Skate date: visit the Southbank’s Undercroft

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Visiting somewhere if you have kids who are ‘at that difficult age’ – that is, the on-set of adolescence through to when they’re old enough to stay home by themselves – can be tricky. The last thing you want when on a trip to a fascinating, fantastic city like London is having to drag a whiny teenager around in your wake, decrying everywhere you go and everything you introduce them to as ‘boring’. So, what’s the answer? Well, the UK capital is nothing if not diverse, of course, meaning it certainly contains one or two things that’ll actually interest a dismissive near-adolescent or nascent semi-adult.

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One such place, you might just find, is the Southbank Undercroft. How so? Well, this concrete-tastic rather stark space beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the marvelously tourist-friendly stretch of the Thames’ south bank known as, yes, the ‘Southbank’ is, in fact, the major skateboarding hang-out of all London – and, so established has it become, it’s arguably the most distinctive venue for ‘skaters’ in all Europe. As such, unlike much of the rest of the area above and around it, there’s nothing commercial and very little mainstream about it; it’s truly a great contrast to the surrounding area (in that sense, mind you, it could be said to be ‘very London’).

Featuring grey concrete walls, curves, ‘ramps’ and ‘jumps’, it’s heavily covered in colourful and artistic graffiti and practically always populated by experienced and inexperienced skaters, there to try out their latest skills –not to show off to the milling tourists; more to indulge in the sheer joy they derive from jumping on and flicking their boards and being in each other’s company.

For the young (at heart) then, visiting the South Bank Undercroft is indeed a slice of something genuine. Having developed organically from the 1970s onwards thanks to its naturally skater-friendly architecture and landscape, it also has something of a chequered history, having been at the center of a generational tug-of-war between the authorities and owners of the Southbank’s major attractions (such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the National Theatre and the BFI) and the local young people for whom, down through the years, it’s meant everything as somewhere to escape to, be themselves and just skate for all they’re worth.

Also a popular haunt of photographers and graffiti ‘taggers’ for its urban cultural resonance, the Undercroft pleasingly scored a – what seems to be – permanent victory in 2014 when, threatened with being demolished as part of a redevelopment leading to its space being filled in with profit-generating cafés and shops, the idea was eventually defeated through a passionate and committed resistance from those who delight in the area – its young regulars (skaters and BMX enthusiasts among them) as well as the world-wide skateboard community.

And quite right too. As pointed out above, the Undercroft was never purposely designed by ‘those who knew better’ to be a skate park; it was adopted and adapted by the skaters and then, along with them, the BMXers and taggers as their own space – a space where they could express themselves away from glaring eyes. Or, to be more precise, in spite of glaring eyes. Nobody could bottle or rebuild that. It’s simply a little bit of grey urbanity that’s grown and been nurtured for decades by people passionate about skateboarding. And there’s something beautiful and important in that. It’s one of those things that truly define what a city is.

For that reason then, why not stroll along the Southbank with your kids when you visit London (its location right in the center makes it very easy to find, especially if you’re staying relatively nearby at, say, the Montcalm London City at The Brewery hotel and allow them to come across the Undercroft.

And then tell them about its history and its recent fight for survival and victory in the face of, well, yes, ‘The Man’. They’ll probably get it straightaway. And relish that particular moment during their visit to London – and, who knows, it may even spur them to want to discover more of this fascinating, fantastic city?