Just south of Romford and born out of the skating explosion of the late 1970s, Rom is a hidden haven of flowing bowls and moguls tucked behind a suburban A-road. Opened as a commercial venture in 1978, long before council-funded skateparks were widespread, the venue was designed by Adrian Rolt of G-Force, the country’s leading skatepark designers at the time.
A “shotcrete” skatepark (pressurised concrete sprayed over steel mesh), Rom was built for the freestyle form of skating popularised by leading lights like Rodney Mullen. Drawing heavily from skateboarding’s birthplace: the Essex park’s “pool” was finished with a blue mosaic lip, a nod to the back yards in southern California. Rom has been a draw for many legendary American skaters including Mullen, Tony Hawk and Lance Mountain.
By the early 1980s the initial skate craze had waned, but a new BMX movement also found a home at the park and interest in Rom would eventually grow to a cult following of loyal and often local fans. In 2014 Rom became Europe’s first listed skatepark, with Historic England awarding the site Grade-II status. The park remains open to this day.
Tucked below the city’s observatory and a stone’s throw from Brunel’s famous suspension bridge, this 30-foot natural rock slide has been a rite of passage for generations of Bristolians. Known locally as either the “slidey rock” or “slider”, this open face of rock on Clifton Downs has been polished glassy-smooth by successive waves of Bristol bums for at least a century.
Despite the risk of torn clothing and a bruised coccyx, the rock slide is a joyfully natural play feature and draws local kids and the city’s student population to its steep face, offering sliders in the words of leading play advocate Tim Gill, a chance to “test their abilities and their nerve”.
In 1929, Salford was the most densely populated area in the country outside London and had little in the way of parks and green space. At the dawn of the motor age, the city was witnessing an alarming rise in child deaths from road accidents. It fell to the city’s chief constable major Cedric Godfrey to introduce a radical solution to improve life for the city’s children: Britain’s first play streets.
Godfrey had seen the impact of play streets on children in New York, and was determined to bring them to the north of England. Starting in the Adelphi district, 48 streets were closed to traffic between 8am and sunset, with Cleminson Street, a few yards from the River Irwell, among the first.
Street signs announced that roads were “closed to mechanically propelled vehicles and pedal cycles” and within six years Salford would boast 200 similar streets. The effect on road safety was immediate and chalk drawings soon covered cobbled streets, with gable ends becoming makeshift goals.
At the National Safety Congress in 1931, newspapers championed the project for dramatically reducing accidents. Play streets numbers grew throughout the 1950s, but by the mid-80s the concept had been all but forgotten. Many of the first play streets have been demolished, but a resurgence in our play heritage over the past two decades has seen many cities, including Salford, reinstate these humane solutions almost a century later.
In the heart of Glasgow’s Gorbals, the high-rise poster child of the 1960s, the Venny was a unique adventure playground of fire, rope ladders and tyre swings. Led by folk singer and local school teacher Matt McGinn, the Venny was a haven for children who were left cold by a landscape of concrete and “no ballgames”.
Like other adventure playgrounds, the Venny encouraged risk-taking, allowing children to define their own forms of play. Describing his role as playground leader, McGinn once said: “My job here is not to tell the kids to do this or do that, but to be there if they want help. Another important, if unofficial job, is to give them lights for their fags.”
With talk like this and with the added impetus of a snap inspection in 1966, the council moved swiftly to remove the playground’s £1,000 annual grant. Incensed by the imminent closure of their playground, insurrection followed. In Augustus 1967, 500 Gorbals kids marched with banners and placards on the City Chambers demanding the playground remain open.
Faced with such fierce opposition, the bureaucrats in George Square had little option but to give in to the children’s demands. The city corporation not only reversed the cut, but increased the funding for the Venny, much to the pleasure of the mischief-prone McGinn. The Venny has gone but its spirit lives on in Glasgow’s Baltic Street, where the Turner prize-winning art and architecture collective Assemble has created another oasis for local children.
Nestled between a primary school and the green verges of suburbia, the Land is a refreshingly recent addition to Britain’s play landscape. On the fringe of Plas Madoc a 1950s housing estate in north Wales, this playground is part of a wave of renewed interest in adventure play. Dedicated to risk and mess, the Land focuses on “free play”, allowing children to independently create and define their own activities – a recipe which usually involves firepits, digging, stray hammers and dens.
Free to use and catering to children aged five to 16, the wooded one-acre site forms part of a series of play opportunities in the wider Wrexham area. Run by Avow, the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham, The Land was spearheaded by playground manager Claire Griffiths. Griffiths worked to staff the scrubland, which was already occupied by local children, and create a permanent and protected play space.
The Land bears a striking resemblance to the original “junk playgrounds” of the 1950s brought to Britain by landscape architect Lady Allen of Hurtwood, and is a keen adherent of Allen’s mantra: “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit”.