Autumn – not summer – is the time to hit the beach as the UK enters prime surfing season.
The beaches of California, Hawaii and Australia have long pounded to the beat of ocean waves, but surfing is far from a preserve of these palm-fringed shores. It’s over 80 years since the first waves were ridden in Cornwall, and today you’ll find thriving surf communities in every corner of the British Isles.
“Speak to surfers from Hawaii or Australia and their perception of the UK is that there aren’t any waves here, but they couldn’t be more wrong,” said Wavefinder’s Tom Roberts, publisher of the new Wavefinder UK & Ireland guidebook.
“Sure, the water here is colder than most places, but today’s warmer wetsuits make surfing a much more comfortable experience than it was a decade ago, even in places like the far north of Scotland. And get the right breaks at the right time, and you can find some genuinely world-class surf.”
And in these tough times the escapism of surfing has never been more popular; or affordable: a couple of lessons, a new wetsuit and a second-hand surfboard can be found for under £500. Now, where are the waves . . .
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
Gentle waves and an abundance of surf schools make this beautiful North Cornish beach a great place for novices to take their first steps on a surfboard. A gentle but consistent surf experience, the shallow, shelving beach knocks much of the power out of the swell to create spilling waves perfect for learners. The outer sand banks can produce nice big peaks on larger swells at low tide. One of the more accessible and consistent waves in the area so can get busy in summer.
Llangennith, Gower Peninsula, Wales
The first part of the UK to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Gower peninsula is home to waves that match the scenery. Llangennith, at northern tip of the expansive Rhossili Bay, is generally the indicator spot for the Gower, picking up the most swell in the area. It’s a huge beach that is popular with all surfers, offering plenty of peaks in most conditions, with plenty of space for surf schools.
This vast beach stretches for three miles from Putsborough at the south end up to the village of Woolacombe. Putsborough is usually an incredibly easy spot for beginners across a never-ending beach with huge tidal range. Prevailing south-westerly winds are blocked or even offshore at the bottom end of the beach; a plus on a windy summer afternoon although the swell doesn’t always get in here.
Woolacombe’s super-mellow beach break works on all tides. The sand just about disappears at high tide when the northern end gets a respectable right-hand peak. Crowds are well absorbed and it’s quieter than Putsborough or Croyde.
BEST FOR INTERMEDIATES
The UK’s surfing capital attracts everyone from die-hard surfers to families and stag and hen parties. Fistral Beach is the spot to head for with waves at all stages of the tide. When it’s too big or blowy at Fistral, look around the headland to Newquay Bay where sheltered waves can be found at Towan, Great Western and Tolcarne beaches. After dark the town’s 40 plus bars and clubs come to life. Nearby Watergate Bay has seen Prince William and the Sunday Night Project’s Justin Lee Collins grace its waves.
The two piers at Bournemouth and Boscombe provide the focus for surfing here, with Boscombe typically the better of the two. And it’s about to get a whole lot better as the site will be home to Europe’s first artificial surfing reef which is currently under construction. This is expected to be completed by September, which is when the first of the autumn storms send swell up the English Channel.
Home to a passionate and welcoming surfing community, Newcastle has been the training ground for British champions Gabe Davies and Sam Lamiroy. The cold North Sea dishes up some quality beachbreak surf at Longsands Beach, a bustling but mellow beachbreak. It can be easily blown out, but with good offshore winds this competition venue can get epic – and it’s the most reliable spot around.
Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire
‘Fresh West’ picks up the most swell in Pembrokeshire with several sandbar peaks on the main beach and reefs. It’s very consistent, so therefore gets very busy, but the strong rip currents keep the surfers spread out over the various peaks on the rocks (check the south end). Access is sometimes limited by the MOD – the beach is just off a big army firing range!
BEST FOR EXPERTS
It’s a long way from anywhere, but the slate reef at Thurso East can lay claim to being one of Europe’s best waves. The drive and the cold water put off all but the hardiest surfers, but those who make the trip invariably return with tales of fast, tubing waves. For experts only. Spring sees an international field of pro surfers in attendance for a world qualifying tour competition, but the warmest water temperatures and guaranteed swell make September the prime time to visit.
The reef at Porthleven is home to a splendid but fickle wave. Known for its hollow rights over a flat rock shelf, it gets sucky at low to mid tide when gaping wide barrels are possible. For the wave to be at its best requires a very big west or solid/big southwest swell, and rarely breaks in summer. It can get awesome, but word spreads fast and quickly gets crowded when the waves are good.
Arguably the best beachbreak in the country, Croyde Bay is home to a consistent, powerful wave. Shapely sand peaks can be found across the bay at all stages of the tide, but low provides much faster, steeper walls and barrels. Peaks north of the stream are generally better. The reef at the north end is a quality rare right, but is only surfable on very high tides with a big swell – definitely for experienced surfers only.
The new pocket-sized Wavefinder UK & Ireland has detailed listings of over 450 of the best surfing beaches in the UK and Ireland. Available from www.wave-finder.com priced £9.95.
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