Ode To Victoria Benches

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We received the sad but expected news recently that Victoria benches, the iconic spot in Christchurch Gardens is no longer. Next to Scotland Yard and just around the corner from St James’s Park station stood a haven from the madness and an inextricable piece of London skateboarding history. When I decided to put this ode to the spots memory together I knew who I wanted to say some words. For the people who I spoke to, this space is a large part of their own story. I was going to start with a tale about the day I did a switch tailslide and Lev did a switch backside 5-0 but I won’t. Luckily there is no footage to substantiate or tarnish those glorious claims just the memories and I’m glad that we have them.

In the late 90s this spot was where we would start and spend many days when filming was order of the day. This was the point between Dan Magee making the Blueprint Build and Destroy promo and crafting the seminal UK video Waiting For The World. As soon as I decided to write something about the spot I knew I needed to speak to Dan, he was key to it being seen on the world stage and saw the progression go down first hand. His amazing Instagram account @meetatbenjys is named after the days which would start here next to a bygone eatery and paints a picture for those who weren’t there of what our London playground was like at the time.

Three careers at different points in their trajectory would merge here at this point in time. Vic Benches became Toby Shuall’s spiritual home, a focal point for Nick Jensen’s progression and the place where Lucien Clarke learned to skate. These three amazing humans are most notable because they are all completely synonymous with the spot. Their mark on it is seared into our retinas and they are all skateboarders from London which was way rarer then that is now. I was happy to get some thoughts from Toby and Nick about their time there. I spoke to Mike Fox who filmed some of Lucien’s Palasonic part to get his perspective as a latter day lensman and Henry Edwards Wood shed some light on the time in the mid noughties when they were capped in the first place. Enjoy this dip into an important piece of London skateboarding history starting with some insights from Dan Magee…
 
Words and interviews by Jacob Sawyer
 

Scott Palmer backtails on a Hull to London filming mission with Magee. Photo: Leo Sharp

 

DAN MAGEE INTERVIEW

So the first time the benches appear in one of your videos is in Anthems?

I think it’s Anthems. Before that Colin definitely skated there in Playing Fields and Barry Lindsey in something else. It was definitely the Anthems era that we started localising it. We used to skate Fairfields a lot and then if we came to central London it would be Victoria Benches and then Shell and Southbank. I want to say we started skating there a lot in 1997, it was probably built or refurbished in it’s most famous form in 1997 or late 96 or maybe earlier but no-one realised you could actually skate it.

The way Colin skates it early on, he just ollies onto the benches but if you look at them before they were skated they look really rough and unskateable. I think there’s plastic or something kind of woven into what the benches are made of so once you wax it and grind it in they become amazing. Before that when you see them it looks like they are never going to grind. 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 appeal…

For me they were high, I couldn’t really do much there but I liked going there. Good flat land, super easy to get to from where anyone lived West, South or wherever, people could get there no problem. Also the Benjy’s next to it. That place was sick, you could go there and everything was super cheap, get yoghurts, patties or samosas and those hot dogs like 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’s just the bottom part of it, so many different things you could skate. Then upper Shell Centre or Xerox as everyone used to call or Southbank was super good to meet.

There was no need to go elsewhere skating but the problem about all of those areas is that 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 Channer’s crew, Manzoori’s crew skated there but they were the dudes that skated all around the whole city more than anyone else. Everyone just used to skate Shell and Southbank.

On some weekend mornings there would be over twenty of us meeting there. We began so many days there. Outline a regular crew…

In the Hi-8 days it was a bit more sparse and it started ramping up in 98 when I got my VX. Looking at my early tapes there’s a line of Flynn and a line of Colin and that’s the very first mini DV VX stuff that I shot there. Previous to that it was a buddy cam system with Hi-8. When I got the VX we would go there, try and get a line and then move on. So it was anyone who was coming down to film for the Build and Destroy promo and subsequently Waiting For The World.

So at first it was the early Blueprint team and then it evolved into regulars like yourself, Dominguez, Adrian French, Christopher Massey. Nick Jensen when we met him in around 1998, his friend Justice. Toby Shuall would make an appearance a bit later on. It was that Cawdor Crescent crew, Massey and Marshall when he would come out skating, French and later on Jackson and Jensen. But then it evolved in the early 2000’s. 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.

Channon King poises a leafy Back Smith. Photo: Wig Worland

 

I remember Lucien would often be leaving as we would arrive having already put in those morning hours

Yeah he would early on and then looking back there’s a day when he came to Moorgate with us. I have it on tape when he nose slides the rail and after that then he’s skating with us. Before that we’d always say what’s up and he would be there and 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 to skate in London on his doorstep.

It’s amazing that he was learning to skate there as Nick Jensen was starting to hit a real window of progression. Do you remember a moment there where you knew Nick was taking it to another level?

Yeah I posted it the other day, the nose grind nollie flip. He has worse stuff, the grommest of lines but then it kind of jumps to where we are skating other spots and then we go back to the benches and he’s doing nose grind nollie flip out popped and caught. Even today if someone did that, okay maybe trick selection isn’t great but that’s so hard to do. He had a massive growth spurt, his trick selection got bigger and he was able to do more stuff. 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 just 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 high for sure. You look at people who could rip them, it’s people who are fairly tall like Toby Shuall or Channon. The fact that Dom Henry can skate them so good and he’s a fucking midget is still pretty amazing. His no push line is next level.

 

As stupid as that may seem Jensen went around the statue when he was a little kid and that says something, does a trick and carves around the statue early on

 

Lucien had to learn to skate them as his curbs. Then he became a tall dude and got the power pop and fair play that is his spot now. He uncapped it, he shredded it the hardest and made it famous on a global scale. We localised it heavily though and Jensen went around the fucking statue. As stupid as that may seem Jensen went around the statue when he was a little kid and that says something, does a trick and carves around the statue early on.

Of all of the things you filmed there what tricks stand out as favourites?

One of the earliest lines that I filmed at the benches where I was like, this shit looks so good if it’s filmed right was Baines, the frontside nollie switch Crook LINE. He does it like three times, did a couple of sketchy ones where he’s playing with it. But he did it so fucking quickly and 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 that I have. It’s timeless. White T-Shirt, blue jeans, yes he’s got Vita’s on but they’re kind of sick. The execution is perfect. There’s been techer stuff done but he’s going fast and it’s so clean. Probably going to look good for another twenty years.

Mark Baines Frontside crooked grinds in a different pair of Vita’s. Photo: Sam Ashley

 

They were tough to skate psychologically, who found it easy off the bat?

Vaughan has got some good shit, in fact I found some the other day. The thing with the Vaughan stuff, it’s not my favourite stuff I filmed there because I had my camera stolen and got a VX2 and 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 on the bench.

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 nose grind or a nollie front nose instead, it’s gnarly to do that there. 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, get into it really good and never ever 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! Nah I’m not going to give it to him even now he’s not with us, that was his claim. I tell you what was a good Massey moment was he filmed 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, we re-edited it to Method Man to fuck with him. It was a little crew edit with me and French 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.

What stands out from there in other videos?

Toby Shuall’s stuff in Unabomber Headcleaner is really good because it’s just a vibe, that’s the thing about that place and it 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 with Toby’s music is nostalgic and it makes you feel good. It’s sick that he decapped that spot and it references Toby, that’s his shit.

Everything that has come out from that place makes you feel pretty good about skateboarding

 

Between First Broadcast and Lost and Found was the time 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 the 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 he was filming with Lucien and Steph and all these younger kids. That’s the only stuff that sticks out in my mind. I feel like 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

When do you think you first started visiting the benches?

I was first going there with the intent to skate it properly in 2005 or 2006 I certainly remember going there with jin Shimizu to film a line. It was mystical place we had to get footage at because we had seen it in the videos. At the time he crook bonked it with the anti skate knobs and we all thought that was quite cool, there was not 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 and 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 skateable and the rest are all capped.

The line you filmed of Steph Morgan begins on the capped bench

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. I think in 2008 Gustav Eden was on it with the spot liberation. I remember hearing it had been uncapped and when 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

What was your favourite thing that you filmed there?

Certainly the best thing technically and because of the fact that it’s Steph Morgan is this LINE from HTL Vol 2. He did a nose grind revert on the antiskated block and then a switch heel flip switch frontside 5-0 on the liberated block. I’d never filmed anything so tech in my life, I was so hyped.

Also because I loved Steph’s little part at the end of Lost & Found where he does a switch heel 5-0 on the old L bench at Southbank which is just the best clip. Flipping into something and switch blew my mind when I was younger so the fact that I could capture one of those at Vicky benches in a line, I felt like I was living the dream at that point.

 

Flipping into something and switch blew my mind when I was younger so the fact that I could capture one of those at Vicky benches in a line, I felt like I was living the dream at that point

 

I did also film 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. Vicky 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 with Shaun Witherup from Southbank, everyone got warmed up and Shaun was ready to try a line.

I opened 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 4 hours at Southbank, didn’t even notice the weight was different. I felt so bad having got everyone there to film so I left them there, missioned back to Waterloo, took a train to Lewisham, skated back to Catford to grab the camera then 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 dominates a misspelling with a switch nosegrind avec Hensley T-Shirt in 1999. photo: Jon Humphries

 

TOBY SHUALL INTERVIEW

Yes yes. Do you remember going to Vic benches for the first time? When was it and what did you think when you saw it?

I don’t remember when I first went there exactly. I remember some others found it first. I remember just heading up that way from Parliament Square and sort of happening upon it. Once I found it I realised its potential as a spot and then, that was that. Started to go there a lot.

Prior to this spot arising London really didn’t have a good ledge spot. You had built a ledge to skate back in Pinner for this specific reason. You must have been stoked…

Yes 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 round there until Knightrider court emerged. It’s funny we never skated chalky ledges 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 mentioned it 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 alchy tramps but no rude boys trying to get you. It was for skating and being left alone. I think a lot of us found solace there and peace. It was a place to skate away from the daily bullshit of SB. It was a skaters spot.

 

Victoria Benches was peaceful, opposite Scotland Yard. Loads of alchy tramps but no rude boys trying to get you. It was for skating and being left alone

 

It was definitely somewhere you could progress at skating ledges if you could get your head around it. You really owned it as far as what was possible at the time, becoming synonymous with the spot in the same way Shier is with Fairfields. Did you find skating them hard at first?

They are high and shortish. They were good to skate, they were basically the best set of ledges I come across in one place in London. I liked ledges so that was that, I’m going to skate these things, not gonna find better

Do you remember the day it clicked and do you feel clocking how to skate those things opened up skating for you in a way?

I grew up skating the beam at south bank, a rounded price of shit wood so these were great. Just skated them all the time. It was around that time when I found them I was probably at my peak so I managed to squeeze a few good lines out of there.

Would you say that’s your favourite spot of all time?

No favourite spot of all time is brown marble in SF and Fort Miley. Victoria Benches is my favorite spot in the UK definitely but there are some others.

Who else was skating there at the time and unlocking their potential on these unique pieces of street furniture? Who and what stands out to you when you think of back then?

Fucking 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 SB. 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.

 

if you watch the Unabomber video I do a nollie tail side to fakie. 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

 

Do you have a favourite memory of filming down there with Massey?

Ha, if you watch the Unabomber video I do a nollie tail side to fakie. 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. Got away with it that day.

Having caught up with Toby it seemed fitting to speak to the next in line to the Victoria benches legacy, Slam team rider Nick Jensen. Nick is captured below skating the benches in September 2019 filmed by Mark Jackson…

NICK JENSEN INTERVIEW

We are all sad to hear that Victoria benches are no longer. Do you feel you spent enough time with them following their uncapping? You have spent some time there with Jackson…

Yeah me and Jackson have been down a few times. It’s such a shame they have 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 they must almost be an integral part of your thought process when it comes to crafting a part?

Hard to tell. I guess the fact that they are quite high, and that when I was younger I had mini legs, and therefore it taught me to become more confident with bigger stuff.

Do you remember when we would all first go there, they must have felt as giant to you as they did to me?

Ha, yeah but I always wanted to at least crooked grind one and once you do that you are hooked. The most satisfying K grind

You quickly learned to love them and took everything you could do to the spot then began learning things there no-one had done. Describe the process of unlocking what was possible…

No idea, just skating and putting things together.. I was no where near as gnarly as Lucien is now!

Who helped you see what could be done down there?

Toby Shuall. He was the man, always encouraged me to go for it, and just being around him when he was skating them made it feel more possible.

What trick did you work the hardest for down there and what one felt the best?

I mainly tried lines. Funnily enough my recent line when I do a switch back smith took me forever, just couldn’t do it for ages.

What did you see go down which blew you away? Who is notable we may have forgotten?

Gustav Eden, used to blow me away, Channon King, Toby. Just realised I am listing all the tall people I know.

Talk about a stand out moment in a video…

Lucien’s insane shit. switch back nose blunt. But Toby’s lines are the ones

Weekend starts would involve a heavy crew from all over the place descending upon the spot before jetting off around the city. What was the go to crew on quieter sessions?

Massey, French, Magee and Mark Jackson, Henry Kingsford and Charlie Young.

Do you feel skating there at such a young age changed your approach to skateboarding? 

Probably, just that London doesn’t really have any ledges so it was where I learned how to do more technical stuff.

Toby, yourself and Lucien represent three generations. London street skaters, from London whose paths all intertwined at this spot over twenty years ago. It’s impact is powerful and the footage harvested down there is full of epic gifts to the culture. Do you remember a moment where you realised how important it is 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 and I just felt so connected to the old sessions with French, Magee, Toby, Jackson and Massey.

Chris Massey on one of many night missions. photo: Mark Jackson

 

When I returned after the 10 year break. It was that classic dappled light and I just felt so connected to the old sessions with French, Magee, Toby, Jackson and Massey

 

Describe the strange scene down there towards the end of skating there compared to the earlier days. There was a heavy homeless contingent living there 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…

Yeah I remember it was always an attraction for homeless people. There was always this small well built 60 year old lady with a shaved head that used to push her wheelie basket around. She embodied the pigeon lady from Home Alone to me. At first glance as a kid a bit scary, but then realising she was lovely and smiley and liked us skating.

It was a bit sad towards the end, this influx of tents housing people that were always smoking pipes (not the sophisticated french kind) and shouting. I think the old Scotland Yard that used to be around the corner would have prevented this. But the park just became this run down space waiting for development.The security just let them roam around. It did sometimes feel like skating in a scene from the Evil Dead. I must say 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 this instantly recognisable landmark spot which punctuates many of our favourite videos, we are led to the closing chapter. One where one of the best skateboarders to ever do it breathed life back into the place where he learned to skate before it was snatched away forever. The most poignant love letter to a spot ever made completely blindsided us at the premiere of the Palace video Palasonic when Lucien Clarke’s part greeted us for the first time. We interviewed our friend Mike Fox who filmed some of this to say some words about the process and also to get another take on visiting there with fresh eyes…
 

Lucien Clarke Switch Backside Noseblunt Shutdown. photo: Sam Ashley

 

MIKE FOX INTERVIEW

Yes Mike. When did you first visit Victoria Benches and what was your first impression? Was it a bit more rugged than the footage had you believe?

The first time I came to London was back in 98/99 and I remember prior to my visit seeing a photo in a mag, annoyingly I can’t remember who it was but I mostly recall the colours. It had that raw city feeling and reminded of the red benches down on Water St in Manhattan…another spot RIP.

What’s funny was also from that same photo I thought the sculpture there was a musical note for the longest time. Until I later learned it was a scroll honouring the suffragettes. I didn’t end up skating the benches on that trip because I got really ill. So it wasn’t until 2006 or 2007 when Rob (Mathieson) and Jensen brought me there and I was in awe that I finally made it. I was shocked at how high the benches were. Felt like Le Dome to me…like some Biebel shit.

Were you excited to see the spot? I imagine it to be like my idea of the Brooklyn banks or Flushing…

Yea I was so hyped. A classic ledge spot in the middle of the city tucked in some sketchy park where people drink Scrumpy Jack on one bench and a suit eats their Tesco meal deal on the other. Love a spot where all different people cross paths and are in each other’s space.

Palasonic found you putting in work behind the lens with Lucien at Vic Benches. Did you film a lot of that stuff there?

Yeah it was fun to get back into filming after a long long time. A lot of friends were involved in the project so I felt inspired. Lucien was on a hype when he figured that Vicky could be liberated. So towards the final month of filming for Palasonic I’d wake up to a text from him everyday… “Vicky?”

 

A classic ledge spot in the middle of the city tucked in some sketchy park where people drink Scrumpy Jack on one bench and a suit eats their Tesco meal deal on the other

 

Now that the spot has gone which we all knew it was going to it makes the start of his part even more poignant. Were you aware of how special what was going down was at the time?

Yeah definitely. I mean Lucien skated that spot when he was just learning and could probably 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. Love that shit. Adaptation. Then he was like fuck this shit and knocked them off. Determination.

The route less travelled. Backside noseblunt inside. Photo: Henry Kingsford

 

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 front nose line or the switch flip back tail line.
 

This leads us to close with a part I’m sure you are well acquainted with and if you’re not then buckle up. Beyond words Lucien gifted us the poetic with his Palasonic opener. I was won over the second he bluntslid the inside of the ledge in head to toe camo with Toby’s Innerspace track soundtracking the genius. From there on in it just escalates as the caps are further liberated.

Switch flip backtail and then a nollie flip Crook to fry the grey matter followed by the best nollie flip backtail committed to film. The tricks he does there aren’t just good examples of a trick ‘at that spot’ they are executed as well as can possibly be imagined. His frontside nollie heel flip switch Crook is like the complete evolution of the house that Toby built and the orange fleece seals the visual imprint.

Add in a Jensen appearance and a Toby pushing thumbnail and what you have is hypnotic magic on magnetic tape. This homage to the now sadly defunct spot we are romanticising is a more fitting tribute than these words will ever be, but we are pleased to be able to share some history from the people who made it. Many thanks to Lucien for gifting us all another blast at a childhood haunt which evoked the best memories and most of all for this…

Victoria Benches R.I.P. May a phoenix rise from your ashes not a tower block nobody lives in. Much respect to anyone who ever ground or slid those suspended surfaces.Special thanks to Ry for getting us the Headcleaner footage. Leo Sharp, Wig Worland, Sam Ashley, Jon Humphries and Henry Kingsford for the photos and ScienceVersusLife for the scans.
 


Slam City Skates 8.5″ Viccy Benches Deck by Rich De Courcy