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SURF UK (Coast Magazine March 2008)
‘Scarborough 40 miles’ says the road sign on the A64. The sun beams out of a clear blue August sky and a warm southwest breeze floats through the window as I pull over for a break. My phone rings. It’s Paul ‘The Gill’ Gill, one of Britain’s top surf forecasters.
“There’s a huge swell hitting the reefs to the north of Scarborough, Alf – head up there!” What The Gill says goes, so that’s where I drive to find the kind of waves you see in surf movies – big and powerful and being ripped apart by a coterie of England’s top wave riders.
This is just one stop on my circumnavigation of the UK coastline to update my 1990 guide book ‘Surf UK’, and it occurs to me that none of this would (or could) have happened eighteen years ago when mobile phones and internet surf reports were not available.
Unlike my original trip – 5,000 miles over ten weeks in a Fiat Uno – this time I’m travelling in bite-sized chunks and in rather more style in my American-made ‘demountable’ camper on the back of my pick-up truck. My companion is Finn, a border collie pup who fortunately enjoys being in the sea as much as I do, and I meet friends old all around the coast who I’ve surfed with since the early 80s.
First stop is easy – I set off in June for Freshwater West in Pembrokeshire, which is close to my home near St. David’s, from where it’s a meandering route down to the West Country and then, over the course of the next three months, I flit back and forth between Pembrokeshire and coastlines as diverse as Norfolk and Northumberland.
I find that the UK surf scene has changed enormously since 1990, with the sport now becoming mainstream and the standard of wave riding reaching new heights every year. That’s good in that it’s given us better gear and better access to the surf; but bad in that many breaks are crowded whenever there’s a good swell, often with people who are into the sport purely for the image.
But back to my August journey to the North Sea coast…
In 1990 hardly anyone knew that Yorkshire has some of the finest reef breaks [waves breaking over rocky offshore reefs] in Britain, and very few people surfed here. Neither would the region’s few local surfers have been assisted in their search for waves by mobile phones, Internet surf reports and webcams as I was on last summer’s visit.
These innovations provoke regular debates on surf beaches around the UK, because this instant access to information along with increasing numbers of surfers means you rarely get the waves to yourself now as you may have a couple of decades ago.
Unless, that is, you put aside books like Surf UK and explore a bit. For as Nick Noble of Saltburn Surf Shop tells me, “One of the main attractions of this area is that there are so many uncrowded breaks still to be found”. He also enthuses about how friendly his local surf scene is. A further attraction for me is the spectacular coastline of this region – where else but Northumberland could you surf crystal clear waves in the shadow of a massive Norman castle whilst being scrutinised by inquisitive seals? (I’m talking of Bamburgh in case you weren’t sure…).
From ‘oop north’ I travelled on to the ‘real’ north, Scotland…
In 1990 Scotland’s north coast was frontier country if you were a surfer – I met about four other wave riders whilst there and in many places I surfed alone. Nowadays, despite cold water and frequently inclement weather, the country plays host to international surf contests and surfers from all over the world are drawn to its world class waves.
But out in the distant Hebrides I still experience the camaraderie that was an integral part of my journey in 1990. Surfers are so thin on the ground that everyone I encounter soon engages me in conversation about the waves, and those who choose to surf here are invariably colourful characters with a love of adventure – people like ‘Suds’, the owner of Wild Diamond Surf School on Tiree, who knows full well about the attractions of Scottish waves.
“Tiree has amazing water quality – you can see the white sands below you, the water is blue and there’s no pollution; it holds the UK sunshine record; the sea enjoys Gulf Stream warmth; and we have consistent surf – its rarely flat even in summer “.
What more could a surfer want…? Well, they could perhaps want for slightly warmer waves, which I’d found a couple of months earlier in…
The south has gone surf mad – everyone wants to be a surfer these days. Unfortunately (and strange as it may sound to non-surfers) there isn’t enough room in the water for them all.
At popular breaks like Croyde and Fistral I can’t fail to notice that frayed tempers are almost a standard feature of riding summer swells at the UK’s best established surf beaches. It’s not good and it’s not what surfing is supposed to be about. Of course, books like Surf UK don’t help…yes, the perennial conundrum of the travel writer – tell everyone how good a place is and ruin it in so doing.
But despite the crowds it can still be fun, as former European longboarding champion Sam Bleakley of Sennen in Cornwall’s far south west points out to me. “The surf scene here is a pleasure to be around. I travel regularly as a professional surfer but I always love returning to my home at Sennen to surf with friends in familiar and beautiful surroundings”.
Sam’s mellow approach is surely the way to deal with the crowds in Cornwall and Devon – chill out and sooner or later that memorable surf session will come your way.
My journey came to a close as I headed home on the long road to…
I finish my travels at my home break of Whitesands in Pembrokeshire, which almost thirty years after first surfing here still remains one of my favourite surf spots. Not because of the clear green water and the lovely backdrop of craggy coastline and distant blue offshore islands; and certainly not for its waves, which invariably promise more than they deliver.
No, it’s because this is the place where I’ve surfed with friends since my first days of riding waves, a place that holds a shedful of happy memories and somewhere that once in a while repays your commitment to it with some great waves, often when you least expect them.
Which is a bit like British surfing in general. As former British champion and pro surfer Gabe Davies once told me over a beer in the Farmer’s Arms in St. David’s, “I’ve travelled around the world for months surfing then come home and scored the best waves of all at some place like North Yorkshire – surfing in Britain really is that special and unpredictable if you’re prepared to show some commitment”.
The fully revised third edition of Alf Alderson’s book Surf UK is published this spring by John Wiley (www.johnwiley.com).
ALF’S FAVOURITE UK SURF BREAKS
1. Thurso East – one of Europe’s premier reef breaks, last time I was there the waves were scary big – 12-15 ft faces – but inspirational.
2. Sennen Cove – when the sun is shining the white sand and jade waters of Sennen look almost Caribbean – and it has very consistent surf too.
3. Freshwater West – the best waves in Wales and not far from home – I don’t surf here half as much as I should.
4. Saltburn – the first place I ever surfed, it was fun and friendly then and it’s the same today.
5. Tiree – dazzling waves and beaches and the amiable local surfers don’t even number enough to make a football team so you never need worry about crowded conditions.
GETTING INTO IT – ALF’S TOP FIVE TIPS
1. Get lessons – go to the British Surfing Association website (www.britsurf.co.uk) for a list of accredited centres
2. Don’t buy any kit until you know you like surfing! Surf schools will provide all your gear. If you do get hooked the first thing to buy is the best wetsuit you can afford.
3. Do a bit of training before you start surfing – it’s surprisingly hard work, especially on shoulders and upper arms. Swimming is one of the best options.
4. Start off by buying a beginners’ board and not a sexy, custom-made shortboard which is difficult to learn on.
5. The golden rule of surfing is DON’T DROP IN! i.e. never, ever take off on a wave that someone else is already riding. It’s both dangerous and discourteous.
Magic Seaweed – www.magicseaweed.com – surf forecasts and reports for Britain and the world
A1Surf – www.A1surf.com – all sorts of UK-based surf info
Surf Nation – http://timesonline.typepad.com/surf_nation/ – surfing blog by author of book of same name on (of course) the British surf scene.