"See you in a few minutes," said Sarah Whiteley, wiping the spray from her face before making an athletic flip into a headstand on her surfboard. Catching a passing wave, she starts sliding towards the shore with her legs pointing elegantly towards the sky. Sarah is the surfing instructor at the four-star Saunton Sands Hotel in North Devon. She can, indeed, do the job standing on her head, which is just as well because many tides have rolled in since I last ventured near a surfboard and I now present something of a challenge. Throughout her determined struggle with the limitations imposed by my "maturity," however, Sarah is far too polite to suggest anything other than that I am making the sort of progress that will shortly entitle me to be addressed as "dude".
In the Sixties this sweeping expanse of sand and Atlantic had been the place where I would swim and think in waters still tepid from the just-departed summer as I prepared to return to university, the beach by then vacated by all but the occasional dog-walker (on the hottest days, therefore, it was to be avoided).
In what passed for the high season, the shacks dressed as gift shops, the chaotic car park and the broken fencing delineating some obscure boundary in the dunes, lent the place that down-at-heel appearance peculiar to the English beach. Now the once-decaying art deco hotel that gazes over the bay has been restored to its former elegance, the beach has a stylish new café with elevated terrace and underneath are warm, clean, fully functional showers. And the beach faces into the roaring Atlantic breakers as surely and squarely as any of its better-known rivals for the attentions of the surfer an hour's drive down the coast in north Cornwall. There, the surfing, and the tuition, is now on an industrial scale.
Saunton beach, however, limits the number of surfing instructors, so learning here has a somewhat exclusive feel. And the hotel is not a place for the feeble-walleted. For several days before our surfing lessons my sons Joe and Chris and I had camped at nearby Woolacombe so that they could familiarise themselves with proper waves - and body-boarding - not part of the package holidays they had generally experienced, mostly by the Mediterranean or in chilly northern France. So to graduate to the surfboard and hotel conveyed a sense of progress, of rising up the social (and dude) scales.
Tuition by Whiteley, a former European champion, is usually in small groups. The day starts at the camper-van emblazoned with her business's evocative name, Walking on Waves, where you tug, squeeze and contort yourself into a wetsuit before struggling with the massive, unwieldy board down to the (often distant) surf, your youngest child wailing behind you at the sheer difficulty of the process. This is the easy part.
The squad of misfits and stragglers warily gathers at a safe distance from the, by now intimidating, waves. Sarah fights the manifold expressions of doubt with a barrage of smiles and reassurances. The lesson starts with a safety talk. Saunton is far larger than other beaches in the region and is considered safest for novices. We are warned of dangerous currents and how to spot them.
We are instructed, naturally, in how to assess waves. Sarah is ever the optimist, and insists that few, if any, of her clients fail to ride their board by the end of a week. That may be so, but I'm feeling daunted already.
Then it's into action. Ah yes, I remember this from brief forays in the Sixties. Jolly difficult it was too. And, anyway, I could rarely afford the hire charges, so instead I became a master of bodyboarding. Now well into my fifties, I find that manoeuvring my surfboard to catch a likely wave as soon as I see a crest of white water forming rather taxing. Sarah has told us to point the board at the beach, jump on and paddle hard to catch the wave. But the water is up to my waist. I am required to bob upwards like a cork just to get on board, then to propel myself up to a speed sufficient to catch the wave. Time and again I feel myself rise as the wave lifts me, and fall as it moves uncaringly past this human flotsam.
I look over to my sons. At 15, Joe now seems to challenge me at everything. As I struggle, he speeds forward. Chris, aged 10, is being characteristically dysfunctional at the surf's edge. There is little opportunity for reflection though. If I stop, Sarah zooms up to me on her board like a motorway cop encountering a car on the hard shoulder and strives to get me going again. Hers is the language of the Universal Fitness Instructor. Her eyes fix on mine, and using empathetic gestures and giving a clearly enunciated analysis of my shortcoming of the moment, she urges me back into action. Something in me rebels, but then again she is a charming young lady. Back to the waves I go. Gradually, I find that I am catching the occasional crest, and the old elation starts surging back.
After coffees on the café terrace we climb the short distance to the Saunton Sands Hotel to recuperate. For my boys this means non-stop snooker on a table whose green baize has the appearance of a freshly-clipped lawn. I do lazy lengths of the pool on the terrace, occasionally summoning the strength to nibble one of my four-star sandwiches (at a four-star price), while making sure that I can do justice to the four-star dinner.
By day here we are just immersed. In the evening we immerse ourselves in the melting surprises of the dining room, where dishes arrive with the same benign relentlessness as the waves on the sea far below us. Served in a long, grand room that presents the Atlantic vista as perfectly as do the chefs their creations, dinner is the highlight of a stay here.
Sarah has her own ideas on how to assess waves, but after a few days of surf tuition and eating here, the waves themselves take on a different character. One would be an amuse-bouche, to be savoured momentarily, or a mere dessert with creamy whipped topping. Every so often it would become apparent that a fine main course was coming my way. If only I could do it justice.
As Joe and Chris gradually manage to stand and ride, I seem only to fall. Then, for the first time in more than 30 years, I stand tall on my board, the water hissing below me and the beach speeding at me. Magic.
Saunton has always been protected from the hordes, first by the absence of a railway and, in the motoring age, by the shortcomings of its roads. Next year, however, a bypass opens around the nearby town of Barnstaple, which means that, for millions of people in the southern half of Britain, it will be the most accessible surfing beach, with scarcely a traffic light standing between London and the waves. Enjoy it before it's engulfed.
The nearest train station is in Barnstaple (08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk).
The Saunton Sands Hotel, Braunton, Devon (01271 890 212; www.brend-hotels.co.uk/saunton). Double rooms from £164 including breakfast. There are a number of campsites nearby.
Walking on Waves surf school (01598 710 961; www.walkingonwaves.co.uk). Half-day group sessions at Saunton start at £25, or from £45 for a full day. One-to-one coaching starts at £125 for half a day, £220 for a full day.
01271 375 000; www.staynorthdevon.co.uk
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