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Inside Folkestone's £17m F51: the world's first multi-storey skate park


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The world's first purpose-built, multi-storey skate park will finally open to the public in April after years of delays, rising costs and construction challenges.

Its backers say the £17 million cutting-edge facility in Folkestone will attract skaters and riders from across the country and around the world. We sent reporter Rhys Griffiths to take a look inside.

The multi-milion pound skate park is set to open in April

Traditionally one would start this kind of piece with a bit of gentle introduction, a few broad brush strokes, perhaps a conceit which will struggle when stretched over a few hundred words.

But let us not beat about the bush: F51 may have taken some time to arrive, but now it is here it must be said it is genuinely quite magnificent.

And to think, initially they planned to simply throw up a car park.

Stood in the cafe on the ground floor of his ground-breaking creation, architect Guy Hollaway confesses that when billionaire philanthropist Sir Roger De Haan first approached him about the site his vision was rather more prosaic.

"He [De Haan] said 'look, we're building a few houses on the front, we need somewhere for those people to park'.

Riders show off their skills at today's preview of the new F51 skate park
Riders show off their skills at today's preview of the new F51 skate park
The F51 skate park will become an iconic landmark in Folkestone. Picture: Hufton+Crow
The F51 skate park will become an iconic landmark in Folkestone. Picture: Hufton+Crow

"I said, well OK, I'll design you a multi-storey car park. So I went off and I designed what I thought was this really beautiful multi-storey car park, and I showed it to him and he went 'it's a bit boring, Guy' and I said, I know, it's a multi-storey car park, what do you expect?"

At this point the idea to add a skate park to the car park was suggested, as the town's previous skating facility at the seafront would have to make way for the ongoing regeneration of the harbour area.

So the architect - whose firm is also responsible for the Rocksalt restaurant in Folkestone, Elwick Place in Ashford, and many other projects in Kent - went back to the drawing board.

"I researched it and I designed this whole multi-storey car park with a skate park on the roof. I went and showed him, I was really proud of it, and he went 'oh, these cars are really boring'.

"I know, I know, I know they're really boring, and he said 'well, look, maybe we could do something more here'.

F51 is also home to the tallest climbing wall in the south east. Picture: Hufton+Crow
F51 is also home to the tallest climbing wall in the south east. Picture: Hufton+Crow

"And then this idea was born of this multi-story skate park, which at the time we didn't realise had never been done in the world."

Now, almost a decade and £17 million later, it is just days until the first members of the public will get to experience this urban sports centre. And they are surely going to be wowed.

The tour starts on the ground floor with the gym which will become the new home of the Folkestone Amateur Boxing Club, all white walls, pristine punch bags and a newly-installed ring.

But it's one floor up from here where things start to get seriously impressive.

Because although many, many skate parks have concrete bowls modelled on the drought-hit, dried out California swimming pools which were an integral part of the west coast skate boom of the 1970s, very few designers ever decide to suspend those concrete bowls metres up in the air.

Art and design are key features of the new skate park
Art and design are key features of the new skate park

Walking into the bowl floor for the first time, the building starts to reveal its true scale.

Tapering outwards as it rises, F51 sits on a relatively modest footprint at ground level. But each subsequent floor grows more capacious, expanding to allow the skaters and the BMX riders ample space to do their thing across three uniquely designed spaces.

And 'their thing' is quite breathtaking. Plunging into the bowls, zipping through the concrete curves, shooting above the lip of the pool to hang, gravity-defying, in the air. There's an almost hypnotic quality to watching these men and women execute these moves with such grace.

It's exactly that sense of flow that attracted Alex Frost, project officer for F51 at The Sports Trust, to skating as a kid growing up in Folkestone.

"I love it because you're only competing with yourself, it only matters if you're having fun," he said.

Skater Alex Frost is on the team which will run the new venue
Skater Alex Frost is on the team which will run the new venue

"There's no rules, there's no limits.

"There is something for everyone in it. I just like the feeling of motion, I think the feeling of flowing around, you can't really describe it unless you've felt it.

"But even something as subtle as the feeling of certain ground under your feet - and the sound that makes - is indescribable."

The Sports Trust, which already runs the Three Hills centre in the town, will take responsibility for the day-to-day running of F51.

For Alex, the key to his role is making sure the local skate scene - which has flourished for many years - feels the building is welcoming and accommodating to its needs.

Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits the new F51 multi-storey skate park in Folkestone
Reporter Rhys Griffiths visits the new F51 multi-storey skate park in Folkestone

Part of this will involve embedding other aspects of skate culture into the look and feel of the place, for example through artwork on the walls, much of it created by the very people who will be skating across the three floors of the park.

Guy Hollaway is very keen to ensure his vision for the skate park connects with the wider regeneration of the town and particularly with kids who are growing up in Folkestone.

"We have to focus on investing on young people," he said.

"Then we can create what we call 'generational regeneration'. If we invest in the next generation, then we think that it will come back in spades."

And what an investment. The £17 million spent on F51 has created for Folkestone a unique sporting legacy, and one which will hopefully inspire and engage many generations to come.

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