Victoria Benches, the London skate spot which witnessed the progression of generations from Blueprint to Palace, is no more. We spoke with we spoke with some key figures whose localisation and documentation of the spot now takes on a new, profound meaning.
Words and interviews by Jacob Sawyer. The Yorkshire Don, Scott Palmer backside tailslides at Victoria Benches on a Hull-to-London filming mission. photo: Leo Sharp for Sidewalk Magazine #60, 2001
We recently received the sad but expected news that Victoria Benches, the iconic ledges and skate spot in Christchurch Gardens is no more. Next to Scotland Yard, just around the corner from St James’s Park station, stood a haven from city madness. An inextricable piece of London skateboarding history.
When I started putting together this ode to the spot, for those I wanted to speak to the space is a large part of their own story. As they are for it. (I was going to start with the tale of a day skating them with Lev Tanju where he did backside 5-0 and, myself, a switch tailslide. But as there’s no footage to substantiate or tarnish those glorious claims, I’m just glad enough we have the memories).
In the late 1990s, Victoria Benches was where we would start and spend many hours with filming as the order of the day. This is a point between Dan Magee making the Blueprint’s Build and Destroy promo and crafting the seminal U.K. video, Waiting For The World. Dan was key to Victoria Benches being seen on the world stage and saw the progression go down first hand. His Instagram account ‘@MeetAtBenjys‘ nods to the days at the spot which would start at a bygone eatery. For those who were present, the name alone paints a picture of our London playground at the time.
Three notable careers, at different points in their trajectories, would merge here. Victoria Benches became Toby Shuall’s spiritual home, a focal point for Nick Jensen’s progression and the place Lucien Clarke learned to skate. All three are London-bred skateboarders, completely synonymous with Victoria Benches and their mark on them emblazoned in UK skate history.
Alongside Dan, it was a pleasure to have Toby and Nick speak on their time there. Henry Edwards Wood sheds light on the mid-noughties period as Victoria Benches get capped. Finally, Mike Fox, contributing filmer on Lucien’s Palasonic part, gives the perspective of a latter day lensman.
Dan Magee Interview
Dan Magee witnessing the demolition of Victoria Benches.
So, Anthems is the first time Victoria Benches appear in one of your videos?
Before that, Colin [Kennedy] skated there in Playing Fields and Barry Lindsey did in something else. It was definitely the Anthems era that we started localising it. We used to skate Fairfields a lot. If we came to central London, it would be Victoria Benches then Shell Centre and Southbank.
I want to say we started skating there a lot in 1997, it’s most famous form was probably built or refurbished in ’97 or late ’96. Maybe earlier but no-one realised you could actually skate there.
The way Colin skates them early on, he just ollies onto the benches. Before they were skated, they looked really rough and un-skateable. I think there’s plastic or something kind of woven into what the benches are made of so once you waxed and ground it in, they became amazing.
In the early days, they didn’t get skated. They’re high and there’s that optical illusion where they’re hollow underneath.
Describe the location-based appeal of the spot?
For me, they were high. I couldn’t do much there but I liked going there. Good flat, super easy to get to from where anyone lived… Also, the Benjy’s next to it. That place was sick, everything was super cheap.You could get yoghurts, patties, samosas and those hot dogs you used to run. That made it the perfect meet up spot.
What you’ve got to remember is, London was so untapped back then. With Southbank and Shell Centre no-one was searching out spots because everything was right there. Shell Centre itself was amazing, it had so many different lines and [that mainly documented area of it] is just the bottom part. There were so many different things you could skate.
Upper Shell Centre – ‘Xerox’ as everyone used to call it, or Southbank was super good to meet. There was no need to go elsewhere but the problem about those areas is there was literally nothing there. You’d have to go to Embankment to get something to eat but Victoria Benches were right next to the station and right next to a snack stop. You could get there, get food and not have to leave which is why it was dope.
Not many people skated there. We skated it a lot, Toby Shuall skated it a lot and in the early days Channon and [Marl] Channer’s crew. Mike Manzoori’s crew skated there, but they were the dudes who skated around the whole city more than anyone else. Everyone else just used to skate Shell and Southbank.
Channon King poises a leafy backside smith at Victoria Benches. ph: Wig Worland
Some weekend mornings, there would be over twenty of us meeting there. Outline a regular crew.
In the Hi-8 days it was a more sparse, it started ramping up in ’98 when I got my VX.
Looking at my early tapes, there’s a line of Flynn [Trotman] and Colin. That’s the very first, mini DV, VX stuff that I shot there. Prior to that, it was a buddy cam system with Hi-8. When I got the VX, we would go there, try get a line and then move on.
It was anyone who was coming down to film for Build and Destroy and subsequently Waiting For The World. At first, the early Blueprint team, then into regulars like yourself [Jake Sawyer], Ben Dominguez, Adrian French, Christopher Massey. Nick Jensen, when we met him around 1998, and his friend Justice. Toby Shuall would make an appearance a bit later on. That Cawdor Crescent crew, Massey and Marshall [Taylor] when he would come out skating, French [Richard Sayer], and later on Mark Jackson and Jensen.
It evolved in the early 2000s. Channon was a big dude who would come down from Ipswich, camp out at peoples’ houses and skate there all the time. Lucien would turn up when he could barely ollie.
I remember Lucien would often be leaving as we arrived, having already put in those morning hours.
Yeah, he would. Looking back, there’s a day when he came to Moorgate [carpark spot] with us. I have it on tape. He noseslides the rail and afterwards, he’s skating with us. Before that, we’d always say “What’s up” and he would watch from a distance. He lived in the area. As soon as he started skating, that was his local spot. I had a shitty school to skate, he had the best ledge spot in London on his doorstep.
A young Nick Jensen missions for a nosegrind flip out at Victoria Benches, filmed by Dan Magee for and seen in Blueprint’s First Broadcast (2002).
“The fact that Dom Henry can skate them so good and he’s a fucking midget is pretty amazing.”
It’s amazing that he was learning to skate at Victoria Benches, as Nick Jensen was starting to hit a real window in his progression. Do you remember a moment there where you know Nick was levelling up?
I posted it the other day, the nosegrind nollie flip. He has worse stuff, grom lines, then we go back to the benches and he’s doing a nosegrind, nollie flip – popped and caught.
Even today, if someone did that… Maybe the trick selection isn’t great, but that’s so hard. He had a massive growth spurt, his trick selection got bigger. Lucien was on his heels but he was a lot younger, learning to 50-50 and grind the benches. He’d skate with his own crew.
That place definitely progressed their skating simply by normalising the height of those benches…
I think so, especially Lucien. He had to learn every basic trick on those benches and they’re not low. Maybe they’re not high by todays standards but back then they were, for sure. People who could rip them are fairly tall like Toby Shuall or Channon. That Dom Henry can skate them so good and he’s a fucking midget is pretty amazing. His no push line is next level.
Lucien had to learn to skate them as his curbs. Then he became a tall dude and got the power pop. Fair play, that’s his spot now. He uncapped it, he shredded it the hardest and made it famous on a global scale.
We localised it heavily though. As stupid as it may seem, Jensen went around the statue when he was a little kid and that says something, early on.
Of all of the things you filmed at Victoria Benches, what tricks stand out as favourites?
One of the earliest lines I filmed at the benches, where I was like, “This shit looks so good if it’s filmed right…” was of Mark Baines. His frontside nollie to switch crook line. He does it like three times. A couple of sketchy ones where he’s playing with it, but he did it so fucking quickly. I swear if you watch that footage today, you could tell someone it was filmed yesterday. Apart from the shoes.
To me, that’s the most classic Victoria benches clip I have. It’s timeless. White tee, blue jeans – yes, he’s got Vitas on but they’re kind of sick. The execution is perfect. There’s been more tech stuff but he’s going fast and it’s so clean. It’s probably going to look good for another twenty years.
Mark Baines with a different type of crook (regular and frontside) than discussed above, in a different pair of Vitas. photo: Sam Ashley for Document Skateboard Magazine, January 2001.
“I swear if you watch that footage today, you could tell someone it was filmed yesterday. Apart from the shoes.”
They were tough to skate psychologically, who found it easy off the bat?
Vaughan has got some good shit, I found some the other day. It’s not my favourite stuff I filmed there because I had my camera stolen and got a VX2. I thought the lens would be the same as the VX1, and it’s not, so to me it doesn’t look good. But he filmed some good shit.
There was one trick I always wanted to get and I don’t think I got it because he changes the line. He used to do nollie to frontside board. It kind of sounds shit but when you see him do it, it’s sick. I’ll post the footage at some stage, I really wanted to film that in a line. He ended up doing a nollie nosegrind or a nollie front nose instead.
Vaughan had gnarly nollie shit. He did nollie inward heelflip to front nose too. Again sounds kind of stinking but he did it good. Even though it’s a weird “Canadian trick” or skatepark trick, I really wanted to get that nollie front board. On a high bench with a hollow underside, that’s pretty sick. Jensen too, I feel like we stopped Jensen filming there at one stage. We were like, “No mate, you’ve had enough.”
Can you recount a good Massey memory from there? Bigspin front nose?
No, he always claimed that, got into it really good and would never, never make it. That was his claim
I saw him do one to front crook at Southbank
I never saw him make it. What the fuck! I’m not going to give it to him even now he’s not with us, that was his claim.
I’ll tell you what was a good Massey moment: he filmed Chris Pulman there and Pulman skated them pretty sick. Weird one, 180 to fakie 50-50, switch front shuv out. I can’t remember if it was me or Massey, but we re-edited it to Method Man to fuck with him. It was a little crew edit with French and I in it.
Massey got into filming a little bit later. He got a TRV and when he started to train it up was that early footage with Pulman when he was working at Slam. Massey had footage in Waiting for the World. He had a TRV and a bogroll, he had footage of Jackson and stuff.
Toby Shuall at Victoria Benches from Headcleaner by Unabomber Skateboards, 2001
“Everything that has come out from that place makes you feel pretty good about skateboarding.”
What stands out from other videos?
Toby Shuall’s stuff in Headcleaner because it’s just a vibe. That’s the thing about that place and Headcleaner captures it. Toby’s stuff with the graphics over the top, it’s under a canopy of trees, the music and it’s about how it feels with Toby’s floppy style…
Everything that has come out from that place makes you feel pretty good about skateboarding. Feel good parts. Lucien’s part [in Palasonic] with Toby’s music [‘Innerspace’ by The Apples In Stereo] is nostalgic and makes you feel good. It’s sick he decapped that spot and it references Toby. That’s his shit.
The time between First Broadcast and Lost and Found was after September 11th. The cost of plane flights dipped and filming became less London-centric than previous videos. Who carried the torch and shined a light on London, and Victoria Benches, during that period of time?
This is what I can’t remember.
There was a time when it was capped but it must have been later because I’ve seen Hold Tight footage when Henry [Edwards-Wood] was filming with Lucien, Steph [Morgan] and all these younger kids. That’s the only stuff that sticks out in my mind.
I feel if there was anyone who picked up the mantle of filming in London, it was Henry. He was the most prevalent, always out there grafting away. You should ask him to fill in that part of the timeline.
Henry Edwards-Wood (Hold Tight Henry) Interview
Steph Morgan at Victoria Benches from Hold Tight London Vol. 2 by Henry Edwards-Wood
When would you say you first started visiting Victoria Benches?
I was first going there with the intent to properly skate it in 2005 or ’06. I remember going there with Jin Shimizu to film a line. It was a mystical place we had to get footage at because we’d seen it in videos.
At the time, he crook bonk’d it with the stoppers and we all thought that was quite cool. There wasn’t much to hit and it was a “fuck you” to the man, as it were.
It also featured Jin’s first footage of a nollie flip. He’s not a prolific nollie flipper so we were stoked on that.
So this is 2006 and it’s capped?
There’s one bench that’s skate-able. The rest are all capped.
The line you filmed of Steph Morgan begins on the capped bench. [See above – ed.]
Yeah, the nosegrind revert is on a capped bench. That wasn’t on the same day as Jin but I’m guessing it’s the same summer.
In 2008, I think, Gustav Eden was on it with the spot liberation. I remember hearing it had been uncapped. We went there the benches next to each other were free. In 2009, one bench was definitely free because I have HD footage somewhere of Lucien doing a front blunt.
“Flipping into something – and in switch – blew my mind when I was younger. That I could capture one of those at Victoria Benches in a line felt like I was living the dream.”
What was your favourite thing that you filmed there?
Certainly, the “best thing” technically and because it’s Steph Morgan, is that line from Hold Tight London Vol 2. He did a nosegrind revert on the skate-stopped block, then a switch heelflip to frontside 5-0 on the liberated block. I’d never filmed anything so tech in my life. I was so hyped. I loved Steph’s little part at the end of Lost and Found where he does a switch heel to 5-0 on the old L Bench at Southbank. Just the best clip.
Flipping into something – and in switch – blew my mind when I was younger. That I could capture one of those at Victoria Benches in a line felt like I was living the dream.
I also filmed there a lot with Shaun Witherup, he has a few lines in the Science promo in 2006. There’s a funny story that goes with that one. Victoria Benches was somewhere you would mission to from Southbank. It wasn’t fun to skate there all day because most of the benches were knobbed but we would go specifically to get footage. I went there one day from Southbank with Shaun Witherup. Everyone got warmed up and Shaun was ready to try a line. Open the camera bag and the VX isn’t in there. I briefly shit myself and then realised I hadn’t packed it… Although I’d been out for four hours at Southbank and didn’t even notice the weight difference.
I felt so bad, having got everyone there to film, so I left them there, missioned back to Waterloo, took a train to Lewisham and skated back to Catford to grab the camera. Then I went all the way back to Victoria Benches and filmed lines with Shaun Witherup, for three hours, at night. It was quite a day. I learned a valuable lesson from that schoolboy error.
Toby Shuall Interview
Toby Shuall switch nosegrinds at Victoria Benches powered by a Matt Hensley t-shirt, 1999. ph: Jon Humphries
“It was for skating and being left alone. A lot of us found solace and peace there.”
Do you remember going to Victoria Benches for the first time and what was your first impression?
I don’t remember when I first went there, exactly. Some others “found it” first, I remember heading up that way from Parliament Square and sort of happening upon it. Once I found it, I realised its potential as a spot. Then that was that and I started to go there a lot.
Prior to this spot arising, London really didn’t have a good ledge spot. You built a ledge to skate back in Pinner for this specific reason. You must have been stoked.
Indeed. Before that there was Paternoster Square but they were wooden and not as good. That spot had its charm for us though. Then it got knocked down and there was a long period of building around there until Knightrider Court emerged. It’s funny we never skated Chalky Ledges [St Paul’s] in those days, we completely ignored them.
It was a strange time in skateboarding when you had perhaps fallen out of love with frequenting Southbank. You’ve mentioned Victoria Benches became somewhat of a spiritual home.
SB always came with baggage. Violence and nightmare lurkers. Good days, bad days. Victoria Benches was peaceful. Opposite Scotland Yard, loads of alcoholic tramps but no rude boys trying to get you. It was for skating and being left alone. A lot of us found solace and peace there. It was a place to skate, away from the daily bullshit of Southbank. A skaters’ spot.
“Basically the best set of ledges I had come across in one place.”
It was somewhere you could progress at skating ledges if you could get your head around them. You really owned it, as far as what was possible at the time. You became synonymous with the spot in the same way Paul Shier is with Fairfields. Did you find skating them hard initially?
They’re high and short-ish. They were good to skate, they were basically the best set of ledges I had come across in one place, in London. I liked ledges so that was that. I’m going to skate these things, I’m not going to find better.
Do you remember the day it clicked? Also, did getting comfortable with Victoria Benches open up skating for you in any other ways?
I grew up skating the Beam at Southbank – a rounded, piece of shit wood – so Victoria Benches were great. I skated them all the time.
Around that time I found them, I was probably at “my peak” so I managed to squeeze a few good lines out of there.
Toby at Victoria Benches in First Broadcast by Blueprint Skateboards (Dan Magee and Adamon Mondon, 2002)
Would you say it’s your favourite spot of all time?
No, my favourite spots of all time are Brown Marble and Fort Miley in San Francisco. Victoria Benches is my favorite spot in the U.K., definitely, but there are some others.
Who else was skating them at the time that stands out to you?
Greg Finch and Gavin Morgan. We met Lucien when he was a tiny child. I think his mum would let him go there on his own but not to Southbank. He was so small, he spent months trying to get up on them. I watched him force himself to learn croooked grinds. It took him a long time. We watched him get taller there. It’s probably one of the things that made him so good in the end.
Do you have a favourite memory of filming down there with Massey?
[Laughs] if you watch the Unabomber video, I do a nollie tail side to fakie, and you can actually see loads of weed stashed in my sock. What an idiot. I actually thought filling my socks with weed was a good idea. I got away with it that day.
Nick Jensen Interview
Slam City rider Nick Jensen at Victoria Benches in September 2019, filmed by Mark Jackson
Do you feel like you spent enough time with Victoria Benches following their uncapping?
Jackson and I have been down a few times. It’s such a shame they’ve gone. In some weird way, because I knew they were at some point going, at least now I can let it rest in peace.
Your career has involved them as a solid fixture from it’s very beginning. Through that, have they at all informed your thought process when it comes to crafting a part?
It’s hard to tell. They’re quite high, and when I was younger, I had mini legs, therefore they taught me to become more confident with bigger stuff.
When we first started going there, they must have felt as giant to you as they did to me.
[Laughs] Yeah. I always wanted to at least crooked grind one. Once you do that, you’re hooked. They’re the most satisfying crooked grind.
You quickly learned to love them. You took everything you could do to the spot then began learning things no-one had done there. Did skating them at such a young age alter the trajectory of your approach to skating?
Probably. London doesn’t really have any ledges so it was where I learned how to do more technical stuff. I’ve no idea how that worked out. I was just skating, putting things together. I was no where near as gnarly as Lucien is now!
Who helped you see what could be done there?
Toby Shuall. He was the man. He always encouraged me to go for it. Being around him, when he was skating them, made it feel more possible.
I mainly tried lines. Funnily enough, my recent line when I do a switch back smith took forever. Gustav Eden blew me away, Channon King, Toby… I just realised I’m listing all the tall people I know.
Lucien’s shit is insane, like a switch back noseblunt. But Toby’s lines are the one.
Chris Massey on one of many night missions. photo: Mark Jackson
“It was that classic dappled light. I felt so connected to the old sessions.”
On a weekend, a heavy crew from all over would descending on the spot, then jet off around the city. What was your typical go-to crew on quieter sessions?
Massey, French, Magee, Jackson, Henry Kingsford and Charlie Young.
Toby, yourself and Lucien represent three generations of Victoria Benches. Street skaters, from London, whose paths intertwined at this spot over twenty years ago. Do you remember a moment where you realised how important Victoria Benches are, after maybe not going there for a while? Or have you always appreciated it?
Yeah, when I returned after the 10 year break. It was that classic dappled light. I felt so connected to the old sessions with French, Magee, Toby, Jackson and Massey.
Can you describe the strange scene down there towards the end, compared to the early days? There was a heavy homeless contingent living along the edge of the benches and on the grass. Did the worlds ever collide? There were sadly some serious drug casualties wandering through. It had become a strange, neglected no mans land.
I remember it was always an attraction for homeless people. There was this small, well-built, 60 year old lady with a shaved head who used to push her wheeled basket around. She embodied the pigeon lady from Home Alone, to me. As a kid, at first glance a bit scary but then realising she was lovely, smiley and liked us skating.
It was sad towards the end, this influx of tents housing people smoking pipes and shouting. I think the old Scotland Yard that used to be around the corner would have prevented this. The park just became this run down space waiting for development. Security just let them roam around. Sometimes, it felt like skating in a scene from Evil Dead.
A couple times, we had some really positive chats with a few of them. But on the whole, the space did feel like it was slowly dying.
With Nick’s closing words about the decay of a landmark, which punctuates many of our favourite videos, we’re led to the closing chapter of this story. One where Lucien Clarke breathed life back into the place he learned to skate before it was snatched away forever. This most poignant love letter to a spot ever made completely blindsided those at the premiere of the Palace’s video, Palasonic. We spoke to our friend, Mike Fox who contributed to the video, for a second angle on our final visit to Victoria Benches…
Mike Fox on filming Lucien Clarke in Palasonic
Lucien Clarke – switch backside noseblunt shutdown. ph: Sam Ashley
“Towards the final month of filming for Palasonic I’d wake up to a text from him everyday: “Viccy?”
When did you first visit Victoria Benches? Were they more rugged than footage would have you believe?
The first time I came to London was back in 1998/’99. I remember seeing a photo in a mag prior. Annoyingly, I can’t remember who but I mostly recall the colours. It had that raw city feeling and reminded of Red Benches on Water Street in Manhattan. Another spot, RIP.
What’s funny… From that same photo, I thought the sculpture was a musical note for the longest time. Later, I learned it was a scroll honouring The Suffragettes.
I didn’t end up skating the benches on that trip because I got really ill. It wasn’t until 2006 or ’07 when Rob Mathieson and Nick Jensen brought me there. I was in awe I finally made it. I was shocked at how high they were. They felt like Le Dome to me.
I imagine that scenario to be like my idea of the Brooklyn Banks or Flushing Meadows.
I was so hyped. A classic ledge spot, in the middle of the city, tucked in some sketchy park. People drink Scrumpy Jack on one bench and a suit eats their Tesco meal deal on the other. I love a spot where different people cross paths and are in each other’s space.
Palasonic found you putting in time, behind the camera, with Lucien Clarke. Did you film a lot of his Victoria Benches footage?
Yeah, it was fun to get back into filming after a long time.
A lot of friends were involved in Palasonic so I felt inspired. Lucien was on a hype when he figured that Victoria Benches could be liberated. Towards the final month of filming for Palasonic I’d wake up to a text from him everyday:
The route less travelled. Lucien Clarke backside noseblunt on inside lane of Victoria Benches, his second clip in Palasonic. ph: Henry Kingsford for Grey Skate Mag
Have you ever witnessed anybody else so in tune with those challenging surfaces?
Much respect to Nick Jensen and Rory Milanes.
What’s your favourite thing you filmed from his part?
That’s a tough one. Either the switch heel to front nose line or the switch flip back tail line.
Now the spot has gone, it makes the start of his part even more poignant. Were you aware of how special what was going down there was at the time?
Definitely. I mean, Lucien skated that spot when he was just learning and could barely get up on top of them. Then Scotland Yard decided to skate stop the benches so Lucien missed out on many years.
You can see that frustration from one of the lines in Palasonic where he decides to skate the inside of the bench to go around the knobs. I love that shit – adaptation. Then he was like, “Fuck this,” and knocked them off – determination.
Lucien Clarke in Palasonic (Palace Skateboards, 2017)
Beyond words Lucien gifted us the poetic with his Palasonic opener. Personally, I was won over the second he bluntslid the inside of the ledge, head to toe camo with ‘Innerspace’ soundtracking it. From there on, Lucien’s skating escalates as the caps are further liberated.
Switch flip to backtail and then a nollie flip into crook, followed by the best nollie flip backside tail committed to film. His tricks at Victoria Benches aren’t just good examples of a trick “at that spot”. They’re executed as well as can be imagined. His frontside nollie heel flip to switch crook is like the evolution of the house that Toby built. The orange fleece seals the visual imprint.
Add in a Jensen line and easter egg of Toby pushing past the statue, it’s hypnotic magic on tape. Lucien’s homage to Victoria Benches is a more fitting eulogy than these words will ever be. However, it’s been a pleasure to share its history from the people who made it.
Many thanks to Lucien for gifting us with another blast at a childhood haunt which evoked the best memories.
Victoria Benches – rest in peace. May a phoenix rise from your ashes, not a tower block that nobody lives in. Much respect to anyone who ever ground or slid those suspended surfaces. Special thanks to Ryan Gray for the Headcleaner footage; to Leo Sharp, Wig Worland, Sam Ashley, Jon Humphries and Henry Kingsford for the photos, and ScienceVersusLife for the scans.