Back in the 1960s if you were a Welsh surfer the chances are you rode the waves around Porthcawl. The breaks at Coney Beach, Rest Bay and various lesser-known surf spots were the happening places during the Beach Boys-era when this stretch of coastline, along with Mumbles in nearby Swansea, was at the heart of the Welsh surf scene.
In his book The Surfing Tribe, which examines the history of British surfing, Roger Mansfield describes how the early Welsh surf scene influenced the sport throughout the UK, with local surfers such as Pete “PJ” Jones from Llangennith going on to become the British and European surfing champion in the 1970s. Linda Jones of Port Talbot was the British ladies champion 10 times.
Today, however, surfers visiting Wales invariably shoot straight past Porthcawl as they make a bee-line to the better-known and often more scenic surf beaches of the Gower or Pembrokeshire. That's a shame, because Porthcawl is just minutes from the M4. Given a clear run you can drive here from London in less than three hours, making this the closest stretch of coast to the English capital with consistent year-round waves. You can also get here from Manchester in little more than three hours, making it easily accessible for surfers from northern England. And while you may not get the natural beauty of beaches such as Llangennith or Freshwater West that lie further west, you get a cheerful, no-frills beach scene to go with surprisingly good waves.
I'm as guilty as anyone of overlooking the Porthcawl surf scene; I've lived and surfed in nearby Pembrokeshire for more than 25 years and yet here I am standing in the car park and checking out the waves at Coney Beach for the first time. Beside me is 33-year-old Ingemar Cressey, who the weekend before won the Welsh Senior Surfing Championships for the second year in a row.
Ingemar is a South African who married a Cardiff girl and became a naturalised Brit three years ago. He won South African titles and was sponsored by Billabong while in his teens, yet he chooses to forsake the world-class waves and warm sunshine of his home country for Welsh surf. For the past six years Ingemar has made a living from Cressey's Surf Academy, his peripatetic surf school which runs lessons on the local beaches. I ask him the obvious question: “Why surf here instead of South Africa?”
“I love the Welsh surf scene. The local surfing community is super-friendly and the atmosphere in the water is always great. Sure the waves are not as good as South Africa but they're better than people think. When we get surf here it's generally a lot better shape than in Cornwall, for instance – the point breaks especially are excellent.”
He also thinks the South Wales coast is ideal for novice surfers. “The waves aren't too big or powerful which makes them good for beginners. And because we have a variety of beaches to choose from there's almost always somewhere we can find a wave to teach on.”
Checking out the surf at Coney Beach is a far cry from doing so at my local breaks in Pembrokeshire – the quiet bays and cliffs of home are replaced by a promenade sporting a cheap and cheerful array of fish-and-chip shops, ice-cream parlours and a funfair.
Just along the coast Rest Bay also offers up good waves but the clear green waters I'm used to surfing in Pembrokeshire and Gower are replaced by a brown Bristol Channel swirl. However, this is simply sediment lifted from the sea floor by some of the biggest tides in the world; Rest Bay is in fact a Blue-Flag beach.
Today's waves could best be described as “small and messy”, but for learners these are easy to catch and not threatening, and even for experienced surfers there's fun to be had.
After our morning on Coney Beach, I munch on a doughnut before deciding to treat myself to a more upmarket dining experience a couple of miles inland at the award-winning Leicester's Restaurant, which is attached to the 16th-century Great House Hotel in Laleston. A bigger contrast with Porthcawl would be hard to find, because here we're in the heart of Glamorganshire countryside, all green fields and neat, tranquil villages.
Confit duck leg and roasted chicken roulade are not my usual après-surf fare, but I can live with that; and I can even live with a little shopping afterwards at the nearby Bridgend Designer Outlet, especially since it probably has more surf wear establishments per square metre than anywhere else in Wales.
The unpretentious Porthcawl surf scene is what surfing should be all about – fun, irrespective of the colour of the water or the backdrop to the waves. And the fine dining and shopping are a useful trade-off if you're travelling with someone who doesn't surf. In fact, it occurs to me that as a surf destination Porthcawl really does have something to offer everyone. Easy to reach, consistent waves, a friendly scene and plenty of options for non-surfers.
As Ingemar changes out of his wetsuit beside the promenade we enjoy a bit of banter with the nearby stallholders, who seem both amused and bemused by a South African surfer draped in a Welsh dragon towel. But I'm beginning to see why he never made it back to South Africa.
Bridgend station is served by Arriva Trains Wales (0845 606 1660; arrivatrains wales.co.uk) and First Great Western (08457 000 125; first greatwestern.co.uk).
Surfing and staying there
Cressey's Surf Academy offers packages including surfing lessons, equipment hire and accommodation at the Vale Resort in Miskin from £65pp (07502 124 030; cresseyssurf academy.com).
Bridgend Designer Outlet (bit.ly/ BridgendDesigner).
Great House Hotel, 8 High Street, Laleston CF32 0HP (01656 657644; great- house-laleston.co.uk).
More information: Bridgendbites.com