Get Your Skates On in Newcastle

Lee Henry visits NI's only indoor skate park

With a stigma somehow attached to skateboarding in the UK and Ireland - a general association with anti-social behaviour and vandalism no doubt influenced by cinema and perpetuated by loutish minorities - our skateboarders have had it hard over the years.

Forced to practice their sport out of doors, yet continually discouraged or indeed prevented from doing so, theirs has been a Catch 22 situation with little sign of hope at the end of the half pipe.

Frustrated by the chronic lack of viable spaces in which to learn, hone, teach and enjoy their sport, many of our budding boarders have pestered and petitioned local councils to provide the relevant facilities. But with difficult insurance issues and therefore funding problems surrounding any attempt at running a skateboard park, the opportunities for progression have been minimal.

And yet one community has managed to overcome the obstacles and succeed where others have failed. The unlikely epicentre of Northern Irish extreme sports, Newcastle, Co Down.

With a successful mountain boarding facility already up and running in the picturesque outskirts of the town, the Newcastle Community Association - chaired by Councillor Carmon O’Boyle - pushed ahead to develop an indoor skateboarding facility, and in April of 2006, 56 SK8 was opened for business.

Northern Ireland’s one and only indoor skateboarding park, 56 SK8 is a model of achievement and a sight to behold. Located in the main hall of a newly renovated 17th century chapel - St Mary’s Hall on Newcastle’s Main Street - its smooth ramps and polished quarter pipe gleam beneath the gaze of its pristine stained glass windows, and it feels just right.

But it wasn’t always so, as NCA member and director of the Newcastle Regeneration Association, Andy Hall clarified.

’St. Mary’s Hall was built in the 1660’s, so you can imagine that it wasn’t in the best of conditions when we came to consider it as a location.’

The chapel closed down in the 1960’s when a new chapel was built, and in the early seventies became St. Mary’s Youth Club.

’It was a very successful cross-community club,’ Hall explained. ’But times change, and when the club closed the building got more and more run down. There was a lot of damp on the walls and it wasn’t very warm. But as a neutral venue for a multi-purpose facility, with the skateboarding element installed in the main hall and an Internet café and meeting rooms upstairs, it couldn’t have been better.’

With his experience in working for the Department for Social Development, Hall then set out on a round of funding for the park.

‘We made an application to the Down District Strategy Partnership for funding and received £100,000, and from there we went to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and the Ulster Wildlife Trust, and were successful. The Down District Council gave us funding on the basis that we were providing a multi-purpose, recreational facility for people of all ages and we also received some funding for equipment and the skateboard ramps from the DSD under the Local Community Fund.’

With the building renovated, work on the skateboarding park began in earnest. Gary Parr - owner of the town’s mountain boarding park and leading member of the NCA - enlisted the help of Ryan Cleary - an outdoor adventure instructor from Tipperary and now manager of 56 SK8 - in the search for the parks designer.

‘I met Gary about three years ago when he invited me up to Surfin’ Dirt,’ says Cleary. ‘He’s done a lot for extreme sports in Ireland, and when he asked me if I would like to come and manage 56 SK8 I jumped at the chance.

‘They were looking for someone to design and install the park within a very short space of time; the deadline was literally a week later. So I mentioned a friend of mine, Mike Keane, who had previously designed and built two skateboard parks in Dublin, and the next weekend we sat down and he showed us his design. Mike is a genius when it comes to dimensions, and he really did himself and the community justice.’

The finished article is unique to say the least. From the outside - as the revitalized St. Mary’s rises majestically above the passing traffic - few would guess of the Hall’s new function.

‘Yeah, it’s small,’ Cleary concedes. ‘But it still has a great dimension for the space that’s being used. Other skateboard parks throughout the UK would be a lot bigger, but if you look at the various layouts, their all pretty tight.

‘Here we’ve managed to fit in all the fundamentals: a really nice long quarter pipe, which is great for ramp riders, and a flat bank, all in such a small space. And the great thing about it is, it’s got flow; you don’t have to put down your foot once in the park, which is what you want on a skateboard or a pair of rollerblades. It’s just pure easy riding.’

56 SK8 offers indoor skateboarding facilities and includes a skate school for novices at the weekends. Bring your own board - helmets and protective gear must be worn at all times and can be rented or purchased from the park.

Opening Hours: Wed, Thurs & Friday 4pm - 9pm
Saturday & Sunday 10am - 8pm
School and Bank Holidays: 10am - 8pm
Cost: £10 (5 hours)
For further details contact 028 4372 5556