Newquay: Summer's over but the surf's still up
Saturday 06 October 2007
Even before The Beach Boys sang about waiting for the summer in " Surfin' USA", the activity was associated with the long hot days of June, July and August. The sun is out, and everyone's at the beach. But that's the problem: everyone's there. So, although the idea of putting a toe anywhere near the British sea in autumn might make you quake, don't think that surfing stops with summer. In autumn, the water is still warm, the swells are bigger – and the fickle summer surfers have shivered away.
In short, October can bring the best surfing conditions of the year in Britain. Getting away for a surfing weekend is a popular choice for wave fans who, like me, live in London, but it's a challenge to get there – and stay there – cheaply. Luckily, for the past six years, Big Friday has been solving this problem.
Rhona Gardiner, who set up the "surfari" business with fellow surfer Kate Czuczman in 2001, had the idea when she got fed up with planning her surf weekends. "Kate and I each had about five friends who were interested, and we were so tired of the drive. It occurred to us that we had enough people to hire a minibus and driver to do the job, and then we realised we could make a business of it." Big Friday has now done more than 100 trips from London, and has perfected the formula.
We meet at Martins Bar in Hammersmith at 5.45pm on Friday, with our board bags and wave-hungry expressions, and climb into Big Friday's surfmobile. Our bio-fuel bus has roof space for boards and is well stocked with surf films (even before we hit the M4, we're watching Blue Crush). It seems like no time at all before we're navigating Newquay's cliff-top roads to our beds for the weekend, at the Bay Hotel.
This was a step up from the leaky tent I'd used on previous surfing excursions. A sweeping staircase took us up to our rooms, which looked out over the waves. Welcome cocktails at the funky modern bar were followed by an excellent night's sleep. Upstairs has yet to get its modern facelift, but the rooms have showers, comfy beds and kettles – everything a surfer needs.
In the morning, I had first sight of a clean 3ft swell peeling on to the shore at Fistral Beach. It was early, but there were already some 50 locals riding the waves. After a huge breakfast, Annie (my surfing partner) and I headed to the South Fistral Surf School for lessons. As this was her first foray into surfing, Annie had signed up for a group beginner session, but I wasn't sure what to do. With enthusiasm that far outstripped any ability, I'd been running in and out of waves all year but hadn't got much further than the white water. So Big Friday had organised a private instructor for me. And what an instructor – Australian Josh, looked like an extra from Home and Away.
A check of the lifeguards' board told us that the sea temperature was 15C – not bad. And, with a good 4mm wetsuit, there was no reason to feel cold. In fact, I actually found myself overheating slightly as I paddled out to the back line.
The lesson was great. After a year of struggling to get beyond the third wave, I mastered the Eskimo roll, which involves flipping your board over so you're lying underneath it. Theoretically, this allows a wave to pass straight over you, but if you mistime it you can end up stuck in the washing machine of the wave and spewed out on the beach. So it was with jubilation that I found myself right out beyond the breaking waves.
Making it out to the back line was a challenge, but not half as stressful as it would have been a few weeks earlier. The summer crowds can be overwhelming; it's unusual to end a weekend without a collision with someone else's board. And the gaggles of hen and stag parties in Newquay's bars can ruin a peaceful weekend. In autumn, most of this can be avoided.
After a day in the water, Annie and I were unable to take the grins off our faces as we ate dinner at the Chy restaurant. But next morning, the pain in our backs brought on by paddling made us think our second day was scuppered. Again, Big Friday to the rescue; we were booked in for massages at the hotel's Fistral Spa, and we were soon ready to go back in.
This time, the waves were of a different calibre. Josh uttered the words every new surfer both dreads and longs to hear: "There's a big swell coming in." And it was big, more than head height. When I did stand up, it felt more like downhill snowboarding. It was exhilarating.
But we were back on the bus before we knew it. After another film, the classic Big Wednesday, the coach pulled into Victoria. As I wrestled with a bag of soaking kit, two holdalls and a 7ft board, I was accosted by a man sporting a large grin. I wasn't in the mood to chat, but then he said, in a Californian drawl: "That's the first surfboard I've seen in England. Cool!" before offering to carry my board. Perhaps it would be better to keep autumn surfing in Britain a secret after all.
Big Friday runs a Surf Bus to Newquay from June to October, collecting in west London on Friday evening, returning Sunday evening; £74 return.
Big Friday (01637 872 512; www.bigfriday.com) organises surf breaks until the end of October and can arrange bespoke trips for groups in winter. Breaks costs £155-£225, including return Surf Bus travel, two nights' lodge accommodation. Tuition and equipment hire is extra.
South Fistral Surf Shop (01637 851 800; www.newquaysurflessons.co.uk). Board hire, £7-£10 a day. Wetsuit hire is £6 a day, and boots £1.50. A two-hour group lesson costs £25 including all equipment hire.
Cornwall Tourist Board: 01872 322 900; www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk
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