Better than Bondi ~ surfing the Mother Swell

Huge surf, shark-free, with lashing of scones and piping hot tea – the Poms wax lyrical about Cornwall’s surf scene, but Jade Richardson smells a crusty wetsuit somewhere in the story.

 When lying back and thinking of England it is perfectly normal to edit out things like sun – let alone surf, ripped Adonis-like figures silhouetted against a peach-sorbet sunset… and sand. Thoughts of England are more likely to include visions of grizzled teapots,  pigeons and soggy fried foods. There are a knowing few however, who say they share a different truth.

Steve Lovett, for example. He’s an old mate of my travel agent, and entertains visions of a perfect, tubing eight-foot swell. He sees flocks of hibiscus-printed bikinis too. He feels the cool caress of an off-shore breeze and the sting of saltwater on sun-loved lips. When you ask him about England he goes visibly gooey-eyed and whispers, “Paradise”.

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“Take all your visions of a beach utopia – take out the sharks, stone-fish, box jellyfish, blue ringed octopus, the wave rivalry and the wankers. That’s England,” he says, dreamily.

Lovett’s so wrapped with the place he moved there from Sydney, set up a board shop on the cobbled corner of a southern seaside town, and called it Surfers’ Paradise – without the vaguest hint of sarcasm.

Likewise, when you ask Google to send you to the hottest surf destination of the decade you may not expect to find yourself looking at a flight to London.

And if you are as surfuk7impressionable as me, and end up finding yourself at Heathrow, there is nothing to remedy your suspicion that the whole adventure is a miserable example of how wrong things can go when you rely on internet marketing.

“You take the tube, a double-decker, a long distance train and a taxi to get here,” Steve had advised.

“You’ll probably be delayed by strikes, bomb scares, traffic jams and bodies or other debris on the trainlines.” You won’t find a decent espresso.

“If you’re carrying a surfboard or an Australian surf brand sweater, you’ll be treated warmly by the guards who inform you of the various delays. Australians go down really well over here, it’s a major advantage to be an Aussie.” he’d said.

I am doing my best to appear Australian to the millions of grey-suited commuters in their grey-faced melancholy in the crush as I wrangle my board, backpack and clip-on koalas through the Terminal, the tube, onto the train and into the bus. Nobody appears, frankly, to give a toss. In  fact, I get the distinct impression that I might just be annoying a few hundred of the ash-faced commuters I am flashing my Southern Cross at.

As the journey toward ‘paradise’ wears on, London billboards screaming Stop the Technology Madness fade into a confusion of picket fences, wooden sheds and finally – trees, farm houses and fluffy sheep. I am filled with awe and gratitude as I learn that the dirge city skies are no measure of the true weather in England.

As you approach the south there is sun, great sheets of it, splitting through the healthy cumulus and reaching long golden fingers across lush hills. Far, far away from London’s scuttling umbrellas and their never-tanned occupants, sunny fields are riddled with little cobbled streets walled by wild poppies and tall hedges. There are little stone pubs selling plowman’s lunches and Devonshire teas. There are sunflowers, fishing villages and, as you approach the Cornish coast; kombis, hatchbacks, with Quicksilver stickers, ramshackle folk in waistcoats and wonky hats, sun-blonded stragglers with salt-water stares, and the distant tones of Australian slang.

All the evidence, actually, that to a scientific mind like mine leads inevitably to a single word: Surf!

You’d better believe it.

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A biting wind snakes viciously up the seaweed-strewn sand as I stand astride on my first Cornish beach, clenching my teeth against an on-shore gale loaded with sand. Seagulls are screaming through a Banshee gale as a two-foot swell flings itself exhaustedly at the beach.

The sky is bruising. The ocean is grey and there in the water are the seal-like shapes of at least a dozen surfers. Hooded, gloved and blue-lipped, Britain’s early summer surfers brave waters around 10 degrees to ride the last of the big winter swells. It’s over winter, when the Atlantic drops to a grizzly 7 degrees, and the surf begins to peak, that British surfers really earn their stripes.

Woven into the legends of Cornwall surfing are stories about the Christmas when twosurfing-cornwall surfers died of hypothermia in icy swells. There’s tales of constant nausea, ‘ice-cream headaches’ and excruciating numbness.  Everybody knows the risks of blackouts during duck dives in these temperatures and the compensatory legends of massive waves, off-shore winds and perfect, thumping swell.

Local surfer Greg Quinn admits the temperatures are crippling but raves about the swell. “Definitely, it’s the sauce!” he says in a quaintly damaged, fringe-dweller British . “There’s massive storm swells, easily 10 foot. There’s the cribber, it’s a gnarly 12 foot reef break – only for the extreme guys, and there’s awesome winter swells. It’s absolutely freezing then though. Yeah, it’s actually mind-numbingly cold.”

Unless you’ve arrived mid-summer on a particularly good year,

your first duckdive in English sea feels very much like

somebody has cracked you with an axe,

right through the front of your skull.

Your brain screams, your mind freaks, your teeth go numb. “Once the initial pain has passed, you can’t feel a thing,” encourages Quinn. “You’re never quite sure if you’re going to pass out though. Once you’ve paddled out it’s best to lie on your board, recover from the shock and get your brain back together. After that you paddle. You just keep moving so your body doesn’t freeze.”

The cold is not conducive to selective surfing; you ride anything rideable – just so you don’t ice up. It does however, aid a process of natural selection making British surfers among the best of the world. The locals, in their converted barns, stone farm houses and little yellow caravans along the rolling headlands of Newquay may not sport the same deep tans as their Australian counterparts, but they have been weeded out through tests of devotion, endurance and other miseries to be a rugged and passionate elite.

From their ranks come the likes of UK legend Carwyn Williams, World Circuit competitor Spencer Hargreaves and  Russell Winter. “It’s a bloody mystery how it all took off,” says surfuk3guru surfer and founder of European surfwear giant GUL Wetsuits, Denis Cross. “Nobody says it’s comfortable surfing here – it’s no picnic at all. Back in ’63 there were about a dozen guys going out on logs in old scuba suits in temperatures less than 10 degrees. Everybody thought we were crazy. We had to make our own designs for wetsuits so we could surf better without dying.” Since then the British surf scene has exploded.

“Surfing’s a way of life for a lot of people in Cornwall – it’s the backbone of their businesses and the thing they love to do so badly that a bit of cold or a little storm won’t keep them out of the water,” says Cross. “What we’ve got here are surfers created in extreme conditions – these guys are probably the most committed, the most hardcore in the world.”

Still, it’s the Australian legend of perfect surf, laidback board riders and reliably hospitable beaches that fuels the fantasies of the English. “Over here, Australia is the mythical paradise,” says English surfer Clare Cross, making tea and toast while a light drizzle sprinkles her coast-side caravan. “If you arrive here as an Aussie, with an Aussie board then you, my friend, are the business.”

I have arrived with all these critical factors, but, being actually unable to ride anything other than 1-foot whitewater in pristine Indonesian conditions, have failed, sadly, to be idolised or even noticed after a full week in Cornwall.

“It’s a bit of an irony that we’re all here idolising the Aussies, while over in Australia everybody thinks we’ve got pebble beaches, no surf, perpetual rain and freezing cold,”says Clare. “They don’t even believe we have sand, let alone 10-foot swells and weather that can be better than Spain’s – sometimes,” she muses, wistfully.

In my experience in England, if the sun breaks fully through the early summer cloud-cover there are immediate cries of Heatwave! – often followed by several deaths (shock, spontaneous combustion etc) and then it rains.

“Conditions aren’t always great,” agrees the Lifeguard at Constantine Beach. Pete Bunday, 29, has been Lifeguarding in Cornwall for six years and is philosophical about the surf. “But you can get an 8-foot swell through here, I’ve seen it as good as I’ve seen it anywhere in the world and with uncrowded beaches, no competition in the water and no sharks! Sure, there’s a very small window for that kind of swell but surfing’s become a big thing, a really big thing.”

 Cornish beaches have names like Newquay, Tolcarne, Lusty Glaze and Whipsiderry. They are fringed by grassy meadows, dairy farms and the occasional castle. Summer visitors exceed 3.5 million, with a value of 460 million pounds. Bondi, Sydney’s most famous beach strip, receives only about 1.5 million tourists each year.

“There’s a crew of guys here who go out no matter what. And then there’s literally thousands of others who come to learn, to live out the dream of a weekend surf safari,” says Pete whose own surfing career was founded in similar fantasies.

It’s a dream tended in homes all over England where the pale inhabitants are willingly seduced by soap operas and advertising campaigns leaning heavily on the classic trilogy in British fantasy: sun, surf and sand. Surf labels like Quiksilver became high street fashion in England  where people who may never even have laid eyes on a beach will pay twice as much as their Australian contemporaries for the coastal ‘look’. Surfboards are in huge demand too, (mostly as wall hangings for London flats).

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Perhaps it’s a result of the national pastime of watching Home and Away twice a day for the past 10 years – or perhaps it’s another ripple of the Red Bull phenomenon. When English daydreamers open their weekend edition of The Sunday Times their surf fantasies are fanned to a frenzy by feature writers telling of “Waves – just like the ones in surfing magazines…”

“You don’t have to be a Surf God to enjoy a weekend out among the breaking waves,” the Times reporter coaxes, “…and it’s bucketloads of fun.”

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Mmmm….  Bucketloads!

 The busiest beach in England is Newquay. Here, in Europe’s surf capital, ex-pat Australian Lifeguard Dave ‘The Gore’ Gorman is cocooned in a mess of old blankets and sweatshirts waiting for the dawn of another UK summer. It’s a grey day, a low ice wind is snapping at the sand, penguins are being blown in on a rusty foaming stormswell straight from the Faulkands – the surf is choppy and cold but the beach is already filling up. Grommets in wetsuits, grinning madly through lilac lips are descending from the car park, wrestling the wind with their squeaky foam boards.

“Everybody’s gone surf mad over here,” mutters ‘The Gorm’, stumbling in the darkness with his sunglasses on. “It’s still early, but when summer hits you won’t see sand on this beach –  you won’t believe the stuff you will see though,” he groans.

When the European summer is in full swing water temperatures in Cornwall hit 20, the sun can stay out all day and it’s virtually impossible to move on the beach or in the water. The surfers arrive in droves, the surf schools are swamped and the Lifeguards have more than a little trouble keeping things afloat.surfuk8.jpg

“Surfing’s new quite still and the English aren’t known for their love of the sea,” says ‘The Gorm’. “There’ll be guys out there who’ve come with thousands of pounds-worth of the best gear, Australian gear, and they’ll be standing on the beach with their wetsuits on back-to-front and their leg ropes around their necks.

“Most of them won’t wax their boards. I’ve seen guys getting on their boards with the fins facing up. I kid you not.”

Utter confusion probably accounts for an average of 1,000 board injuries treated by lifeguards over those three short summer months. “Yeah, well – we’re pretty good at first aid,” muses The Gorm.

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They come in from the east. Great hordes of them in snappy little London 2-doors, in caravans, kombis and Land Rovers. Surfing is big business in England. A tiny surf school like Barry Hall’s on Fistral Beach can take 60 or 70 students a day. There are dozens of others competing for the thousands who arrive each day. But the lucrative swarms of wannabes are not welcomed everywhere – not even with their Australian surf-brand boardies.

“Australian lifeguards have a bit of a reputation for partying and hell raising,” confesses Head Lifeguard John Broad. “Surfing’s always been an excuse to party. Scientists say it’s because of the negative ions caused by waves crashing on the beach, creating ozone and good energy.”

Gordon Leech has other ideas. From the neatly manicured lawn at his Surf Beach Hotel he bites his fingernails gingerly, and watches over Fistral Beach. “The ordinary surfers are lovely people,” he concedes. “But they attract a bad element. Yobs! Beer drinking yobs. They’ve very bothersome and cause terrible trouble.”

It’s no secret that Cornwall’s famous tea and scones set have clashed with the surfers. There are thousands of holiday-makers whose dreams of lonely, artistic walks along blustery beaches and lashings of Devonshire teas are compromised severely by the negative ion-absorption of the hundreds of thousands of surfers sharing the coast.

“The police have had a dreadful time of it,” tells Gordon. “They’ve had to bring in all sorts of things – water canons and army helicopters, but the villagers are still being terrorised.”

It’s not the surfing that long-time Cornwall residents like Gordon object to. In fact, Cornish farmers, in their terry towelling robes and slippers – striped towels across their shoulders and planks under their arms, are not an unfamiliar sight on an uncrowded beach. “All I’m saying is surfers get a bad name around here. They’ve made a rod for their own backs with all that boozing and yahooing.”

Still, business isn’t exactly suffering at the Surf Beach Hotel. “We’re packed all summer,” says Gordon, reaching eagerly for the visitors’ book. “And even the Australians love it over here. Look…,” he points to his favourite entry.

“Better than Bondi,” it says.

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