PUBLISHED: 12:28 19 March 2009 | UPDATED: 16:21 25 August 2010
With skateboarding becoming as passé as Green Day, teenagers are discovering a more spiritual way to spend their time. Jules Cooper spent one afternoon discovering the art' of Parkour...
NEXT time you wind your way through the streets or estate on a sunny afternoon, look out for youths flinging themselves from walls with the ease of the nimblest lemurs.
Parkour, the pastime of negotiating walls, stairs, roofs and poles with the most graceful movement you can muster, has become the perfect pastime for urbanite youths.
Despite its lofty-sounding meaning being 'the art of movement', Parkour lies somewhere in between urban tree-climbing, gymnastics, and martial arts.
Joining a group of teenagers from the South East last Saturday, I looked on nervously as they jumped distances of as much as four metres around an estate in Abbey Road, Kilburn.
"It opens up your mind to the possibilities of an urban landscape," explained Josh Ott, 17, of Kingsmead Close, Sidcup.
"It's exciting, and it's something no-one else does and you can do it wherever and whenever you want, unlike a sport like football."
So there you have it, Parkour is free, physical excitement, and apparently it's philosophical.
In the last few years Parkour and its more 'street' off-shoot, Free Running, have become fashionable in line with the growth of the Banksy inspired street art movement.
Free Running, which adds flourishes to movements, has featured in mainstream films including Daniel Craig's opening roof-top sequence in Casino Royal.
Towering over me from a staircase, these young Parkour enthusiasts are keen to play down this trendy association.
"We try and stay away from big drops altogether," said Laurie Woodford, 16, from Lee.
"Parkour is not as glamorous as it looks in the films. It is portrayed as this dangerous thing that stuntmen learn, when really it's something you can do everyday."
When it comes to reputation, the friends imagine themselves performing an entirely new balancing act, wobbling between being too cool and too bad.
While keen to play down the popularity of Parkour, Laurie and his friends are also wary of being portrayed as anti-social hoodlums - a danger to themselves and civilised society as we know it.
"People think of walls as something built to separate things, to stop you and make you walk around. We don't see them like that and people find that unsettling," said Josh.
"We do try and respect people's property and plants."
At one point during my visit the boys actually decide to leave a particularly good area for jumping when they realise they are on private property, and I like to believe they would have been as well behaved even without me there.
Max Runham, 17, of Plantation Road, Hextable, was particularly keen to point out that the idea of Parkour leading to broken limbs was a myth.
He said: "People - usually parents - seem to think that what we are doing is dangerous. But we always make sure we have a back up option if a jump doesn't work out."
In order to get into Parkour, I'm told there are three basic moves to master. The roll, in case you miss your jump, the side vault, and the basic jump.
"To get a good jump, you need to start standing up straight," said Max.
"As you jump, keep your knees up and your arms fully up. As you extend, use your explosive power to send you up and forwards.
"When you fly though he air bring your legs up, then to finish bring your feet up and your arms forward."
Easy. In fact, Max, who manages to vault his way around as well as his peers despite having been born with one arm, said Parkour was something anyone can have a stab at.
He said: "I would rather think about myself as the same as everyone else. I try not to think of it as a disadvantage.
"I have heard that I am an inspiration to other people, which is a bit weird but I try not to think about it.
"Nothing should be a barrier to people with a disability. You should try and do what you want to the best of your ability."
The group have a handful of regular spots around London, favouring the aesthetically frowned upon concrete jungles like Elephant and Castle, Southbank, Vauxhall and Latimer Road.
Surprisingly Thamesmead doesn't feature in their list of concrete playgrounds.
"It's a bit rough," explains Max, highlighting the absurdity of a situation where he and his friends are labelled as cop-dodging, antisocial hoodlums.
However, they do have a couple of practice spots in the apparently safer areas of Bexleyheath and Sidcup.
"The walls outside Sidcup station are a really nice distance apart for jumps and we also go outside Plastic Red," said Max.
"There must be thousands of unexplored spots around London just waiting to be discovered."
PICTURES BY RITA PLATTS
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