Parkour takes off in Suffolk

VIDEO FORGET fighting your way through the crowds by walking on packed pavements. What if you could take the high road across Ipswich - leaping between buildings, jumping over rooftops, letting nothing get in your way? Features editor TRACEY SPARLING tracked down freerunners in Ipswich.

By Tracey Sparling

FORGET fighting your way through the crowds by walking on packed pavements. What if you could take the high road across Ipswich - leaping between buildings, jumping over rooftops, letting nothing get in your way? Features editor TRACEY SPARLING tracked down freerunners in Ipswich.

YOU may have watched the opening sequence of Casino Royale, admired Michelle Yeoh's actics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, seen adverts for everything from the BBC and Landrover to the Peak District - and found yourself wondering whether the antics were more computer wizardry than reality.

Today two brothers and their friends in Suffolk are showing how it's possible to treat manmade structures as an obstacle course.

It's 7pm, under a darkening grey sky and it's raining a steady drizzle, making the terrain - already greasy with wax from skateboards - precariously slippery.

Yet this group of young people perform stomach-churning stunts, as they leap from rooftops, somersaulting, vaulting and tumbling, in thrilling bursts of action.

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Armed with just the grip of his trainers, strong fingers, and willpower, Sam Thomas, 20, leads the way. He and his brother Raph, and friends 'Mash' - real name Mark Mason and Mark Coole from Stowmarket, test their skills outside the New Wolsey and Spiral Car Park.

Drivers entering the car park stop to watch, as Raph, 17, hangs around - supporting his body weight by just his hands as he dangles off the roof. Then he plummets towards the road, crouching to his heels to absorb the impact of the landing. Mark, 19, flings himself from one subway wall to the other without touching the pavement, and scales the brickwork in seconds.

The skin on their hands is soon ripped and bleeding, grazed on the concrete arena which has become their playground - but they don't want to stop.

Parkour, however, is not just about leaping off things. It encourages you to channel your energies into being more focused and graceful. Everything is viewed as an obstacle that can be used to create movement. Hug the obstacles, climb them, get over them, jump them, let your imagination flow... you're now doing parkour.

The art is described as the 'efficient movement over any given area' and freerunning is an urban variation, using the same movements but with the emphasis on aesthetics, fun and creativity. Parkour was started by Frenchmen David Belle (who starred in the BBC ad) and Sebastien Foucan and since its creation, it has gone global.

Sam and Raph had seen 'PK' as they call it, being performed by 'traceurs' in France - they lived in Rouen until five years ago and are half French. But it was a video of the French team in action which first inspired Sam's interest, then the renowned Channel 4 documentary Jump London in 2003 convinced him to give it a go. The programme later spawned a sequel, Jump Britain , in 2005 .

Sam has taught himself the moves, and today runs a practice group at Stowupland High School's gym every Saturday afternoon. Their team Urban Ateles -which translates as Urban Spider Monkeys - has been going since February, and most of the ten or so members have a background in martial arts.

Sam's really keen to open up the group of ten or so to more beginners. “Saturday afternoon is the flippy time of the week,” he laughed, “and we like to go around town to put PK into action most evenings. It's something to do, to get away from everything.”

The gang asserts that labels and image are not important to freerunners, and even their trainers are old and battered. Mash said: “You just get dirty, so there's no image to worry about. We got covered in tar from a rooftop the other day. It's quite hard work and you work up a sweat too, especially in the gym for three hours. We're having fun doing what we want to do.”

Mash got into Parkour by ditch-jumping with a friend, in the countryside around his home village of Bacton, describing it as a new type of 'rural parkour' with a laugh. They used to challenge each other to leap the width of ditches, as they yawned wider and wider.

While Parkour celebrates the individual's journey toward freedom and overcoming fear, it remains largely a group activity. Parkour crews hit the town together and participate in what they call "jams" or "sessions," which consist of different drills or games like follow the leader, where each traceur does the same move as the one before.

Raph, who runs a Parkour group in Exmouth, Devon where he now lives, and cites Plymouth city centre as a traceur's heaven - added: “It doesn't cost money, just the cost of Lucozade and Skittles to keep us going!

“There's a sense of community as well. You see other 'cultures' like skaters, Goths and chavs and traceurs are a group too. I've never met a nasty or bitchy traceur.”

Sam's girlfriend, dance teacher Francesca Winters, 21, has just started to learn, and said girls can do it too.

She said: “People look at the TV and are amazed when they see freerunning. I've heard people say 'that's not real' but it really is.

“I've only been doing it a few weeks and I can't run up walls yet like they can, because you need such arm and hand strength, but I'm practising. The male body is naturally more springy to manage the jumps.”

She hated PE lessons at school, even dance sessions, because they were so structured and admits she used to skive off. But she said: “I like the freedom in dance and Parkour, and both involve improvisation. You also find yourself seeing the environment differently, and saying 'Oh my God look at that lovely wall! - which sounds very odd to people who don't know Parkour!”

As Urban Ateles practice outside the New Wolsey, the traceurs don't land in the flowerbeds and they don't break anything.

They have not encountered any objections from the authorities to date, and Mash said: “We are just using the area like a playground, and if we want to use the area then we're not going to damage it.

“It's just a chance to get away from everything. You have to concentrate to do free running and if there's something you're worried about, you go do some running about, jump over some stuff and the exercise makes you feel better.”


Weblink: or e-mail Sam at

Parkour workshops took place in Trafalgar Square, London this month as part of a National Playday held by Urban Freeflow - the world's largest Parkour/Freerun organisation.

The UF team provided stunt services for the 007 - Casino Royale movie, and starred in the Jump Britain.

Mayor Ken Livingstone, said: "Play and outdoor activity are widely recognised as important to children's physical and mental well-being, and their educational and social development. Yet children and young people say they experience many barriers to play and their enjoyment of public spaces, whilst fears about safety and traffic are major concerns for adults as well as children. There should be high quality provision for play in every neighbourhood."

Parkour can be a dangerous activity, especially if you don't know the right techniques. Back in 2005, 14-year-old Alex Leatherbarrow fell to his death after trying to leap a six-foot gap between two buildings in Oxfordshire. Sam learned his own lesson when he seriously injured his knee, by rushing a jump and landing wrongly. He spent months working out just his arms and the rest of his body, while his leg recovered. He said: “It can be dangerous if you are over confident or over enthusiastic which some young people tend to be, so it makes sense to learn it in the gym first. One of our team is 14 and he's very good, but over enthusiastic, so we haven't been out on the street with him yet. Another is 12 and he's very hyper, he doesn't listen to your warnings. ”We want people to exercise and have fun - especially when you hear so much about the problems of child obesity - and learn the right way rather than hurt themselves.” Sam did a first aid course, and is studying anatomy for YMCA qualification to learn how to avoid injuries - but there's no official qualification to teach Parkour. Mash, 17, added: “We practise the bigger moves like flips in the gym, with crash mats so it doesn't hurt as much if we get it wrong.” Speed Vault This move allows traceurs to launch over a wall without compromising speed. As the traceur approaches the wall, he lays one hand down and leans sideways as he jumps. His hand briefly touches the wall to keep himself stable, he completes the jump and continues running without any break in momentum.


When the traceur lands a jump, he bends his knees to absorb the impact. He uses the forward momentum to go into a roll over his shoulder, to transfer the shock of the landing. He places his hands on one side of his head to ensure minimal impact between his shoulder and the ground, and protect his head. He lands, rolls and continues moving so that he is back on in his feet and in a running position, in one fluid movement.

Kong Vault

The traceur jumps with a good amount of space between him and the wall, and stretches toward it, planting his hands. As his legs catch up with the rest of his body, he uses his arms to catapult him forward. Before landing, the traceur makes sure his posture is correct and spots where he'll finish the move.