Where the Land Meets the Sea – The Vans UK team tours the British Coast11.03.2022
Photography & words: Kingsford
A couple of wasps got up his trousers
In the past five years I have been through a lot with Jim Craven. We travelled from Land’s End to John O‘Groats in a tiny car skating rural ditches along the way (Island), we wild camped our way around Iceland’s ring road during the island’s coldest summer in 25 years (Hringur), we dug out ditches in rural Sri Lanka during a heatwave (Lanka) and we spent the summer of 2019 travelling around Europe trying to get people to only skate buildings by one architect, all of which were a bust (Pearls). All of these projects were challenging – many times I wondered what the hell I had agreed to and I am sure the skaters taking part did too – but they are also the projects I am happiest and proudest to have been a part of. Some of my best memories are from these trips. So when Jim contacted me to pitch the idea of wild camping around the British coast, skating sea wall spots and old military structures, I did what I could to make it happen.
You would think that a few domestic wild camping trips would be relatively simple to organise, even in the middle of a global pandemic: no accommodation, no flights, no quarantine. Unfortunately Jim had recently moved from Manchester to Copenhagen and this small detail caused us endless problems, ultimately delaying the final missions by almost a year. During the summer of 2020 the goalposts of international travel were constantly moving. European countries put each other on red lists at short notice, almost out of spite it sometimes seemed. We finally managed to get Jim over for the first coastal trip (the east coast) late in August 2020. Getting him back for part two (the South West) was complicated by us red-listing Denmark again, or the other way around (I can’t remember, but he couldn’t get here) and our project was put on hold until summer 2021. Even a year later Jim only just made it back home before the whole of the UK was once again added to Denmark’s red list. All this took its toll on morale and at times I lost hope that we would ever get the project finished.
On the subject of morale, an inherent danger with Jim’s projects is that a lot of his spots turn out to be unskateable. Jim finds spots using satellite images – or random images online – and it is often difficult to ascertain scale and smoothness. For example for Island we drove to Llyn Brianne in Wales to skate what looked like a 4ft bank-to-curb that ended up being 30ft tall. The hit rate on our coastal trips was higher than expected and even when a spot was rough, overgrown or wet, the crew was almost always up for making something happen. Conor was happy to plough through a deep muddy puddle each time he attempted a frontside wallride on a bank-to-wall on the beach at Helford Passage for example. This reminded me of the iconic footage of Conor falling into a small river he was trying to wallride over for Island.
Arriving at an unskateable spot in the van is one thing – at least you can just drive down the coast to the next – but we really rolled the dice with our day trip to the Isle of Wight. Earlier this year I came across a screenshot I had filed away of a 2016 Instagram post by an old friend, Gorm, captioned:
Another shot looking down at one of the Highdown rocket test pens on the #isleofwight That ditch that looks good for #skateboarding in would have channeled the exhaust gasses from the rocket when sparked up. #tw #britsinspace
The concrete structures in the photo were in a picturesque setting on a steep hill overlooking Scratchell’s Bay and The Needles. Excited that for once I had found a cool spot for one of these projects, I sent the screenshot to Jim. After some research he warned me that both ditch-like sections looked really rough, half-buried and were likely unskateable. Nevertheless I managed to convince him to join me, Daryl, Tom and Conor on a day trip to the Isle of Wight the day before he flew back to Denmark. It was unlikely we would see him again any time soon.
The day got off to a good start with Tom going over his handlebars and Jim getting a puncture before 8am. Tom went home to recuperate and the rest of us managed to convince the staff at Waterloo to let us on a peak train with our bikes. At Lymington, Jim somehow found someone to mend his puncture before we caught our ferry over to Yarmouth. During our trip through the South West the week before we had become annoyed with cyclists holding us up on narrow country lanes on more than one occasion. I remember enjoying the spectacle of a group of exhausted-looking amateurs inching up a steep hill outside Watchet in Somerset as an epic traffic jam steadily grew behind them. “Why bother?” I thought to myself. Well less than a week later I found myself inching up a steep hill, feeling like I was close to a heart attack, as an epic traffic jam steadily grew behind me. We all had totally inappropriate bikes – I was on a two-speed Brompton for example – and everyone except Jim, who had spent the previous year cycling around Copenhagen for a living, had a hard time. I particularly enjoyed watching Conor and Daryl overtake a more experienced cyclist pacing himself on a steep hill, before both pulling over seconds later and collapsing with exhaustion on the verge while the aforementioned cyclist cruised by. Anyway, the concrete structures were skateable after some digging and sweeping (thanks Jim, ‘the human rub brick’), Conor did a nice wallride and no one from the National Trust kicked us out, so our epic journey was not in vain.
You always read about rain in UK trip articles but it’s a particular menace when wild camping. There is nothing more depressing than putting your tent up in the rain at the edge of some muddy car park by some woods, then waking up to more rain in the morning and having to pack everything away wet, knowing it will still be wet when you unpack it again the next night. Rain at the start of a trip is especially damaging to morale. On day two of the first trip we found ourselves sheltering from the rain in Wetherspoons in Ramsgate trying to figure out what to do. In the end we convinced Josh to drive 200 miles north to Tom Day and his girlfriend Sian’s home in Lincolnshire, where they generously offered us a roof for the night. The next morning, after meeting Tom and Sian’s pigs Audrey and Irene and enjoying a fry-up at their local cafe, we drove north-east to Sutton-on-Sea, where both spots were buried under tons of sand and where we witnessed a greyhound break its leg jumping off a wall. Then it started raining again. To add insult to injury, Nic Powley sent a photo of clear blue skies over Margate, just five miles from Ramsgate, whence we had fled the evening before. Undeterred, we convinced Josh to drive another 200 miles to The Wirral on the west coast for a quick skate (it was dry), before nipping 150 miles back over to Hull to resume our itinerary.
On previous projects with Jim we rarely had a team manager. For this project we had Josh and this made a big difference. As well as driving back and forth across England so we could skate a rough bank for a couple of hours, he also kept up morale with treats exactly when we needed them. For example we had a difficult Sunday evening in Hull. After Aaron rolled his ankle skating some stairs we tried to skate the Humber Bridge and Tom’s board went under the railing and fell a long way down into some woods. He couldn’t find it so Conor went to help. After an hour or so they spotted Tom’s board lodged high in a tree. Conor shook it down but in the process disturbed a wasps’ nest. A couple of wasps got up his trousers and stung him. After narrowly avoiding getting locked in the car park overnight, we were refused service at three nearby restaurants for a variety of bewildering reasons. For example the host at the Toby Carvery told us they closed at 8.15pm on a Sunday as we enquired about getting some dinner at 8.15pm. Eventually, after driving into town and getting turned away from several more restaurants, the people at Ask agreed to serve us some food in exchange for some money and Josh treated us to an indulgent meal, dessert included. Conor actually cried when his passion fruit and raspberry cheesecake arrived. It had been an emotional roller coaster of a day.
Jim gets bad anxiety about getting caught wild camping illegally. In five years of doing these trips, this never happened, the tacit understanding being: if it looks like you are only there for the night, people leave you alone. Last summer I got the impression that concerned members of the public and wardens and other officials were temporarily more forgiving of wild camping because travelling abroad was almost impossible, everything in the UK was booked up and because everyone had had such a horrible time trapped in their homes and needed a break. No one bothered us on the east coast trip for example and I camped with friends on the busy shore of Wast Water in the Lake District last August without getting moved on. Unfortunately that goodwill seemed to have run out by this summer and we were hounded and harassed almost every morning during the South West trip. As we packed away our tents on the first morning at a lovely spot outside Torquay we watched as a dog walker paced around in the distance rehearsing what she would say. “I can see that you are leaving otherwise I would have phoned the authorities. This is a public space for dog walkers. I hope you won’t put this place on social media and encourage more people to come… I hope you will take your rubbish with you.” I suppose because of the pandemic people are programmed to be suspicious of strangers and people who have travelled from elsewhere and for this reason, you shouldn’t take this sort of encounter too personally. Nevertheless I found it bitterly depressing. Luckily a friendly eccentric elderly fisherman stopped for a chat a few minutes later and lifted our mood.
Conor is the perfect antidote to any such unpleasantness. Always positive and full of energy, the only criticism you could possibly level at him is that he shouldn’t feel like he is letting us all down by not filming three tricks at every spot. The fauna of the British Isles fascinates Conor. He is a gold mine of animal facts. He knows the names of all the different moths, butterflies, beetles and spiders and is very good at finding them too. A personal favourite Conor memory from our coastal trips happened in Blackpool. Myself, Daryl and Conor were walking back from breakfast one morning when he suddenly stopped, turned towards us and held up his hand. “Look at the legs on this aphid,” he said before turning away and walking straight into a lamp post.
Watch Where the Land Meets the Sea by Jim Craven here.