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.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Landscapes for vegetarians

Or scenes for the squeamish: some charming views of Alnmouth and Bamburgh, where I was staying earlier this week.
Big thanks to Mog and Mary, and Jane and Toby, for their generous hospitality, hot showers, soft beds and efficient washing machines over the last couple of nights. There was a frost on the grass this morning. Which should make sleeping in the van tonight rather interesting.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Oh no! I've gone feral!

At least that's what occurred to me as I sat on the beach happily plucking Felix (the pheasant). And that's certainly what the expressions of the dog-walkers suggested, as their dogs sniffed around trying to grab my dinner.

The answers to the questions in the last post are:
A) three days
B) brown the meat, sautee an onion, add the meat, red wine, carrot, parsnip, potatoes and mushrooms, then simmer for about an hour.
Delicious. Though I do miss him hanging around my van.

Oh no! I've gone feral!

Monday, 2 November 2009

the ups and downs of surfing

You just never know when you're going to stumble across perfect, overhead waves peeling in against a strong off-shore wind.
More of that in a moment. I finally and reluctantly left Scotland, after spending my last few nights camping out at St Abbs Head (which is obviously not in East Lothian). It's difficult to leave somewhere that looks like this when you wake up:My van seemed to excite a certain amount of attention from the locals:
Returning to England was something of an anti-climax. No "Welcome to England" sign - presumably because it's been torn down by the Scots. Instead there's a kebab van.

I celebrated my first morning in England by gashing my head on my van (you'd think that after two months, I'd be used to living in a confined space). I then managed to rip out one of the fins on the longer of my two boards. Not break, rip out. Which is a lot worse.

On the other hand, I did meet Felix. This is Felix.
He was warm but lifeless when I came across him, so I did the decent thing and gathered him up. If anyone has a decent recipe for pheasant stew - and a view to how long to hang him - please let me know. It's what he would have wanted.

Then I spent a couple of nights at Bamburgh, waking up to this:
Sunday, though, was vile - very strong winds, driving rain, nothing surfable in Bamburgh. I decided to take my damaged board to the surf shop in Tynemouth. Where this was happening:They were as amazed as I was by the waves, which apparently had only just materialised, after the wind swung from howling on-shore to fabulous off-shore. Difficult to resist. For a sense of scale, click on the photo. There's a surfer in the centre of the picture, just in front of the breaking wave, about to duck dive under it. I didn't get a photo of anyone on the wave, but they were well overhead, and possibly double.
There was a peeling point, just to the right of this photo, but it already had a dozen surfers on it, doing things I can only dream of. This peak had three surfers on it, and was more manageable. In the end, there were about seven of us, the locals as excited as I was. After the experience of Thurso, I managed to acquit myself with a bit more skill and nerve. I caught two absolute screamers, both on my backhand, dropping down what feels like the sheer face of the wave, to turn into a towering wall of water looming up behind you. It's utterly exhilarating, and so satisfying when you get it right. This is what it's all about!

I caught a handful of others, but was getting blown off and blinded by the strong wind, which sends a lacerating shower of spray off the top of each wave as it crumbles, making it impossible to see.

Gradually the waves dropped off until they were 'just' head high. The sun went down, but the moon rose, almost full, and I stayed out well after dark, along with four others, as fireworks exploded up on the cliff. Finally exhaustion sent me in, but even then, at half past five, I saw two surfers gettting ready to go out for a moonlit surf. Because today, with all the wind, it's virtually flat again.