Welcome to Chelsea-by-the-sea

You don't have to be able to surf in Polzeath. But you'll fit in if you have a plummy accent and wave your credit card about, discovers Emma Cook
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Close your eyes in the small Cornish village of Polzeath, and you could just as easily be in Sloane Square, Fulham Road or on any floor of Harvey Nicks. Open them and it's Goa meets Baywatch. If you mention the Headworx Cherry Coke Pro-Surf Festival in Newquay, 20 miles away, surf boys and babes will stare through you blankly. Ask this crowd - at least 500 of them here today - about Big Wednesday and they'll tell you it's a pizza bar in SW3.

"There are two types of surfer," says Anthony Arnott, 18, from Henley. "The serious ones and us. We do try to surf but, quite frankly, that's not why we're here. We've come to see the girls in bikinis," he says. And all his friends roar with laughter. Yesterday, Anthony tried to catch a little surf but felt "rather nervous about the whole thing". After five minutes in the sea, he fell off his board, got "battered black and blue" and now prefers to sit at the Surfside Cafe on the beach, clocking the bikinis. "It's a trendy place to come to and it's nice to see people out of the context of school," he says. His mate, Henry, 17, wearing check shorts and a sun hat, looks like the singer out of Ocean Colour Scene. "Most people here can't surf. I usually get in the sea and get out again, but the best thing about this place is it's a parent-free holiday."

It's also a guaranteed way for hundreds of 15-20 year olds to meet like- minded "surfers" from the same background, school and area in London. The advantage is that they are wearing less clothes. The boys are bare chested in baggy shorts, revealing half an inch of Calvin Klein underpants. The girls favour bikinis, "jungle" beads, pierced belly buttons and sarongs. Both have a penchant for pricey surf labels such as Quiksilver, Bilabong, RipCurl and Girl. They also like to listen to Kula Shaker, Marion, Reef and any "cheesy music". "I suppose it is a bit like Chelsea by the sea," says Nick Barrington-Wells, 19, from London. The Dome Bar on the King's Road to be precise.

Although the beach does attract a family crowd, it's the teens who dominate the scene. Sixteen- year-old girls play in the surf in tiny bikinis and cut-off denim shorts. Or they sit around chain smoking and deciding who to call up on their mobiles. It really is Clueless in a beach setting. Jo Clarke, 17 and from Surrey, looks uncannily like Alicia Silverstone; blonde, blue eyed and with a perfect retrousse nose. She's staying with her friends in a campsite nearby. Pulled into a shiny, turquoise, one-piece, she peeks at the talent over her silver-rimmed sunglasses. "There's a nice lifeguard over there. I checked him out earlier when I asked if he had any factor 40." Surfing is way down on Jo's list of priorities. "I did go boogie boarding two years ago but I didn't like the wet suit. It didn't look nice," she grimaces. Or at least not as nice as the men. "You do get a lot of arrogant blokes coming up to you," she says. "The trouble is, they are all really good looking and they get browner the longer they are here." Her friend Zoe de Pass, 16, says: "It's so mellow and festivally here and I love the way the sea makes your hair go ringletty." She lowers her sarong to reveal a sapphire stud sparkling in her belly button. "My parents don't know I've had it done," she giggles.

As long as this crowd stick to "hanging out", the locals can just about cope with the barrage of plummy accents and pubescent teenagers piling into their cafes and pubs. But it's when the "ya-yas", as the residents call them, think they can surf that the problems really start. Standing at the beach's edge, you can see why. Like teenage sex, Polzeath's surfing looks like a pretty fumbled, hit and miss affair. Boys in all the gear stand around in the surf half-heartedly waiting for the next wave without really knowing what to do or where to aim, as it were. Small wonder then that the surf life-saving association has never been so busy as over the past few summers. So much so that they are about to release a CD-Rom called Surf Today, Surf Tomorrow, warning young people of the hidden dangers.

Brian Bartlett, vice-captain of Polzeath's Surf Life Saving Club, describes his job as "shepherding". "It is more of a sheepdog job. You just keep them from getting where they shouldn't be," he says. "The biggest problem is that they don't know what they are doing. It's like being able to drive a car without a licence." They also have little understanding of local surfing etiquette. "People just turn round and jump on the wave right in front of you," he says. "They won't look round. It's like crossing the road without checking the traffic."

Around the corner, in a surf hire shop, the locals' patience is running low. A glut of Volvos and Jeeps stop to buy fuel and the drivers wave their credit cards at the counter. "They get on my nerves sometimes," says one sales assistant. "They come in and think if they can buy surf- wear they are surfers."

In the next shop along, another local complains about the number of young people who end up on the beach after the pubs have shut, ripping up wood for bonfires. "It gets much worse at night, there are more rowdy drunks these days. It's started getting crazy." So much so, that villagers have clubbed together to pay for two policemen to patrol the area at night.

Tramping along the same patch of beach past Finns Cafe, from where Beck's "Where It's At" is blaring out, it's hard to imagine this group really being that troublesome - just high spirited maybe. But perhaps the locals shouldn't judge their clientele quite so harshly. It's certainly not the first time people have latched onto the surfing scene without ever dipping their big toe in the water. They should probably lay the blame squarely with Brian Wilson. He personified the culture but would rather sit in a sandpit than go near a Malibu board - in fact, he never surfed in his life.

In "real" surf tradition then, Zoe and her chums haven't been in the sea all day. It's early evening now and they are looking forward to a night out at the Oyster Catcher, a local pub, then possibly a party on the beach. They start to pack up their things. Jo still hasn't got her swimsuit wet today. She picks up her towel and makes some last-minute adjustments to her beach-wear before heading off to Finns Cafe. Somewhere nearby a mobile rings. "Oh damn," she squeaks. "I've got seagull poop all over my sarong."

Wanna be a real surfer? Turn to And not a spongehead in sight, on page 4 of Travel and Money