Think the Aussies have the best surf? Alex Wade's new book champions the waters around the British Isles

Hawaii, California, Australia. Think surfing and the chances are that you'll come up with one of the Holy Trinity. You might even conjure South Africa, France and Brazil. But the majority, if asked to opine on surf culture amid our own islands, would be bemused.

So much for the stereotype; the truth is radically different. My 18-month odyssey to research Surf Nation revealed an extraordinary - and hitherto largely hidden - depth to surf culture here on the storm-lashed fringe of western Europe.

During the initial stages of my journey it seemed that I would never leave Cornwall. There was always another surf spot to check, another wave to ride. This, though, reflects the importance of Cornwall to domestic surfing. This is the county of Newquay, our very own "Surf City", as well as oodles of sun-kissed (well, in summer at least) swell and a top-class reef break at the ancient working port of Porthleven on the Lizard Peninsula. As Dan Joel, one of Britain's best surfers, told me: "Porthleven is the jewel in England's crown. It's become a part of me and I've centred my whole life on surfing it."

From Cornwall I made trips to my teenage stamping ground of North Devon. The area's premier break, Croyde, is still one of the best around, but soon enough it was time to hop on a ferry to Jersey. As the home of the first surf club in Europe the quiet Channel Island boasts a venerable surfing history. The Island Surf Club of Jersey was formed in 1923 by Nigel Oxenden, and his grandsons still surf in Jersey today.

It is not only the west-facing beaches of Cornwall, Devon and Jersey that have seen surfing thrive. Brighton and the south coast has a large surfing community, and even in East Anglia there is a diehard group of surfers who paddle out into some of the UK's coldest water on a year-round basis. There is a surf shop in Norwich, but perhaps the most bizarre example of surfing occurs in the Gloucestershire countryside. Here the Severn Bore surges regularly from the Bristol Channel up the River Severn, attracting surfers who structure their lives around lunar cycles so as never to miss the best tidal bores.

Wales was just a stone's throw from the Bore, and in places such as Porthcawl, the Mumbles and the Gower peninsula I met some of the most committed, passionate surfers in the world. The geology of Wales hints at that across the Irish Sea, and from the Dingle peninsula to Bundoran in Co Donegal I encountered a series of world-class surf spots. It is on Ireland's west coast, beneath the towering Cliffs of Moher, that one of Europe's biggest waves has been discovered. Known as "Aileens", this break has been the scene of big-wave surfing on a par with anything in Hawaii.

In the North-east there is an excess of perfect waves, as is also the case on the Hebridean island of Lewis. The Orkney Islands promise much and there is even an ultra-hardcore surfing community on the Shetland Islands (one which encounters killer whales). But it is the small, gritty town of Thurso on Scotland's north shore where surf in a class of its own can be found. Its right-hand reef break is a wave comparable with the best that any of the surf nations of popular imagination have to offer.

It is difficult to define the appeal of surfing, but John McCarthy, one of the pioneers at Aileens, comes close: "It's a taste of heaven, the most blissful experience you can have on this planet."

The great thing is that you don't need to travel to Hawaii, California or Australia to experience it.

Further reading Alex Wade's 'Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland' is published on 2 July (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)