When the urge to surf strikes, most people head for the south west of England. Never mind that the wild shorelines of Wales and Scotland offer great surfing; or for Londoners, six foot waves are just an hour’s train ride away in north Kent.
It’s hard to ignore that the northern coastlines of Devon and Cornwall provide as good a combination of warm weather and serious waves as you’re likely to find anywhere else in the British Isles on a consistent basis. (I say consistent, but of course there’s always an element of luck involved when dealing with the elements.)
One such surf spot is Croyde in north Devon, one of the UK’s most legendary surfing destinations. Along with Woolacombe and Saunton, Croyde benefits from its Atlantic-facing position on the northwest tip of north Devon. It’s considerably less distance to travel than the Cornish surfing hotspots too, if you’re coming down a traffic-laden M5 from the rest of the country.
Half a mile west of Croyde village is Croyde Bay, a relatively small sandy beach compared with the mile-long strands of Saunton to the south and Woolacombe to the north. Baggy Point juts out between Croyde and Woolacombe, helpfully funnelling any south westerly swell into Croyde’s narrowing bay.
With their popularity reaching almost legendary status over the years, the north Devon surfing centres have ensured they have something to offer everyone, without compromising the wider appeal of this beautiful part of the coastline that offers great hiking, camping and traditional ‘bucket and spade’ holidays.
Teaching future generations is good for business of course, and there’s no shortage of reputable surf schools to sign up with.
Practicing on sand before hitting the the big blue sea
Learning the waves
For Tom (14) and Ed (12), keen to learn the art of surfing from those who know what they’re doing rather than dads or mates; Surfing Croyde Bay (SCB) is the school of choice for this trip. Based in the picturesque village of Croyde since 2003, the school offers tuition, gear and, reassuringly, ice cream and pasties in the front section of the shop. Later, perhaps.
At the back of the shop a large sandpit has surfboards laid out for students to get the basics right before going anywhere near the sea.
Wetsuits, booties and boards are all thrown in for a ‘taster session’ costing £30 for two to two-and-a-half hours. The instructor ratio is 5:1 too, so there’s no hiding behind others, feigning incompetence through a niggling injury, however tempted you may be.
The instructors are wiry, tanned and full of an infectious confidence that their students will be screaming into shore on top of their boards in no time.
It all seems to be about the ‘pop’: getting from the lying flat on the board as you catch the wave to standing in a dynamic-looking crouch steering yourself majestically to shore or until the wave runs out of puff. Tom and Ed seem to be getting the hang of it pretty well in the sand school.
For absolute beginners, the pop is broken down to manageable stages. First, they move from lying down to kneeling on the board, taking care to keep the hands firmly but evenly gripping the rails (edges of the board) with body weight centred, looking ahead.
Then one leg is brought through and placed across the board’s centre line in front. A quick pause for balance and then up you go, keeping low, and twisting your hips slightly as you face forwards, with your feet still angled across the board for stability.
It doesn’t sound too tricky. But the beginner is thinking through these steps while at the same time struggling to find their balance. It takes time, so it’s best to catch a wave when the power of the swell has dissipated and the wave is just running into shore.
As confidence and ability grow, the process becomes more streamlined. The pros can go from paddling hard to standing in one fluid movement, in a second. But that comes with practice and yet more practice.
Once at the beach, Tom and Ed practice the pop, achieving perfect form on the board on the sand before instructor Carlo takes his charges into the surf. It’s hot and sunny but the waves are a decent 2ft – quite enough for our purposes. Brothers Harry and Ollie, a tad more experienced than Tom and Ed, head out beyond the breakers on smaller boards covered in wax.
Carlo leads his students into the water, board leashes safely fastened round ankles.It’s just as well, as this surfing section of the beach, marked by black and white quartered flags at each end, is pretty crowded. Beginner boards are encapsulated in tough foam to minimise damage.
Flanking the official surf area, and further out to sea, the better surfers make it all look effortless. Closer to shore, the students are finding that boards aren’t quite so stable on water.
Ed and Tom are game lads and realise that the key to getting the hang of it is to keep trying, rather than stand holding the board looking at the incoming waves deciding which one looks best.
Mastering the surf
Carlo’s on hand to launch Ed and Tom on their first runs in, steadying the board and getting them focused on the moves they’ve got to make. Much to the disgust of their mates Harry and Ollie, the two beginners are getting it together pretty quickly and soon both are cruising in standing on their boards, living the dream as Carlo and team send up whoops of delight.
It’s a great start to a promising surfing career. We retreat after two hours, knackered but in agreement that surfing is great fun and addictive.
Ed, screaming into Croyde Bay
Words and Photos: Will Robson
More Top Surf Spots
Caswell Bay on the Gower Peninsula is just a 15 minute drive from Swansea. It offers small, safe waves ideal for the beginner.
Long Sands is the most popular place in the area, especially for beginners. Wear a wetsuit though – this ain’t the Caribbean!
If you’re prepared to travel north, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful spot pretty much to yourself at Dunnet Bay. Thurso Surf School is the most northerly in Britain and is close to one of the finest surf spots in the world.