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Ski slopes, protests and the EU: The ups and downs of Holloway’s Sobell Leisure Centre

PUBLISHED: 15:42 22 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:29 22 November 2017

Banner-waving demonstrators greet the Duke of Edinburgh as he arrives to open the new £2m Michael Sobell Sports Centre in Hornsey Road, Islington. Picture: PA Archive

Banner-waving demonstrators greet the Duke of Edinburgh as he arrives to open the new £2m Michael Sobell Sports Centre in Hornsey Road, Islington. Picture: PA Archive

PA Archive/PA Images

Today, it’s the pricey trampoline park that has the Sobell in the headlines. Four (and a bit) decades ago, it opened amid similar protests about how much it would cost. In between, it played a crucial role in Britain’s decision to join and then leave the EEC and the EU. The Gazette chats to 1970s Sobell manager Hywel Griffiths.

Veteran MP and industry secretary Tony Benn pictured at the Michael Sobell Sports Centre during Labour's one-day special conference on the Common Market, 1975. Picture: PA Archive Veteran MP and industry secretary Tony Benn pictured at the Michael Sobell Sports Centre during Labour's one-day special conference on the Common Market, 1975. Picture: PA Archive

November 21, 1973. The Duke of Edinburgh was in town to open the brand new Michael Sobell Leisure Centre in Hornsey Road.

But amid the fanfare that greeted him as he bounded into the £2.25million complex were parents who were nonplussed at the sight of a royal, and more concerned with the price of the new activities on offer.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because a similar row is brewing now.

This time it’s over the cost to use the new #BetterExtreme trampoline park, but back then it was regarding the new ice rink, sauna, gym, squash courts and billiard rooms.

Jeremy Corbyn arrives at the Sobell Leisure Centre as counting gets under way at this year's General Election. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire Jeremy Corbyn arrives at the Sobell Leisure Centre as counting gets under way at this year's General Election. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The centre – the first inner-city, purpose built sports complex in Britain – was a gift to the people of Islington from philanthropist Sir Michael Sobell, who grew up in nearby Finsbury.

He plunged £1.1m into the centre, with the rest being met by Islington Council and the Variety Club of Great Britain.

The sports hall – which has now been cut in half – was the largest in Europe at the time, and the Sobell also boasted the UK’s first indoor golf simulator.

But none of that went down too well with some of the locals. The centre was condemned for “serving the white-skirted badminton ladies of Highgate and Hampstead” at the expense of local people. Picket signs read: “Can our kids afford to use Sobell?” on the day of the opening.

Bryan Stanley (left, striped tie), union leader, and Michael Foot (spectacles, right), employment secretary, in the audience at the Labour Party's one-day special conference on the Common Market in the Michael Sobell Sports Centre in 1975. Picture: PA Archive Bryan Stanley (left, striped tie), union leader, and Michael Foot (spectacles, right), employment secretary, in the audience at the Labour Party's one-day special conference on the Common Market in the Michael Sobell Sports Centre in 1975. Picture: PA Archive

And Hywel Griffiths, who was on the management team at the time, said it was something he and his colleagues were very aware of.

“We tried to engage the local community as much as we could,” he told the Gazette from his home in West Sussex. “We ran school holiday programmes and a Sunday morning family programme that didn’t work.”

It didn’t work, Hywel said, because “it soon became apparent that families in that part of Islington generally spent their Sunday mornings either recovering from Saturday night, at church or preparing for family Sunday lunch”.

He continued: “You need to keep people coming through the doors but you don’t want to alienate the people around you.”

The count at the Sobell Leisure Centre in Finsbury Park. Picture: Sam Gelder The count at the Sobell Leisure Centre in Finsbury Park. Picture: Sam Gelder

As a fresh-faced 23-year-old, Hywel took the job straight out of university. He heard about it because the director was David Hemery, a former Olympic 400m hurdles champion who had been on TV show Superstars.

As the centre was one of the first in London, and in the first 20 or so in the country, Hywel and his colleagues had to think on their feet.

“It was a formative experience,” he said. “It was very early days in leisure management and not much was known about how the process should work. To some extent it felt like we were making it up as we went along.”

For example, the team was approached about installing an indoor ski slope device. “It was a very little thing,” Hywel recalled. “It was put in the corner of the practice hall [now the ground floor gym]. There was a conveyor belt that went round and round and you stood on the end and ski’d onto it. If you were a good skier you’d be alright but if you weren’t you’d go shooting out the back. It was not the most successful product. You don’t see many these days.”

Partly through David Hemery’s contacts, the centre was also used for large-scale international sporting events, including judo, gymnastics, hockey and a world boxing championship fight featuring John Conteh.

One evening, the centre welcomed the likes of Denis Law, George Best, Frank Worthington and Eusebio for a TV pilot in which ex-footballers compete in a six-a-side tournament. But the format didn’t quite work and it was never picked up.

The centre is also home to Islington’s election counts, be it local or the General Election. But its most famous political moment perhaps came in 1975 – when the Labour Party held its Special Conference on the Common Market.

Some 1,500 members debated the party’s position on whether Britain should join the EEC. Michael Foot argued passionately against, while Prime Minister Harold Wilson spoke in favour.

Ironically, 41 years later the centre was the place where many Labour members learnt that, despite the borough voting overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, the country thought otherwise.

Hywel has contributed to the Sports Leisure Legacy Project. Find out more here.

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