Nicola Heath writes: As a child I was inculcated in the belief that English beaches were crap. Sunless, sandless, full of pebbles, and surf as flat as a tack. Australian beaches were always superior.
Driving along the headland above Saunton Sands in North Devon, I can see I’ve been misled.
We pull over to admire the view and from our vantage point, and an expanse of sand, slick from the ebbing tide and reflecting the skyscape, stretches away to the rivermouth. It’s a Sunday and the water is peppered with surfers competing for the small waves. The surf has fallen away since yesterday but neat little swell lines still sweep into shore. Apparently it’s a great spot for beginners.
We follow the road around to the village of Croyde. Like at Saunton Sands, the carpark is full of vans and surfers changing in and out of wetsuits. I am wearing a jumper, scarf and jacket and think they’re all mad, including the one I’ve come with. He’s just picked up his boards from the repair shop — a shabby shed a few villages out of Barnstaple that catches the waft of piggery on the wrong breeze. The boards were damaged by the diligent staff of a budget airline flying home from Spain, and Lee, the board-repairer, laughed when he heard we are flying with the boards to France in a week.
While Paul surfs the beach break at Croyde, I spy a signpost reading “coastal path, 9 miles to Tarka”. I follow the path back to Saunton Sands. Striated rocks reach down to the water and on the land side sheep graze in small green fields. The path crosses Saunton Road; the hill above it is covered in prickly gorse and blackberry brambles bearing small purple and red fruit. I walk back to the village and onto the beach, overlooked by thatched roof houses.
Ninety miles down the road is Newquay, England’s surf capital on the Cornish coast and reminiscent of a smaller scale Gold Coast. Local surfer Johnny Fryer won the British Surfing Championships here in August, while Sarah Beardmore won the Women’s Open, and surf shops line the high street. Each September kids converge on Newquay to celebrate the end their leaving high school with a fiesta very similar in inebriation and infamy to Australian schoolies.
I spent a few days in Cornwall in May this year, in a trip that coincided with the first sunshine of the summer. After the apparently harshest winter in years it was unspeakably glorious to lie on the warm beach in the sun. In England a sunny day is like a benediction; a personal nod from the creator to you. Paul surfed at Fistral Beach in Newquay, apparently the best English beach break, and in the surf shop there they were playing Missy Higgins.
One of the highlights of any trip to the south western coast is driving through the English countryside. It can be slow going but you encounter a multitude of impossibly quaint villages and to an Australian eye, wonderfully green farmland, and after a weekend sampling the odd mix of English countryside and surf culture I am just about ready to return to London.
Nic Heath lives in London, works in media and travels Europe at every opportunity (but she’s just snuck back to Australia to dodge the English winter). You can find her blog here.