05 Jan Newquay Surfing: A history of Britains Surf City from 1960 to present!
Written by Newquay Activity Centre Director Rob Barber
Cornwall’s biggest seaside resort is the birthplace of the British surf scene and the centre of the Uk’s multi-million-pound surf industry. In summer it’s invaded by holiday makers and boozed-up party-goers, but if you can escape the hordes it’s still a great place to be based, with access to dozens of quality breaks.
‘Coast of Dreams’ reads the welcome signs as you drive into Britain’s best known surf city, and for many people that’s what it is. As soon as you arrive the place reeks of surfing: the road signs are covered in surf stickers, you’ll see someone skating down the road within five minutes, and the town is full of pseudo-surfer dudes with long hair, tatts and a tan.
Newquay seems to be unique in that surfers’ opinions about the place differ so widely. For every three surfers you speak to, two will love the place while the third absolutely hates it. The surfing fraternity’s regard for the town is deeply split, with the lovers and the haters all having their own stories to tell about their various experiences. But there’s no doubt, particularly in the summer, that the town is the heart of the British surfing scene.
The town, and Cornwall in general, is home to some of the most awesome scenery in Britain, with dramatic cliffs dropping into the blue waters of the Atlantic. The view across Newquay Bay on a clear evening, with the sun setting behind Towan Head, is comparable to anything you’ll see on your travels abroad.
The first person to get hold of a real surfboard in Britain was a guy called Jimmy Dix, a dentist from Nuneaton. The year was 1935. Fascinated by pictures of Hawaiian surfers he’d seen in a magazine, Dix decided to try to build a hollow wooden surfboard himself. So he wrote to the famous Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku asking for specifications. Amazingly, the letter reached Duke. Even more amazingly, the magnanimous Hawaiian sent back an actual 13-foot Tom Blake surfboard as a gift! A few months later Dix strapped the huge board to his Alvis motor car and drove down to Newquay for a holiday. His attempts at trying to ride the board caught the attention of a young ice cream man named Pip Stafferi, who worked at the beach. Pip had also seen photos of surfing in an encyclopaedia and was captivated by the board. He asked Dix if he could have a close look at it, made some mental notes, and set to work building a copy. Later that summer Pip finished his board and learnt how to ride it, becoming quite a celebrity in the town.
After the Second World War surfers were a very rare sight on Cornwall’s beaches. But when Aussie lifeguards Bob Head, Ian Tiley, John Campbell and Warren Mitchell rolled into Newquay in April 1962 with their fibreglass performance surfboards, they unwittingly changed the face of the town forever. The Aussie crew caught the attention of the town’s youngsters with their cool displays of hotdog surfing. With the sounds of The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean playing on the radio, surfing was hip and soon everyone wanted to have a go.
Realising there was a demand for boards, Bob Head joined forces with local lads Bill Bailey and Doug Wilson to form the European Surfboard Company, whose most famous brand was Bilbo Surfboards. Bill and Bob (get it?) built boards in a small factory on Pargolla Road, and Doug sold them from a tiny surf shop called The Surf Centre on Fore Street. Doug, a keen photographer, took some classic photos of sessions from the ‘60s, images that define the carefree spirit of the times.
Early local standouts included Chris Jones, Robin Wilson, Brian Colwill, Alan McBride, ‘Tigger’ Newling and Roger Mansfield. They were inspired and influenced by the visiting Aussie lifeguards, and by American lifeguard Jack ‘Mahogany’ Lydgate who came to Cornwall in ’63 with tales of the legendary waves of Hawaii. Trevor Roberts, another Newquay lad, learnt lifeguarding and surfing skills from the Aussies, and his son Grishka later grew up to be one of the most recognisable faces of British surfing and a European Professional Champion.
May 1966 saw the arrival of Britain’s first true surfing professional, Rod Sumpter. The Watford-born naturalfoot, who’d grown up in Australia, kick-started the Newquay scene with experiences from around the world, a professional attitude and a strong desire to win every contest that was held.
The man who originally dubbed the town ‘Surf City’ was Roger Mansfield, in a magazine article that he wrote back in 1983. Roger is a real authority on the town, having watched four decades of surfers come and go. He recollects the early era with fond memories. The hub of the Newquay scene, much like the broken stairs in the film Big Wednesday, was the road which leads down to Great Western Beach, known back then as The Slope.
“The Slope was a bit of a phenomenon, the centre of British surf culture at that time,” says Mansfield. “To get a board made in Newquay you first had to find Bill Bailey, the lifeguard at Great Western, who was a really good surfer and the only board shaper in the area. You then had to prove to him that you were a good swimmer, and that you had the right to own a surfboard. Travellers and locals alike would congregate at the bottom of The Slope and that’s where we the Aussies and other travelling surfers would share stories of international waves, as of course there were no surfing videos at the time.”
Back then you didn’t have to go so far to find new spots. “One day I went down to the Bay with my surfing buddies Chris Jones and Robin Wilson ,” continues Roger. “The waves were really small, so we paddled across the bay to Towan Head, walked up the lifeboat slip and saw a break the other side, Little Fistral. We’d found our first secret spot! To us, in those days, Fistral was a long way away. Few people I knew had cars. I got around on a push bike, with a trolley on the back for my board”.
The crew of surfers to make an impact on the Newquay scene rose to prominence in the late 70’s and 80’s. They included Nigel Semmens, Keith Beddoe, Mick Etherington, Lenny Ingram and Lee Parker. They’d hang out on the beach at Little Fistral or around the undercover area in front of the North Fistral toilet block. They’d leave their clothes in the shelter while they surfed (not something that would be recommended nowadays!). The order of the day was Fistral at low tide, then Watergate at high tide. Nige recollects how Newquay was a very different place back then, with surfing a novelty that set you apart from the rest of the crowd, compared to now when virtually everyone seems to be a surfer. “One day I got a knock on the door and there was a policeman there,” recalls Nige, “He asked if I’d vandalised the shelters at South Fistral. They’d been smashed up and somebody had spray painted ‘NIGEL SEMMENS IS A DROPPING-IN BASTARD’ on the wall! The policeman didn’t have a clue what the graffiti meant, so he thought that I must have done it and had turned up to charge me!” chuckled Semmens. “These days the policeman would probably surf himself.”
The Current Scene
The last 10 years has seen the face of the town change completely. Whereas once it was mainly a family and ‘blue-rinse brigade’ holiday destination, it’s now morphed into the country’s premiere 18-30’s hotspot. Quaint seaside hotels and guest houses have been transformed into neon-lit surf lodges and hostels. The buzz around Newquay in the summertime is something that nowhere else in Britain can offer, with the week of the Boardmasters event being the culmination of the festivities. The town swells from a population of 22,000 in the winter to accommodate a staggering 80,000 visitors per week in the summer. Accommodation prices go up through the roof and many holidaymakers book up a year in advance to reserve their digs. Locals rent out everything from garden sheds and even cupboards (no joke!) to travelling surfers and the assorted groupies that fill the town for the Boardmasters week. The town turns into a cross between Ibiza’s hedonistic party scene, Huntington beach’s surf-fest feel and Blackpool’s ‘kiss me quick’ tack show.
Newquay’s nightlife has attained legendary status and it’s now the second most popular stag and hen night venue in the UK. There are a staggering 500 licensed premises and 14 nightclubs.
The Newquay locals are spoilt for setups. The town boasts nine surfing beaches that each have at least two or three decent waves at various stages of the tide. Fistral beach is of course the best known (and home to our surf school), the local crew’s favoured spot is North Fistral at low tide. Here you’ll find the hollowest waves in the area, with 50-yard rides on a good day. It’s offshore on a southeasterly wind. At high tide the rocks along the headland create a wedge which offers the younger crew a chance to boost airs, slides and hacks. At the opposite end of the beach, South Fistral offers some good lefthand waves when it’s on. It holds up to eight feet but gets bumpy with size. There’s no doubt that the vibe in the water at Fistral is competitive, and maybe this is why some people dislike surfing here. On a good day the performance levels at Fistral go through the roof; there’s always a multinational contingent of surfers in the water and a fair bit of competitiveness.
Crantock, the next beach south of Fistral, holds a sized swell but tends to be more exposed on the wind. It can be good around low tide but beware of strong rips due to the River Gannel.
Continuing South, the next bay is Holywell, which faces northwest and is best from mid to three-quarters tide.
Back in the town, Newquay Bay is made up of four beaches which link up at low tide – Towan, Great Western, Tolcarne and Lusty Glaze. The Bay is notorious for its closeouts although it’s offshore on the prevailing southwesterly winds. Throughout the winter, perfectly groomed lines stack up across the bay and unload into hollow but unridable closeouts. The site lends itself perfectly to an artificial reef, and indeed the idea has been proposed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’ll happen, at least not for many years. “A reef in the bay could potentially create one of Britain’s most awesome setups,” comments Newquay hero Lee Bartlett, “but due to the moaning old crows in the gig rowing club, and some bizarre objections by the Newquay Surf Capital Committee, it doesn’t look like it’ll happen”
A couple of miles north of Newquay is Watergate Bay. If the banks are good and there’s swell running you can find waves here at all stages of the tide.
Local shredder Richie Mullins sums up life in Newquay. “Living here, there always seems to be a rideable wave, most days anyway. When its good, there’s a sick selection of breaks. When it’s flat, it’s the best place to party. Happy days!”
Many of Newquay’s current crop of top surfers have northern roots, as their parents moved down from cities like Manchester and Birmingham, London or Leeds to open guest houses or hotels in the town. The Harris, Owen, Mullins and Winter brothers, Spencer Hargraves and Lee Ryan are all of northern descent. This crew, as well as Jed Stone, Daz Wright, Lee Bartlett, Alan Stokes, Ben Baird, Grishka Roberts, Nathaniel Hooton, Nigel Semmens and the Llewellyn brothers, have made up the backbone of the English and British surf team for the last 15 years.
The new crew are just as strong, with surfers like Tom and Jack Butler ruling their divisions, and other top surfers like Lewis Clinton, Leon Mansfield, Tom Good, Harry Timpson, Holly Donnelly and Luke Dillon cleaning up on various tours. Tony Good runs the Newquay grom club and coached the team to wins at various British grommet inter-club Championships. The force is strong, the club has 70 members and a waiting list of 40. With so many talented and stoked youngsters coming up through the ranks, and such a focus on surfing in the town, there’s little doubt that Newquay will remain Britain’s number one surf city for the foreseeable future.
Things to see
Even if it’s flat and raining you can still have fun in Newquay, head down to Newquay Activity Centre where they offer everything from surfing to bodyboarding, coasteering to kayaking and even Super SUP, their epic new multi person paddle boarding activity. If you feel the need to get out of Newquay, about half-an-hour up the road is the Eden Project, near St Austell. The dome-shaped biomes are an awesome sight and if you squint a bit you’ll think you’re in Brazil. A day pass is typically £25 for adults and £14 for children, although it can be cheaper if you book in advance.
Some famous Newquay area celebs/visitors
Simon Tabron (BMX)
Chris Morris (Footballer)
Where to eat
There are stacks of good places to eat in Newquay. For brekky head to Fistral Chef on Beacon Road for one of their breakfast baguettes. For lunch try The Chy, which overlooks the Bay. In the evening, time your dinner to coincide with the sunset and head to the Lewinnick Lodge on Pentire Head. Fistral Beach Bar, Kahuna, Finns and Fistral Surf Diner are also good.
Where to drink
The town has almost as many bars, clubs and pubs as it has surf shops. Top pubs include The Central Inn, The Walkabout or The Red Lion.
Newquay has a club to suit every taste, with your average Saturday night offering live bands, top DJ’s and everything in between. For the best live music head to the Red Lion on a Friday or The Chy Bar on a Monday. The Red Lion features mostly up and coming Cornish rock bands whereas The Chy Bar usually features a whole host of DJ’s across various nights. On the opposite side of town, Berties also offers many big name DJ’s during the summer. Most nights out in Newquay seem to end up in the Sailor’s Arms on Fore Street. This pub-cum-nightclub is still the busiest nightspot in the town with queues up to 100 yards long during the summer! Get there early to beat the crowd.
Article originally written for Carve Surf Magazine