Abbey Skate – February 2016 – Sabina Edwards

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Folks, this is Abbey Skate Fest – a three-day event held every February half-term in the 12th Century Malmesbury Abbey and fast becoming a traditional date in the Church of England calendar.

It could easily be shot as the opening scene to an episode of Midsomer Murders; an otherwise sleepy market town, nestling in the dales, slowly comes to life as the parishioners begin to make their way to their beloved Abbey church.

The early twilight mist is lingering and, as the silhouettes of the townsfolk come closer, the viewer becomes suspicious as to the items they are carrying – screwdrivers, hammers, electric drills and other assorted power tools. What macabre display is about to be performed before us?

Photo :

Dun dun duuuun!

But it’s nothing like Midsomer Murders – at all.

These parishioners are off to their afternoon service and, after the songs, sermon, prayers, notices & coffee, will pull back the chairs, lay the plywood and screw in the top layer of flooring, then carry in ramps, quarter pipe, hips, training slopes, then drag in the hay bales and finish off with a selection of skateboards, scooters, helmets and pads – just like they’ve done every year for the last 8 years.

Folks, this is Abbey Skate Fest – a three-day event held every February half-term in the 12th Century Malmesbury Abbey and fast becoming a traditional date in the Church of England calendar.

A sacred site since the 7th Century, the Abbey foundations were laid around 1145 and it’s first service held in 1180.

Here also lies Athelstan, first King of England, who died in 939 AD at the peak of his reign. His tomb can be found in the north aisle. The historic significance of the building brings over 25,000 visitors each year and you can imagine that the very idea of converting it to a skatepark, however temporary, is somewhat preposterous!

The idea came about when Vicar, Neill Archer, was chatting with a member of his outreach team, Sarah, about connecting with the young people in the town. Neill had chatted with some local youths (there’s a lovely covered entrance way to the Abbey that they frequent) and asked if they would come into the Abbey if something suitable was put on for them.

They said they would but what could the Abbey do that would be suitable? Shortly after this encounter, Neill was walking out of the Abbey with Sarah chatting about what was on at the local youth centre when a lad on a skateboard came down the path to the Abbey, skated around them and went on his way. They turned to each other at the same time and said: “we need a skate park in the Abbey!”

The initial idea was met by “communal jaw-dropping” as Neill puts it. “One set of jaws hit the floor saying that the vicar was being sacrilegious and an ancient place of worship was simply being desecrated. Another set of jaws hit the floor declaring that this was absolutely the best thing ever, EVER!” Read more

”Its recent guardians had felt superior to those who neglected it so. They cannot now. Fortunately the skate-park will be temporary. The church authorities, though, have made themselves a permanent laughing-stock.”

Daily Telegraph, 2008

But Neill persevered and the Telegraph was back last year featuring the amazing cover image above and a less negative response.

I first heard about the Skate Fest some years ago and drove down one day just to have a look-see. Last year I was able to go back and stayed overnight in the van so I could help out. 

This year I was back and, thankfully, kindly put up in a gorgeous home by a young couple from the church. I’ve never met them before so their kindness in opening their home to a stranger was very humbling. Staying overnight in the van would have been miserable not least because I had reversed into the parking bay, overshot and sunk into the mud. Try as I might I couldn’t get the damn thing out and just made things worse – I had all kinds of articles shoved under the wheels for traction but it was no good – thankfully, Sam (skate crew and DJ) had a Land Rover … need I say more.

That aside, back to the event. It’s half-term and the event runs Wednesday through Friday with competitions to finish. The mobile park itself is supplied by Christian Skaters UK and Abbey Skate is one of about half a dozen events and festivals that it is hauled to each year.

Every day kicks off at 10am with two-hourly sessions throughout the day, up to 9pm. Each session caters for various age ranges, skate only, scooter only, girls only and open.

The age range of those on the ramps was from 3yrs to mid-50s. A team of volunteers, both young and old, support the event by serving on the registration desk and in the café. Not to mention the provision of accommodation and hot meals for the crew. It is estimated that around 600 young people came to the sessions over the duration of the event.

One of the things I loved was the number of girls getting involved and, regardless of scooter, skates or skateboard, insisting on wearing as many sequins and sparkles as possible – and so much pink!

A crew of skate coaches came together from around the country; Essex, Sussex, Dorset, Bristol as well as the local guys ‘n’ girls, to provide training and general safeguarding.

I guess the busiest times were certainly during the sessions for the younger children. Not only were the kids themselves squealing with laughter most of the time, so were the mass of parents, guardians and carers on the sidelines who were bellowing encouragement and getting rather over-excited about their little one’s achievements, with much photo-capturing taking place.

Of course, for this younger section the scooter prevailed but many, on seeing the number of skateboards available for free use, were keen to have a go and this is the bit I like best. Taking a youngster from barely being able to stand on a board to rolling down ramps and over hips is incredibly satisfying – all the while trying to avoid tripping over mini people.

Later on in the afternoon and towards the evening the older youth get their turn and things thin out a bit making it perfect conditions for some real skilled performances. Even the coaches get some time on the ramps…

There is a fab little café on site with trained baristas, guaranteeing a great cup of coffee and serving home-made cakes and paninis. A tuck shop is set up near the entrance and an area with sofas and cosy chairs complete the café-style atmosphere. Tunes blast out and this year we were treated to Sam La Roche as our very own DJ.

Pretty cool seeing this guy in the pulpit, for sure. Videos of skate heroes were projected onto the back wall and the whole event was wrapped up with competitions and prize giving. As a result of this event, Wiltshire Council pulled together with the community and there is now an indoor skatepark that the young people can use all year round. 

Check out these links to the official videos to see how it all works:

If you fancy having a skate in an abbey, take a look at Gloucester Cathedral who are launching their own skate fest next week April 5th, 6th and 7th. Gloucester Cathedral Skate Fest

Words and Photos: Sabina Edwards

Feature Image : Daily Telegraph

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