'The girls are taking over'

The young women finding solace and community at Manchester's skate parks

By Dani Cole

Manchester is a playground for those on wheels. In the city centre, delivery riders glide effortlessly across the pavement and BMX riders weave in between pedestrians. The signs from the council prohibiting rollerblading, skateboarding and cycling  —  and warn of a £500 fine — are resolutely ignored.

Hang around St Peter’s Square and there will always be a small group of skaters outside Central Library, popping ollies off the front steps or huddled around on bikes with their boards strapped to their backs.

“If you don’t wish to skate you can just vibe,” wrote Gez Curran on Manchester’s skating scene. “Even if it’s dossing about on a crippled little ledge or a kicker, there’s always something just waiting to be plucked out the ether and magic just waiting to manifest.”

Outside of the city centre, there are skateparks dotted around Platt Fields, Hulme Park, Chorlton Park and many other spots.

At Seymour Park in Stretford, Charlotte, 28, and Charly, 30, are two of the hardy skaters who have ventured out today. Behind the skatepark, parents stamp the ground in an attempt to keep warm as their children kick a football across rain-softened grass.

The sky is overcast, the temperature a cool zero degrees but with the windchill it feels like minus four. Both Charlotte and Charly are wrapped up well, wearing thick beanies and gloves to keep the bone-aching cold at bay. On a typical weekend day, they’ll spend two or three hours outside.

The two women became friends through Projekts, a skatepark tucked under the Mancunian Way, a few hundred yards from Piccadilly Station. Projekts also offers coaching, and before lockdown forced the closure of sports facilities, it ran women and girls’ sessions every Thursday.

“Loads of other girls started skating during lockdown,” Charlotte says. There’s usually a good mix of people out — teenagers, parents, and little girls who are “just crazy good already.” They’re known as the Kamikaze Kids, because they bomb around so fast.

Charlotte took up skateboarding last June. It had never really occurred to her as a hobby, but one day she watched ‘Betty’, an HBO series about a group of female skateboarders in New York. ‘Betty’ was 80s slang for a ‘pretty young woman’, but the show reclaims the term.

The skate girls in ‘Betty’ are confident, carving out their niche in a male-dominated subculture. “I want to stop fighting the patriarchy and start helping the matriarchy,” one character proclaims.

“That made it look so fun and it looked like such a nice community,” Charlotte explains. With little else to do activity-wise, she bought a “really cheap” board and found she enjoyed it.

Charly, who works as an NHS nurse in Stockport, started skateboarding as a way to focus her mind on something other than work. She also started learning to skate last summer. The weather was beautiful in the evenings after her shifts ended, and she wanted to get outside.

She works with children who have learning disabilities, and not being able to go to school and the disruption of schedules during the pandemic has been really difficult for many of them. Charly’s workload tripled, and there were also staff shortages. “I’m so glad I got into skating because I feel like that saved me a bit,” she says. “I got so stressed and quite depressed.”

Skateboarding had been a part of Charly’s life before she decided to give it a go for herself — her boyfriend had been skating for about 15 years, so she was familiar with the scene. “I had the interest but never had the courage to do it,” she says. She remembers that whenever she would go to the park with him, everyone was “really friendly”.

Lockdown finally gave her the push to give skating a go. She’s customised her board with grip tape — its design is a Kawaii-style white cat against a pastel rainbow. She says she’s just learned how to do a rock fakie, a trick on a ramp that combines two moves, a rock ‘n’ roll and a fakie. She finds rock fakies scarier than dropping in “because you’re coming in backwards.”

Starting out can feel intimidating, but not because most of the other skaters at the parks are guys, Charlotte says. “If you’re a beginner and everyone around you is amazing, you don’t want to show yourself up in front of other people.”

In September, having improved enough to warrant a better board, Charlotte spent £150 on an upgrade. “The difference is crazy,” she says. “It’s like going from a shitty Volkswagen to a Ferrari.”

A few miles west, there’s a good crowd out at Lostock Park, including 13-year-old Molly and her dad David. They’re from Preston, but regularly travel to Manchester because the skate scene is so good here.

Pre-pandemic, Molly would skate up to five times a week at Projekts or Graystone, an action sports centre in Salford. “We’ve become adopted Mancs,” David says. She used to street dance but got “tired of it.” “It was a bit bitchy,” David chips in. “It was ultra-competitive, not nice.”

Sometimes when Molly tells people she skateboards, the reaction is: “Oh, girls can stick to their dancing.” She pulls a face at this. “Girls can do anything,” she says. She remembers looking at skateboarding videos on YouTube and thought it looked fun. Now she’s so good that thousands of people follow her on Instagram.

Molly is the only girl skating at Lostock today, but David thinks that the younger generation is less male-orientated. “The girl’s skate scene in Manchester has gone ‘boom’”, he says. “The girls are taking over.” Some of this positive change can perhaps be attributed to Sky Brown, the 12-year old representing Great Britain at the Olympics.

David bought her a board and they went down to their local park together. He recalls the moment when Molly looked at him and asked him what she was meant to do. David didn’t know — but since Molly was set on learning how to skate, he found her lessons at Projekts. She first hopped on a board in 2019 and hasn’t got off one since.

When coaches told David that Molly had the perfect attitude for skating — it was her fearlessness — he asked them whether she was “fearless or brainless?” Molly laughs at this. “I think both, to be honest!”

“There’s nothing you wouldn’t try, is there?” he smiles at her. This is not an exaggeration — there is a heart-stopping video on Instagram of Molly plummeting down a high ski ramp on her board at Graystone. She hurtles upwards into empty air before landing safely in a sponge pit. “None of the lads would do that,” David says proudly.

But along with the thrills of skateboarding, there are also risks. About a year ago, Molly suffered an injury to her groin. She was coming off a spine — a type of ramp — and her board “went one way and my leg went the other.” She was in crutches for a while after that. Then in December, she injured her foot and had to wear a boot.

“You can get hurt in any sport,” she points out. “But if I fall, I’d rather get back up and try again.” Molly wears a helmet and protective padding on her knees. During today’s session, she comes off the board on a few occasions, but is soon on her feet and cruising around the sides of the bowl and getting air over the ramps.

If anything were to happen if David wasn’t there, he knows that other skaters would quickly step in to help. “The lads are so supportive,” he says. “You don’t get that everywhere I think, but in Manchester, we’ve found that everyone’s been so good.”

Molly goes to school in Chorley, but it’s “not her favourite”. She would rather be daydreaming about skateboarding. She says that the school favours team-based sports and nobody takes an interest in what she does. “I don’t really talk about my skating stuff,” she says. “It’s all about football, rugby and basketball.”

Molly says that there aren’t many people in her school who are ‘different’. All the girls wear the same clothes and wear makeup. Molly prefers baggy T-shirts and sporting her beanie — and of course, she loves skating. “I’m proud she’s different,” David says. “It’s why we love Manchester,” he adds. “Everyone’s so accepting.”

Does David ever get overprotective of Molly? “The social media side,” he says. “I monitor her Instagram because she’s got four and a half thousand followers.” Molly and her dad are both logged into the account and he keeps an eye on the messages.

Instagram has brought opportunities for Molly — she’s been cast as an extra in the upcoming Netflix series ‘Stay Close’ starring James Nesbitt and Eddie Izzard. Filming took place this week.

She has her sights on the Skateboard England National Championships. “My biggest dream is to get into the Olympics”, she says. “I want to set my mind to it. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

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