Who needs California when you can be in Newquay? As beachbums of the world compete in Cornwall, Andy Martin meets Brits who are smitten by surfin'
If only the Beach Boys and not the Beatles had been born in Liverpool, maybe it would have been "Surfin' UK" instead of USA and perhaps they would have immortalised not "Pacific Palisades, San Onofre and Sunset, Redondo Beach LA", but "Newquay, Llangennith and Thurso East". Surfing originated somewhere in Polynesia around a millennium or two ago and finally pitched up in Britain in the early Sixties. Surf culture has gradually grown in popularity, despite the lack of relevant lyrics, and is firmly established on our shores.

Up to 20,000 spectators are expected at Newquay's Fistral Beach for the Headworx/Coca-Cola Surf Festival, which is under way this week. The climax, on Sunday, is the Headworx Pro - the only British contest in the Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series - which carries prize-money of pounds 38,000. Statuesque surf idols will roll into Newquay in transit on a circuit that has recently taken them from Australia to South Africa and California and will continue into France, Spain and Portugal. Also on the bill at Newquay are Sony roadshows, a Big Breakfast broadcast, a concert by the band Reef, and the premiere of the first British surfer movie, Blue Juice, which will take place at a screen-on-the-beach. It's a hot event.

The British Surfing Association reckons there are as many as 50,000 regular surfers at large in this country. Even Cambridge University has a 30-strong Surf Riders Club, and it's 45 miles from the nearest wave.

The Stormrider Guide, an indispensable beachbum's bible (a Low Pressure publication), identifies no fewer than 195 surfable breaks in England, Scotland and Wales, with a further 60-plus in Ireland, and tantalisingly omits an unspecified number of "secret spots".

A happy few devotees actually live the dream. Eden Burberry, the numero uno of UK women's surfing, is one of them. Even her name, with its combination of paradise and raincoat, seems to evoke the whole spirit of surfing in Britain. In the water she is fearless and uncompromising. No one messes with Burberry. You wouldn't want to tell her a lot of people think surfing is an all-male thing.

Burberry was born in Hounslow, but she moved to Newquay aged 11 and rose to win the English, British and European championships in 1989. Now she is full-time marketing strategist for Surfers Against Sewage, the anti- pollution pressure group based in St Agnes.

"I was fed up surfing with panty-liners and condoms," she explains. Surfers are to water what canaries used to be to mines: when they start coming down with infections, stay out of the water.

Burberry's successors have yet to overtake her. "There are some good girls around in the summer but they tend to disappear with the weather. No one is hardcore enough to tough it out. And you have to if you want to make it." Burberry confesses to having been too lazy to want to turn pro. "I take my hat off to the guys on the tour. But I don't envy them. It's too much like work." But she is making a comeback this year at Newquay in the Voodoo Dolls women's contest.

On the other side of the Severn Channel, "PJ" (ne Pete Jones) is a man who has pulled himself up by his own board-leashes. That's how he started in the business, buying and selling leashes (to strap your board to your ankle). PJ won the Welsh title in 1972, was part of the British team up until 1982, and surfed his way around the world in professional competition. Now he has turned the old village shop in Llangennith into a surf emporium.

He looks back to the late Sixties and early Seventies - the period of exploration and discovery among the reefs of the Gower peninsula - as the golden age of British surfing. "Technically, it was primitive. Boards were longer and heavier - 50 or 60lbs - and leashes hadn't been invented yet. But everyone was very mellow."

PJ reckons contests had a dual effect on the sport overall. "They brought it more into the public eye," he says. "But now with competition, sponsorship, money, there's more aggro. It's a lot younger. Kids are surfing out of the wave rather than in it. All they want to do is rip and carve and blast."

In the Eighties, beach cred depended on the shortness of your three-fin thruster. But the Nineties revival of the original longboard in the shape of the modern Malibu (or "mal", minimum 9ft long) has also seen a renaissance of what PJ unashamedly calls the "soul surfer".

"Longboarding in its essence is mellower, more soulful," he says. "The modern mal only weighs 10lbs: a kid can carry it and it's more GTi-ish, a performance board."

PJ is disdainful of warm-weather surfers (such as me). Real surfers do it all year round, of course. The ultimate test in Britain is Thurso. On my surf map of the world, Thurso is marked in red ink. Mainland US and Australia earn a mere green or blue. Red ink is reserved for only a handful of supreme five-star spots: Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Bali - and the tip of north-east Scotland.

A few miles west of John O'Groats, and only a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, Thurso's right-hand reef-break is one of the most classical, epic waves in the world, a purist's wave. Having stripped off in a reeking farmyard and picked your way across frozen cowpats, you paddle out in the shadow of a ruined castle straight out of Macbeth. But the pride and glory of Thurso is its cylindrical perfection, the product of Icelandic swells wrapping round the coast, barging into the bay, and capable of producing waves of 20 feet or more.

Pat Kieran is one of the pioneers and regulars at Thurso. He began surfing while a student at Liverpool Poly and came up north in the Seventies. Now there's no going back. "After surfing up here," he said, "I don't really need to go anywhere else. If you had a wave like this in California, there'd be 150 guys out. Here, if there's more than three or four in the water, it's a crowd.

Even Kieran's iron nerve gives out at the sight of icebergs and he slides out of the water with his board between his legs. They float down the river from the highlands, the size of cattle trucks, and steam through the line-up heading out to sea, looking for a Titanic to sink but ready to settle for a surfer or two. "I was taking off and there were these bloody great slabs of ice all round us. They were pitching over with the lip. One of them could take you out. You've got your work cut out coping with the drop without hunks of frozen concrete landing on your head."

Kieran dreams of the monster wave he has seen only in a photograph in the local museum taken in the early years of the century in which the two breaks, Thurso East and the colourfully named Sewage Pipe, merge to beget a mega-wave that stretches all the way across the bay and tips the scales at 20 feet-plus. But he modestly admits that 14ft is the biggest he has ever surfed. "At six foot, you start to think about it a bit. When it gets to over 12, they're not cracking jokes in the line-up any more. If you're in the wrong spot, you can get annihilated."

What drives the dedicated wave-chasers; what makes them brave wave, blizzard and iceberg? I asked PJ what surfing meant to him, and his answer revealed something of the passion involved here. Surfing, he said, was to him like "multiple orgasms without foreplay".

Andy Martin's book, 'Walking on Water', is published by Mandarin at pounds 5.99.