Castellers of London: rehearsing

Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 3 seconds

Everyone has a story. Building human towers – a 250-year-old Catalan tradition – is thriving just near Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. Interview with founder Marc Pujol and President Anne D’Hermy, by Nicola Baird. 

Castellers of London need 80 people for performances. They practice every Sunday afternoon at St Thomas’ church just near Finsbury Park station. And you are welcome to join! (c) Castellers of London

Red shirts, white trousers, black faixa wrapped around the waist are the uniform of the Castellers of London. But however smart they look, it’s their incredible hobby – making human towers – that sticks in the mind. For the past four years they’ve been rehearsing each Sunday afternoon at St Thomas’ church in Finsbury Park. The atmosphere, just one week before a planned performance at Borough Market, is friendly and hugely inclusive. There’s a pleasant hubbub from the 50 people in the room, then silence when the human towers are under construction, except from Laura, the tower architect talking climbers safely up and down. Every level is given the choice of continuing or finishing, while the highest member, known as the crowner (or enxaneta in Catalan), waves their hand to signal that up has finished, now for the down dismantling.

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Most of the group have red triangular Castellers of London bandanas wound around their wrists for support, tied at the waist to act as a toehold and even worn with aplomb around the neck. Some people have brought food to share, or buy as a fundraiser for the after practice lunch. While the youngest member, just six months, is settled on a playmat enjoying the attention provided by his mum and two of the helmeted climbing children, Yvette, 7, and Karolina, 6. It’s clear the girls enjoy playing with the baby while waiting between their epic climbs up three and four towered people. The oldest member, 71, isn’t here today but the whole mix is just like a village.

Indeed, building human towers is all about getting the village involved, as Marc Pujo, 39,  the founder of the Castellers of London points out. He even compares the tradition to a celidih (or Scottish dance) which can be enjoyed by everyone whatever their age. And he knows what he means as not only is he from Catalonia

, he has also been to Cecil Sharp House in Camden recently.

The Castellers of London are not all from Catalonia, or even Spain. Chris travels from Shropshire regularly for the practice in Finsbury Park. (c) islington faces

Finsbury Park
For 250 years the tradition of Castellers, making a human tower has been unique to Catalonia – the fiercely independent area of Spain that includes Barcelona. Performances and contests are often held on saint’s days and local festas in the region, delighting locals and tourists, which is how several of the Castellers of London first discovered the tradition.  Now Chris, 60, travels from Shropshire every week for the practice in Finsbury Park. Islington Faces finds him outside doing a rotating walk that twists him into his faixa (black cloth sash) with the help of Jav, who lives in Leighton Buzzard. “It’s our basic safety equipment and back support,” explains Chris who was one of the first members of the group, adding “It’s physical, keeping your hands above your head, but it’s something you do together.”

Marc Pujol at the Castellers Sunday practice: “I came to the UK 12 years ago and having made this my home, I personally would hope that Castellers of London, a tradition from Catalonia, can enrich and help out our local community, bringing people together, and showing the benefits of multiculturalism, especially in this day and age of Brexit and immigration issues. (c) islington faces

Founder Marc has been in London for 12 years, mostly living in Haringey. “I work in IT and I like the way that in London there are a lot of social causes for volunteers to join. It’s something I didn’t see back home. I cycle quite a lot around Islington, and one evening I heard a choir. There was a door semi-open so I walked in and saw this place. The Castellers of London needed a place to rehearse so I chatted to the vicar, Stephen. That’s how it started.”

Over the past three years the group has wowed N4 by building a tower at St Thomas’ open day or at their May street parties and performed in Gillespie Park. “We’re building community,” says Marc who has to find 80 people to attend the practices and performances. “It is also an opportunity for people from abroad, who feel new and don’t know anyone, to give back as well.” He’s also impressed by how quickly Londoners have taken human towers to their hearts. “We want locals to join. It makes me proud seeing Mark, who lives in Hackney, explaining to Catalan people how to do this. They’ve all heard of it but not always done it.”

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The Castle Climbing Centre at Green Lanes is one of the Castellers favourite places. (c) islington faces

Places the Castellers love

  • St Thomas Church, St Thomas’ Road, N4 – where we rehearse on Sundays, 2-5pm
  • Gillespie Park – it’s pretty and we’ve performed there.
  • Highbury Fields is nice – we joined a community event there in summer 2015.
  • Cycling around Islington is really nice and Highbury Barn is a pretty village.
  • The Climbing Centre on Green Lanes is a good place and in March we held a Catalan BBQ.

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Who can join?

Anne D’Hermy, President of the Castellers of London: “We now do six levels of human tower. Our goal is to go to seven, that’s how we want London to know us.” (c) islington faces

The first female president of the Castellers of London is Anne D’Hermy, from France, who joined in February last year. Like Marc she’s chosen to work in London. “I’m a landscape architect, and one of my working colleagues, Danny, is part of the group. He explained to me what he was doing at the weekend as they were planning a trip to Paris to do the human towers. Over the next half hour, I asked all the questions because it sounded so cool. Then on the Sunday I was there. The moment I saw the tower and a child go up I was amazed and wanted to be part of it.”

“The strength of this group is you don’t have come from a particular place, be that Spain or Catalan,” adds Anne. “Many are from Catalonia or Spain because they know the tradition but in the colla (group) we have 10-11 different nationalities; we speak English and all of us like to share this tradition with the rest of the world,” she says.

The Castellers of London are not all from Catalan, or even Spain. Chris travels from Shropshire every week for the practice in Finsbury Park. (c) islington faces

There are a few Islingtonians in the group. Kirsten, 29, has a six year old daughter and a two-year-old. “I went to a performance at Gillespie Park and my daughter, then five, joined a workshop. I was amazed when I saw people climbing on top of each other, and wondered how do they do it? Before I knew it, I’d got a faixa around my waist! I felt I was part of a community! As a single mum I do feel isolated, but with the Castellers, it’s not just human towers, there are all sorts of other things. People bring lunch (eaten on Sundays at 3.30pm) and we are going to Sussex soon.”

Right now, the Castellers of London are looking to expand their group, so that they can build higher towers – 10 is the Catalan record. “You can join whatever your shape or height. There’s always a position,” explains Anne who is quite short, so often stands under the armpit of people at the base of the tower. It’s clear this is not a short-straw position, she seems perfectly happy to help support the tower.

At the base there is quite a crowd, with arms outstretched to help support and catch.

But the top of the tower is always one or two children (the top most child is the crowner). Karolina, just six, seems fearless in action, and also extremely relaxed when waiting for her turn. She finds it funny that, “the first time I did this, the whole tower fell down. But I was caught. And then the second and third tower were good. At school people think this is the circus, but it’s not acrobatics. It’s climbing.”

“Everyone’s looking for something to do, it’s an important feeling,” says Anne who has enviable climber’s muscles on her arms and no doubt a super-strong core from these workouts. “Here you don’t have to climb, when we perform we try to be 80 people so not so many will be climbing. Many will be round the base. It’s a way to discover community feeling and work as a team. People love it, and then say, ‘but you’re crazy!’ It is a little crazy. But if we could get a pillar of eight, we’d be the test team ever.”

After an hour of warm up and practice – creating towers facing the wall and then in the centre of St Thomas’ room of 3, 3, 2, 1 and 4, 4,2, 1 as well as 1,1,1,1 a group of musicians with gralla (like a flute) turn up. Truly a wonderful rehearsal to witness. Do go along and have a go yourself.

  • More info at http://castellersoflondon.org.uk
  • Rehearsals (drop in to join in or send an email to info@castellers ) are on Sunday from 2-5pm at St Thomas’ Church, St Thomas’ Road, N4.
  • Photos on Flickr 
  • Next performance is scheduled at Gillespie Park on Sunday 13 May (but check the Castellers website to confirm date and also timings). On Sundays there is also a cafe open at Gillespie Park, from approx 12 noon-3pm.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. Thanks to Dorothy and Andrew for being just two of the people who suggested speaking to the Castellers of London.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola