Thursday, 24 December 2009

"I find Cromer excellent for writing, surf better"

It was the tea bag that did it. I woke up on Monday morning in a van that resembled an industrial cold storage unit. The windows were coated in a thick layer of ice, the water cannister had chunks of ice floating around in it, even the duvet felt a little crispy. But the worse thing was the used tea bag in the sink. When I prised it off the draining board, it was like a rock.

To cap it all, the swell had virtually disappeared.
So I bowed to the inevitable, and headed for warmth, comfort and civilisation. But not before a hairy drive home. The VW really isn't designed for winter. No heating, very damp and a tendency to slip around on ice like a snake on skates. As the snow continued to fall, I thought I might have to pull over and wait until morning - though given the van has been my home for four months, it's not quite the same as being stranded. Just being forced to camp somewhere that has too much snow and no waves. In the end, I made it to within half a mile of my destination, which was good enough.

I fear I may have to return to Norfolk, having only surfed in Cromer, which I grew to like. Unlike Winston Churchill.
"I'm not enjoying myself very much" - a young Winston Churchill, c. 1885.

Oscar Wilde was closer to the mark, though he was still three letters out. "I find Cromer excellent for writing, surf better" is what he meant to say.So the van is temporarily a van, not a home - at least until after Christmas. I'm already missing the freedom. But not the sub-zero temperatures.

Happy Christmas! Let's hope there are decent waves in the New Year.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Too cold to surf, surely?

Ice on the inside of the van, people wrapped up like Muscovites, parents walking past pulling sleds, Radio Norfolk in snow news overdrive... only a madman would surf in these conditions.
But I know you would all have been disappointed if I hadn't. So of course, I did.

Looking forward to Christmas. Hopefully my feet will have thawed by then.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Thou by the Indian Ganges side

shouldst rubies find.
I by the tide of Humber will complain.

And mostly I'll complain about the weather. It's vile.
It's redefining vile.

For reasons I can't quite explain, I left lovely Yorkshire this morning (again) despite the promise of big, clean, off-shore waves over the weekend, and drove down to Norfolk, which promises a howling, blown-out mess until Sunday. And from Monday, unsurfable mush. Ever the optimist, I'm hoping there might be a slim window of opportunity between the two, and I can grab a quick surf then flee the fickle, freezing fingers of the North Sea in time for Christmas.

The good news: snow is unlikely to settle here tonight.
The bad news: only because the wind howling off the sea is too strong.

Before I left Scarborough, I managed a couple more sessions. I met up with Morgan again and we surfed a big, fat wave in Scarborough North Bay on Wednesday. It was a bit frustrating - lots of water, but it was too fat and not really standing up. Caught a few ok waves, but there was a lot of paddling through endless white water.
We went to have a look at Cayton Bay. It looked ok, but not quite worth getting into a cold wet wetsuit for, so we decided against it. It's so much easier to make these difficult decisions by committee.
This is Morgan illustrating a) Cayton Bay b) the low quality weather and c) the low quality waves.

Morgan went home to nurse his cold, and I went into the surf shop where Josh, the surf-youth on duty, was sufficiently enthusiastic about surfing in general and surfing in Yorkshire in particular to make me rethink. I went back to have another look. It looked a bit better (or I was a bit warmer after being in the surf shop) so I jogged off through the drizzle to get changed. (Sorry, Morgan!)

It was OK, though not a patch on Monday and by the end the wind had started blowing on shore, which was not ideal. Plus I stumbled upon the rip just as my shoulders realised that two sessions in the same day in cold water is not written into their contract. I was happy to drag myself up the sand as the light started to fade.

Today I made my way South. Filey was blown out. Bridlington was blown out. How about Skegness? Everyone had told me it was a dump, but I decided to take a look anyway. It was blown out. And a dump. I suspect I'll never go there again. Here is the only nice view of a very nasty town.
After that Lincolnshire was lovely.

And then I reached Norfolk and the weather kicked in. It's still vile.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Yorkshire Welcome

And we're back!

I left Yorkshire and its fabulous reefs a couple of weeks ago and headed south, though not before meeting two mad night cyclists, Jim and Carl, at The Hart Inn in Sandsend (until recently the wife-swapping centre of Yorkshire, apparently. As I don't have a wife to swap, I just had a couple of beers.)

Jim invited me to Sunday lunch a couple of days later, with his lovely wife Lisa (who is far too nice to swap). I repaid them by not recognising them when they turned up at my place (well, the car park where I had been sleeping all week). That's gratitude for you. Alas, I didn't get a photo.

I headed south, via a quick coffee with my god-parents, who greeted my unannouced appearance with admirable equanimity and hospitality.
Actually I had to make my own coffee. In the van. So maybe their legendary hospitality isn't what it was. Or perhaps I've blotted my copybook (I knew I should have been more assiduous with my thankyou letters). Though the fact their aga was being replaced might have had something to do with it.

I duly saw Karen off at the airport. I would post a photo of her at the departure gate, but an Officious Official (the best sort) insisted I delete it. So I deleted the one that was out of focus. And kept the other one. I would post it here, but I'd probably be arrested, if the O.O. was to be believed.

(Brief mini-rant: I can't understand the prohibition of photography in places like airports and even underground stations. If you're a terrorist intent on blowing up public places, there are plenty of ways to photograph them surreptitiously. Any terrorist who can't work out how to conceal a camera is probably going to struggle with assembling a bomb. Meanwhile we have the draconian regulations restricting photography that used to apply in the Eastern bloc thirty years ago - and which used to be the source of both disbelief and mirth.)

In an unrelated incident, I went undercover to photograph Victoria station.I was en route to a party.

It's just a shame it wasn't a fancy dress party.

But if you're wondering where to get a pith helmet in sunny Hertford, the answer is Ken Weeks. They're almost de rigeur in Hertfordshire these days, I hear:
After ten days of easy-living, central heating and running water among lily-livered Southerners (and a Scot), it was time to hit the road again. I was tempted to head straight for Norfolk, but something was calling me back to Yorkshire. And it certainly wasn't the weather.

I arrived last night, delighted to be back on the road. To celebrate, today I managed to surf twice, in an attempt to shrug off my idle Southern ways. Actually I had just decided not to bother with the first session, at the North Bay in Scarborough, but Morgan, a local lad I met at Sandsend a couple of weeks ago, turned up, and I didn't want to look like a Southern wimp. Unfortunately, though, it turned out to be gutless on-shore slop, and as the tide came in, any latent power was dissipated against the sea wall. But after two weeks down South, it was just great to be in the water. A wave's a wave. Even when it's small, brief and gutless.
In the afternoon, I headed over to Caton Bay (the famous Bunkers). The forecast is for the swell to grow over the week, but I'm beginning to learn that it's better to have a decent surf now than wait for a great surf tomorrow - it usually doesn't materialise. A board in the hand is worth two in the mush, or something. And it was great - shoulder high on the sets, mostly clean, and with a gentle off-shore keeping it smooth and glassy.
All in all, it's been a great return to Yorkshire. It's just a shame about the rain. And tonight's forecast. 2ยบ. Not ideal in a van that has already reverted to its damp status quo. The only solution is, like now, to take refuge in a pub with a real open fire, of which there are plenty. They even have a local beer named after a local break, North Bay. And it's a similar colour.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Nothing Tastes As Good As Surfing Feels

It's the Kate Moss School of Surfing: Nothing Tastes As Good As Surfing Feels.*

The smooth, calm swell on Saturday gave way to a howling Northerly gale that made Sunday impossible. On Monday, with the wind still howling, I surfed a very choppy, head high Scarborough South Bay, in rain and sunshine, and with a rainbow curving down from the castle to the amusement arcade on the quayside.

Fortunately I was back in the van by the time the hail started.

Meanwhile, Scarborough North Bay was hitting the headlines, as hapless drivers got caught in the waves washing over the sea wall.

Tuesday dawned cold and bright. So cold that there was ice on the inside of the van. Still, there are worse views to wake up to.

The reef at Sandsend, which I surfed on Saturday, was too low, so I sat around and waited for the tide to come in.

When it did, it was inconsistent and irregular. I caught a few decent rides, but it wasn't a patch on the sublime surf three days earlier.

As this was likely to be the last swell for a while, and as I have to head south for a few days, I returned to Saltburn, and finally caught some waves there, for the second session of the day. I can't say putting on cold, wet swimmers and a cold, wet wetsuit is much fun.

After two long sessions in two days, my shoulders were no longer aching. They were burning. But I managed to catch a couple of nice rides in Saltburn - a beach break beside the pier which was clean, overhead and peeling nicely. Click on the photo for an idea of the scale: there's a surfer on the peak, just above the left-hand bench. It was a good way to finish the Yorkshire leg of my trip.

As if subconsciously not wanting to leave, I then lost the keys to my van. In my van. Luckily I had a spare set. And inevitably, they turned up twelve hours later. Things don't stay lost for long in a van. Except possibly surfers.

*Apart from Post-Surf Fish and Chips.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Waves, at last! And what a great session! It's been flatter than the Serpentine for the last fortnight. I've spent my time in Sandsend, watching dogs try to catch cormorants.
And ducks try to cadge fish.

But finally, yesterday afternoon, there was the first hint of something pushing in from the North. The forecast said it wasn't due to materialise until this afternoon, but I woke to the sound of activity: two local surfers getting their boards ready. I peered at them in my pyjamas. Surely they weren't going out? I got up to investigate. There was what looked like a small wave, peeling round the headland onto the reef.But once they got there, I could see it was not one of the dribblers that have been trickling into the bay for the last week but a clean, head high reef wave, peeling nicely into the bay. I didn't need to think about it twice.

And it was fabulous! After falling off a couple (too early, too late, too old), I finally got the timing right and caught a couple of fantastic rides - long, powerful, clean. I've seen the photos of Yorkshire waves, but hadn't seen much evidence of it. This was it.

The first one was good, the second was sublime! A little overhead, it rolled on and on, heading for the cliffs, keeping its power the whole way, with a clean face that made it easy to link top turns and bottom turns. It seemed to go on and on, pretty much forever. At least that's how it felt. In the back of your mind you're thinking about the cliffs ahead, but the surf wasn't reaching them, and I kicked out well ahead, a good 200 metres from where I had started. With that "what a great ride" grin all over my face. The best left hand wave I've surfed since Lagide, in Peniche. The longest, cleanest, best-surfed wave of the trip. Sublime.

It's a long paddle back to the peak, though, especially when it's this cold. And this cold is pretty cold.

I fell off my next wave, and the one after that petered out quite quickly. The two local lads got out and I made the fatal error of staying in for a last ride. But the tide was getting too high, and the backwash from the cliffs was stopping the waves from forming properly. No matter - time to head back to the van for breakfast. A very happy surfer.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Scarborough Fair. Whitby Poor.

I'm growing more frustrated by the day as the flat spell continues. There was a calf-high wave dribbling into Scarborough this morning like a pensioner on a day trip. Even that was almost tempting. If it wasn't grey, wet and cold, I might have gone in anyway, just to remind myself what wet feels like. (I know what grey and cold feel like. My van).I've even had to change the screensaver on my computer. For several weeks it was one of the photos of Thurso East (here), But it was too depressing seeing it on my screen, so I've replaced it with one of Tynemouth (here). It's still depressing, given current pond-flat conditions. But at least, if the waves pick up, it's still only an hour up the road, unlike Thurso which, at the speed my van travels, is about 15 hours.

Thankyou to all of you who used the blog to send me birthday wishes. So that's you, Nu. It's nice to know I have one friend out there.

My extremely industrious sisters worked out that what I most needed for my birthday was a bath (probably why I've only got one friend out there.) So they very generously booked me into a charming self-catering chapel. Fortunately while the vicar wasn't looking, someone's transformed it into a comfortable holiday cottage, though they've kept an altar-like island kitchen unit, in case the congregation return. It was fantastic! Running water, a proper bed, TV, microwave. All the mod cons you're unlikely to find in a van (and I certainly haven't found in mine). Karen came up and we cooked another pheasant. Not road-kill, this time. Gun-kill, presumably, judging by the lead shot. Either way, it came ready-plucked from the butcher at Proudfoot (like Tesco, only nice).The smaller one keeping it company is a partridge, in case the pheasant wasn't enough. It was, so I've been eating cold game since Saturday. There are worse things to have in your fridge.

We went to Whitby, home of the Synod, Dracula and Captain Cook. It's probably lovely when the sun shines. The sun didn't shine and it wasn't.In a town with the highest proportion of fish and chip shops per capita in the UK (a statistic I have conveniently invented for literary effect), we managed to stumble on the absolute worst. Even the seagulls stopped flocking round when they saw where we'd been. Whitby, home to the pickiest scavangers in the UK.
So now I'm kicking my heels in a grey, wet Yorkshire, waiting for the waves to pick up. End of the week, possibly. If not, I'm selling the van and buying a one-way ticket to Hawaii. There's only so much flat water a surfer can stare at before he/she goes mad.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

It's Not Too Late

Just because I'm in a van, doesn't mean you can't send me a birthday present.

Yes, Saturday.

Many thanks to the various readers who have so far sent: a new surf board (thanks, Kelly), a Christmas hamper 2008 (the wine was fine, the Christmas cake a little stale, the smoked salmon somewhat past its best), a jumper (one arm too long) and three goldfish (being delivered above).

Many thanks!

Yes. Saturday. The 21st. A glass of mulled wine and a free surf lesson to anyone delivering by hand.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Crossing the Tees (and dotting the Eyes)

The wave didn't materialise. This was not a complete surprise, as it's quite fickle, and only breaks a few times a year. When it does appear, it's somewhere round here:Not the most bucolic surf spot in Britain. You drive along the side of the steel works, which is strangely beautiful on a sunny morning, in a bleak, industrial way, especially if you're foolish enough to think you might get a surf at the end of it.
Unfortunately, the waves didn't materialise anywhere else either. And have continued not to materialise. While the West Coast is being buffetted by hurricane-force winds, the same winds are blowing everything on the East Coast over to Norway. It's as flat as a mill pond, which is more than a little frustrating.

If I had known how flat it was going to be all week, I might have gone in at Saltburn on Saturday. There was a knee-high wave flopping listlessly around the pier like a depressed haddock, with a few longboarders putting on a brave face, but it barely looked surfable, let alone worth surfing. So I didn't. And now I'm wishing I had. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Seize the wave, or something.Almost as soon as you cross the Tees, the landscape changes dramatically. From the headland above Saltburn, you can see the charming Victorian 'new' town, complete with historical pier, with the apocalyptic sprawl of Middlesborough just a couple of miles beyond.

And they like their tractors.
Something to do with hauling boats up the beach, I suspect. But there are far more tractors than boats. On the other hand, if the boats are as seaworthy as the tractors are landworthy, they will have sunk long ago.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Grim Bit

I think I've reached the bit they mean when they say it's grim up north. Industrial, built-up, ugly. And that's just the women. Baboom. After another night with Jane and Toby (charming company, delightful kids, soft bed, running water, porridge for breakfast) a damp van was a bit of a shock. But the sun rise was stunning, on a pretty cliff-top just outside Hartlepool, reclaimed from industrial use.
Hartlepool was probably quite attractive some time in the mid-19th century. Now it's charming centre proved to be somewhat elusive, scared off by dual carriageways, superstores and cinemas. Its enough to drive you to drink. If you can find a pub that's still open.
On the other hand, I came across the most inventive use of a garage I've seen: a chip shop.
I don't know what the food's like, because by 7 o'clock it's all shuttered up. Clearly the people in Hartlepool like their chips early.

I surfed at the Headland in Hartlepool and at Seaton Carew. The Headland beach is nice enough, despite its ex-industrial backdrop. But Seaton Carew is the ugliest beach I've seen so far! It's edged with a wasteland of dirty sand peppered with rubble and broken glass. At the southern end, a steel works spews smoke and container ships steam in and out of Teeside.
I'd heard that the white water fizzes with the pollution - and it's true! After the wave has long gone, there's the sound of popping bubbles, like sitting in a freshly-poured glass of Coke. With probably similar effects on your teeth. I tried not to swallow.
My board has finally been repaired, so I've returned to test the limits of Jane and Toby's excellent hospitality (more soft beds, more running water, no porridge). The local pub is filled with men in plus-fours, and you have to join the leek club before you take a leak.
I'm heading south again this afternoon, and hoping to surf The Gare tomorrow, if it's working. Then on to Yorkshire.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Gary the Guillemot

Walking on Bamburgh beach on Sunday with Karen. We found a stranded starfish, so we transferred it to a rockpool.
Then we found a stranded guillemot.
What do you do with a stranded guillemot? (He's the black and white blob at the water's edge, above.) He was sitting on the beach looking distressed. It turns out he was covered in oil and couldn't fly. Two friendly dogs ran up and tried to play polo with him. He didn't look like he wanted to play so we did the decent thing. Hung him, plucked him, ate him, like Felix.

Just kidding. We wrapped him up in a T-shirt and took him back to the van, almost an hour's walk away.
To his credit, he seemed to enjoy the walk. Or at least didn't object too much. After several phone calls and a minor detour, we got in touch with a bird rescue centre in Berwick.
So we drove to Berwick, and were able to leave him in the capable hands of Dave and John at the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust.
They already had three oil-slicked guillemots, sulking in a pen like members of a black-tie club who have been told there's no more port.
But at least they are alive. John and Dave wash the oil off with water and washing up liquid, feed them fish for several days until their feathers regain their waterproofing, and then they release them back into the wild.
To celebrate our good deed for the day, we went to The Castle fish bar in Berwick for fish and chips - just in case our feathers aren't sufficiently waterproofed.