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Saunton Sands: A board meeting with a difference

Family holidays and surfing do mix in North Devon, says Richard Waters

Saunton Sands, that marvellous beach stitched with beds on Pink Floyd’s album A Momentary Lapse of Reason, has drawn me to the coast of North Devon for 15 years. I’m not sure why. It’s certainly not for luxury: the chalets my family and friends stay in redefine the term basic. And the Floyd’s hospital beds are, of course, long gone. No, I think the appeal lies in the rugged location. To come here is to go back to nature, to walk on that three-mile strip of fine sand buffeted by the sea breeze and the spray whipping over the tops of gunmetal waves.

Our return this year was no exception: the first night boasted weather that was predictably British, the rain hammering down on our cabin. A few stars were winking over the enormous dunes and I could hear the surf pounding insistently at high tide just a short walk away. Saunton’s waves are Jekyll and Hyde, from easy two-footers to the occasional seven-footer. The next morning was shaping up to be momentous.

Saunton Sands is sandwiched between two very different villages: Braunton is an unpretentious Devonshire town with a smattering of tasteful surf shops, a contemporary art gallery (the JC Gallery), bucket-and-spade merchants and a couple of fish-and-chips restaurants, including the mouth-watering Squires. Over the years, all my surfing needs have been met here: my wetsuit was bought a decade ago in Second Skin and no longer fits in quite such a svelte fashion, while my 9ft Malibu board was shaped at Gulfstream on the same street.

In the other direction, Croyde Bay is picture perfect, with thatched cottages and country stores selling homemade fudge and clotted cream.

On this trip, there was a group of around 10 of us – excluding kids, of which there are too many to count. I’d promised my son Finn I’d teach him to surf this time, but the waves were much too big for a six-year-old, never mind his father. However, this is a place where children excel at being themselves, be it swimming off Saunton’s beach or climbing its twisty trees and rocks. Finn has fallen for the charms of the Famous Five; watching him explore the caves at the side of the beach he may as well have been one of the characters.

There aren’t many places you feel safe enough to release your children, but here, with a loosely vigilant eye you can give them that rare gift of freedom, letting them float from chalet to chalet and explore the surrounding wonders.

After a morning’s surf on glassy, six-foot waves (it’s important to embellish) we popped over to Ilfracombe to eat at Damien Hirst’s restaurant, 11 The Quay. It has fish tanks in the ceiling, butterfly friezes, stunning Atlantic views and an earthy menu serving up the best fish and chips I think I’ve ever had.

Halfway through our break, the surf levelled out and the time came for Finn to try his luck on the salt. Given that he’d only just mastered his first swimming lap, he was surprisingly confident, and with a little help from me rode his first minnow wave. His face lighting up was a picture – no matter how old you are when it happens, you never forget that first ride on the sea.

It doesn’t all have to be about exertion. My partner, Ali, stayed with Finn and our baby, Agatha, at the art deco Saunton Sands Hotel, overlooking the beach. Despite being kept awake by Agatha, she emrged from a full-body massage (£45) grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Pampered, relaxed and even a little sun-kissed, we climbed on the downstream currents knowing we’d be back next year.

Travel essentials

Staying there

* Saunton Beach Villas (01271 892002; brend-hotels.co.uk) has two- and three-bedroom self-catering chalets five minutes’ walk from Saunton Sands, from £320 per week.

* The Saunton Sands Hotel (01271 892001; brend-hotels.co.uk). Doubles from £50 a night with breakfast.

Where to eat

* 11 The Quay (01271 868090; 11thequay.co.uk)

* Squires Fish Restaurant (01271 815533)

What to do

* Surf South West (01271 890400; surfsouth west.com) half-day lessons at Croyde Bay or Saunton Sands from £28 from April to June and September to November, £30 at other times.

More information

* Devon tourist board (01271 375000; visitdevon.co.uk)

* Second Skin (01271 812 195; secondskinsurf.com)

* Gulfstream Surfboards (01271 870 831; gulfstreamsurfboards.co.uk)