The Wall of Death: Courage and belief in a Clydeside warehouse over lockdown

The motorcycle riders who took on the Wall of Death had names like Daredevil Alma, Speedy Joe and Fearless Billy Ward.

The Wall of Death team in the old shipyard building down by The Clyde: (left to right) Bradley Mitchell, Dawn Storey, Stephen Skrynka, Alison McWhirter and Gemma Patchett. PIC: Robert Perry.

After one man crashed and died in the stunt arena back in 1931 on the south coast of England, he was described as ‘The Man Who Had Too Much Courage’.

In the mid 20th Century, Wall of Death riders thrilled fairground crowds across the country as they mounted their motorbikes and took them on a gravity-defying journey, gaining height as they circled the inside of a giant wooden cylinder, sometimes criss-crossing other riders and sometimes with their hands in the air.

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Peering over the top were the spectators ,the riders’ dizzy faces coming within touching distance, the racket of the engines and smell of the diesel helping to charge this electric atmosphere.

Volunteer PK in the Wall of Death removing a parachute that was draped over the structure. PIC: Robert Perry.

Now in a warehouse on the edge of the Clyde, Artist Stephen Skrynka and a team of volunteers have built a brand new Wall of Death, the first to be created in Scotland.

There were no drawings, no plans and no money but the wooden superstructure, which measures 16ft high and 29ft across and was built using only hand tools and carpentry, has slotted together in a perfect, purposeful fashion, each piece finding its own place in this remarkable project born out of lockdown.

A team of helpers left furloughed, unemployed or just lost by the pandemic has formed around the project – from a cabinet maker to a panel beater, oncologist, historian, fireman and medical PA - each of them too finding a place in this former shipbuilding yard down by the Clyde."In lockdown, with people unemployed and furloughed and at their wit’s end, building the Wall of Death just became an absolute lifeline. It’s become a beacon of hope,” Skrynka said.

“I never set out for it to be a therapeutic project but I just think the success of it is its inherent simplicity. People just get it - and it’s been absolutely humbling.”

Artist Stephen Skrynka planing the inside the structure. PIC: Robert Perry.

Skrynka has long been obsessed by the Wall of Death and collaborated with theatre director Vicky Featherstone on the production Wall of Death/Way of Life in 2010 which used real-life riders in the pounding production at the SECC.

The artist himself became a “hapless apprentice” at riding the wall during the show, later mastering the stunt in Ireland.

“I crashed about 19 times. The worst thing is that you get dizzy very, very quickly. It was a very slow, painful process,” Skrynka said.

“I proved to myself that I can ride the Wall of Death. I found that totally liberating so the whole purpose now has been to build this structure.

Under construction: The Wall of Death has been made from scaffolding boards and pine decking with around 4,700 working hours put into the project over lockdown.

"I am obsessed with the space itself. I have spent 12 years on and off trying to get rid of this thing but it is in my blood system now.

"The space is very exciting and what can happen in it is very exciting. I have spent so much time with the Wall of Death that I know what a magnet it is.”

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Skrynka has named it The Revelator.

Taking shape: Artist Stephen Skrynka scales the wooden superstructure as it reaches a key point in its construction. Normally, the Wall of Death would be nailed together but his model, the first of its kind to be built in Scotland, has been made using joinery and hand tools.

"It is going to reveal a lot of things that people won’t expect,” he added.

When finished, it is hoped the the Wall of Death will tour towns and villages in Scotland where it will function as a space for performance, theatre, art classes and creative projects - with the traditional Wall of Death performance the climax of its visit.

Playwright Chris Dolan is currently writing a one-man show for actor David Hayman, who will play a faded motorcycle stunt rider in the space where riders will one day scale the wall, which is made from super-sanded scaffolding boards and planks of pine decking, the construction as tight as a drum.

Skrynka started on the project in his shed last March and spent five months “in total isolation” carving timber and hundreds of dove tail joints.

“This lonely project was my way of dealing with the chaos out there,” he said.

“Every Wall of Death is designed to be taken apart and put on the back of the lorry.

Rider Alma Morley in the 1930s when the Wall of Death was at the peak of its popularity at fairgrounds across the country. PIC: Courtesy of Alan Mercer.

"These structures are normally nailed together but I wanted to use carpentry joins to make it beautiful, but also make it strong.

"I guess what I was thinking was ‘I’m going to build a theatre in the round and I’m going to travel around Scotland with it. It is going to be fantastic when were are able to come together again in a circle’.”

The project moved from the shed to the Barclay Curle complex on South Street, former home to the Barclay Shipyard – where a Titan crane still stands – after Skrynka saw a “for rent” sign outside.

Bradley Mitchell, who owns part of a yard and is from a showman’s backgrouns, allowed the project to progress after he let Skrynka use the space for free.

An estimated 4,700 working hours have been put into the project by all those involved.

Skrynka said: “I don’t think this could have happened outwith lockdown. People have gone through so much but have been able to give time.

“If you try and put a price on it, you can’t. You couldn’t commission it, no one would be able to afford it. It’s completely made out of love – but it is strong, it is safe.”

The wood, however, is running out and more timber is required to build the buttressing and viewing platform. One morning, Skrynka found an envelope filled with £500 and a note to buy more wood, to keep building the wall.

“If you start worrying about how you are going to finish it, it would never have started,”Skrynka said.

At the Wall of Death once again, courage and belief are the forces at play.

For more information and to donate to the wood fund, visit @the-revelator-clydebuilt on Instagram.

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An old Wall of Death flyer. Riders were revered as they mounted the Wall of Death and spun inside the giant wooden cylinder. Crowds looked down into the stunt arena from a viewing platform above, with the riders coming into close contact with the audience. PIC: Courtesy of Alan Mercer.
The Wall of Death has been named The Revelator. It will be taken around Scotland and used as an arts and performance space, with a traditional Wall of Death show to top the visit. PIC: Robert Perry.