I’m an average surfer. I have my good days and my bad days. I try to surf as much as possible but sometimes I make excuses to avoid going out, like it’s too small or it’s onshore. Truth is, I thrive in two-to-four foot surf and I start to wobble and get butterflies once those waves start to top head high. I have surfed for over ten years and have spent most of those years at the same skill level. On my best days, I can string a few top and bottom turns together and throw in a shaky cut back. On my worst days, I don’t catch a single good wave and cuss to myself. A lot. Like I said, I’m the bang average surfer, but I love it.
When I look at pictures or read travel articles about some beautiful far-off destination like Indonesia or South Africa, everything seems to be aimed at a more advanced surfer capable of handling huge waves and fast barrels better than myself. While one side of my brain is excited at the prospect of the challenge, my insecurities tell me I’m not good enough.
I decided I should go anyway and report back. Let this be a guide of sorts for the average surfer.
Now, England may not be the first place you think of when you talk surf destinations. Nevertheless, that is where I chose to begin my journey. It’s familiar. I spent 22 years of my life there and I have an attachment to the rugged beauty and open spaces of the Westcountry.
The contrast from Orange County to the UK is striking. California is bright, not just in climate and weather but in consumption and advertising. England is dull. There are no billboards or strip malls, just green fields and woodland dissected by motorways. Once you start heading southbound on said motorway towards Southampton and onto the Westcountry it becomes even more dull and more baron.
If you look at a map of the UK, the Westcountry is the local name for the four counties that make up the peninsular sticking out in the bottom left corner. These are Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. For the sake of surfing, you can ignore Somerset.
I arrived to a small village in Dorset on the south coast. My arrival happened to coincide with the swell of the year. A deep south west low pressure system in the Bay of Biscay was promising some sizeable surf for most of western Europe. At least that’s what I was told. When it comes to conditions in England, you are usually looking at close range storm surf. The problem with that is the wind will often force you to search for a sheltered cove.
Dorset is the eastern most county of the three and its only coastal exposure is the English Channel. It’s more famous for fishing and Naval ports in World War II than surfing. However, with a big enough swell, the energy will run up the channel and hit many reefs along the south coast all the way through Dorset. Local knowledge is key to surfing this part of the coast.
The second morning after my arrival, nursing a hangover from too many Scrumpy Ciders in the pub, I met up with some old friends and we headed to a reef break near an old village. This place was a secret spot when I was growing up in England but everyone knows about it now. We got there to find all three reefs firing with overhead faces but howling winds ready to ruin the party. Nonetheless, the adventure had begun and the excitement was there. After all, you do have to work for your waves in England.
We decided the next day to head to Cornwall. Cornwall is the first or last county in England, depending on how you look at the map. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth with wild open moorlands, ancient woodlands, and rocky cliffs that meet sandy beaches that stretch for miles. We were headed to a town called Newquay, the surf capital of the UK. Unlike Dorset, where everything is a little more fickle and underground, Cornwall is surfing loud and proud. It is exposed to both the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel and will pick up most swells. Newquay is the hub of the UK surf scene, just like Huntington Beach or any other surf town on earth filled with board rentals and surf shops and warm coats and clouds instead of bikinis and sunshine.
You may have to sacrifice waves for sunshine if you visit in the summer, and even then you are not guaranteed any sunshine. On the day we arrived in Cornwall, the surf was big and the winds had dropped. We went and checked a few spots and the famous Fistral Beach was topping out with double overhead sets. The paddle out looked miserable. We headed through the town to Towan Beach which looked much better at about head high and clean.
5mm suits, gloves, boots, and hoods are all needed in England in March. We walked down to a beautiful beach with cliffs on one side and a harbor wall on the other. The waves looked a lot bigger when we stepped into the water. Then again, waves always look bigger when the sky is gray and the water is cold. I paddled out with a local English friend who was just back from Indo and was surfing with the confidence and tan of sucha man. He effortlessly paddled off and was outside in a few minutes. I, on the other hand, felt the first flush of freezing cold water go down the back of my suit and got an ice cream headache. This was England. I had been surfing California’s Pacific waves for the past ten years now, so this should be a cakewalk, I figured. I got beaten and battered and it took me forever to paddle out the back. The waves were a lot bigger and more powerful than I remembered and the current was fairly strong.
My first wave was probably about head high. I popped up and dropped down the face into a closeout. It went dark and cold as I spun in the Atlantic’s washing machine. I came up and there was my board, in two pieces. Damn! Session over.
One of my favorite things about surfing cold water in England is the post-surf ritual: dry off, changing into warm clothes, and then heading to the pub. You can’t feel your hands or feet but it feels great. A misconception of England is that the food is bad but it’s not. People that once occupied a third of the world are bound to have brought back some good recipes. So go ahead and explore the menus instead of ordering the fish and chips.
The next day we went to Devon, the middle county of the three, and found some fun waves. It’s little more built up than Cornwall but with waves on both coasts. It’s also more of an established surf destination than Dorset but not quite as much as Cornwall. North Devon holds some great beaches and we got peaks to ourselves up and down the coastline. We surfed three-foot waves for the next few days before it went flat. It was uncrowded, fun and rewarding.
Overall, the English surf scene is unique. Although the summer is crowded and there is a booming industry with shapers, clothing, wetsuit manufacturers and giant surf contests. Somehow, England has managed to keeps its “underground” surf scene image. The waves are not epic and there are many flat spells, but the culture revolves around stories of that perfect day a few years back and the hope that the next big swell is coming. Locals are drinking in pubs and speculating the forecast and which cove or beach might light up tomorrow. It’s a refreshing break from Starbucks, parking meters, and traffic. The vibe in the water is mellow, but as with anywhere, respect for locals is key. So if you’re looking for a different type of surfing adventure, book a flight, rent a car, pack some warm clothes and go spend a few nights in a bed and breakfast in the Westcountry.