockwell skatepark locals were preparing for their park to close for resurfacing. Ross Brunton and Jono Coote were on the lookout for potential sites for a DIY project to keep them busy while Stockwell was closed and spotted The Grove’s car park. Ross, James Hall, Lizzie Heath and some others made the journey south to Dulwich and got to work. “We properly did a bit of excavation work. It was totally overgrown… We dug out a couple of the curbs… patched that all up with concrete and… dug a massive trench behind it so you could skate it,” recalled James. “They put in a really nice tiny pole jam…. They saw how there could be lots of potential,” added Lizzie. After one session, where Lizzie learned slappies on the newly-excavated curbs, a combination of bad weather and the delay of the Stockwell resurfacing (it still hasn’t happened) meant that the group stayed away for much of that winter.
In late March 2020, as we all know, the UK went into lockdown thanks to coronavirus. Most skateparks in London were closed and lots of people were unable to work and consequently had time on their hands. After a break from skating so as not to end up “those dudes that showed up in hospital with a broken arm,” James and Ross decided to return to The Grove – or ‘The Pub’ as they called it back then. Stockwell was officially closed, “but still pretty busy and we were trying to take it pretty seriously not going around people,” explained James, whose wife is on a high-risk list.
After a month of skating the curbs, James realised other people were skating the car park: “Someone had brought a ledge along… and then we started knocking off a bunch of bricks to build a quarter and came down the next day to cut the floor and saw that someone else had started adding to the piles of bricks and made a little form for the transition.” They soon met the other DIY enthusiasts – Harry Conway, Ben Bostock and Angus Edhouse – whose first attempt at a build (on Ben’s birthday), the tight quarter against the wall, was: “a bit thin on concrete in places, but loads of fun,” according to James. “We met them while they were skating it… and said: ‘We’ve done this a little bit before, I’ve got all the tools you’d need,’ so we swapped numbers and got in touch.”
While all this was going on a third crew – Se15 Sk8 – had found out about the new spot. “The local kids were skating there, from Peckham Rye, so I asked them where they were skating and they said that car park… I went down and someone… had built the first really steep quarter on the wall,” explained Isaac Guard (Se15 Sk8). “The older kids built the first couple and we were like: ‘This is cool, we want to start building,’ because we had an eye for building anyway, so we tried… the first thing we built we kind of just asked them for tips and when we saw them building we offered a hand to help.”
The various crews initially did their own thing, building what they liked where they liked, but soon realised they needed to work together so that the spot flowed, as one of the builders, Sam Earl, explained: “We got to know each other a lot better and… we were talking about how we could put stuff together instead of just having random bits everywhere and people just doing what they want, building whatever.” According to James, “a bunch of local guys” soon joined the various crews that were already building together.
The installation of the gas canister obstacle perhaps best illustrates the spirit of the collaborative builds, as James explained: “They’d ordered a bunch of concrete… so everyone was excited to build something, but had no real plan of what to do, so me and Ross kind of free formed this weird shape and showed everyone how to finish the concrete to get it smooth…” “I helped with my favourite one,” added Lizzie, “(it’s) like a sort of spine, wallie, wallride thing. It’s in the ground, it looks a bit like a sausage.”
James, Ross and their friends were involved in some builds after the sausage, but as more people got involved and the builds got busier, they decided to take a step back. “It’s quite a lot of people and quite a lot of input and we weren’t as local so we were like: ‘We’ll just leave it to those guys to crack on,’” explained James.
As word spread about The Grove and more skaters visited, security guards became a regular fixture. Towards the end of July, the guards gave the skaters unofficial notice that the site would be cleared in two weeks. It was unclear who employed them but after speaking with them, the skaters understood that their employer was worried that having lots of young people visiting the site would lead to break-ins and vandalism at the pub. “To be honest with you I think they thought we were just going to smash the place up… I don’t think they really got it at that point,” explained Sam.
The skaters set up a petition to save their park – which at the time of writing has 3204 signatures – and Theo (Hughes, Se15 Sk8) started a thread on the East Dulwich Forum with a post explaining the project and asking local residents to sign the petition. The forum members were overwhelmingly positive about the project and the friendly, welcoming atmosphere the skaters had created. For example, on August 01 ‘Cora’ posted: “My son’s been welcomed here and is loving the positive ‘can do’ vibe – thanks for creating it.” Paul Ruffley agreed: “Little kids go down and they say: ‘Come and have a go,’ and I’ve seen significantly more younger people around our way on skateboards… it seems to be quite a positive thing from that perspective.”
Meanwhile Alex Money, (who ran The Grove DIY Instagram account until Isaac took over in November) had been trying to contact Stonegate, Dulwich Estate, local councillor Andy Simmons and local Labour MP Helen Hayes to try to stop the rumoured demolition, but at the end of July no one had replied. The skaters had no choice but to accept the imminent destruction of the spot and decided to hold a farewell jam on August 08. They had money and materials as a result of fundraising through a Paypal link on the The Grove DIY’s Instagram page, so they decided so to build something new for the jam. “We needed a sick obstacle for the jam, so we built the volcano… we had a good turnout for that build,” recalled Isaac. “As much as it’s hard to skate, it’s actually really well built,” added Sam.
Then, just before the farewell jam took place, news spread among the skaters that a supporter of the project from the East Dulwich Forum had saved the day. Local resident Harriet Ruffley had written to local councillors Andy Simmons and Catherine Rose with a link to the thread and, perhaps because she had worked on projects with them in the past, got a reply from Simmons. She posted an excerpt in the thread on August 01:
If Gloucester Court residents (in particular) and other local residents potentially impacted by noise are not disturbed by a temporary skate park and the police don’t receive complaints about crime or anti social behaviour on the site then Catherine and I are happy with a meanwhile use of the site in the short to medium term and we met with the Dulwich Estate yesterday to explain this.
Although the long-term future of the spot was far from guaranteed, this was undeniably positive news. Most people involved only found out a day or two before the jam, which became a celebration instead of a farewell. “We were like: ‘Oh shit, we’re actually going to be able to stay,’ so it was a really positive event,” recalled Sam. The skaters sold T-shirts and jars of The Grove jam (made from berries picked in the car park) on the day, the proceeds of which were donated to The Ben Raemers Foundation, The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Impact Lebanon. A month later, on September 12, the skaters held another jam, this time with the Concrete Jungle Foundation, who paid for and helped build a new obstacle: “the biggest ramp we’ve got there, the double hip with the pump,” described Isaac. Funds raised on the day went to the Foundation.
Recently communication between the skaters and all involved parties has picked up, as Alex described: “Since the (first) jam I’ve been able to talk to everyone. They all started suddenly getting back to me and showing an interest.” Andy Simmons and local Labour MP Helen Hayes have both been supportive and have offered to mediate between the skaters and Stonegate and Dulwich Estate. The current status, according to Alex, is that Stonegate doesn’t have an issue with the project in the short to medium term, provided liability is taken care of. Alex puts this positive response down to the petition and resulting publicity and is currently in talks with Southwark council about whether it can take care of liability under its insurance. However some involved worry that involving the council is at odds with the DIY ethos of The Grove. “What worries me is if the council starts wanting to approve builds and stuff,” said Isaac,“I don’t really want that on my conscience.”
Whatever happens in the future, there seems to be broad agreement that The Grove has been a positive asset to the community, a sentiment perhaps best expressed by local resident Paul Ruffley: “I just thought it was a good story of a derelict site being brought to some kind of use… It was just nice to see people who would normally get a bit of a raw end publicity wise having a good time, behaving themselves – it’s easy to slag off younger people. This all sounds a bit wishy washy and emotional but genuinely I thought it was a nice thing to do.”