Monday, 29 November 2010

I despise Donald Trump

A couple of weeks ago, BBC2 screened Donald Trump's Golf War, an excellent documentary about Donald Trump's multi-million pound campaign to buy up an area of sand dunes just north of Aberdeen to build a golf course.

Despite honourable attempts by locals to prevent this pointless and aggressive development, and with the strong suggestion that bribery and corruption have played a part in the process, the development is now going ahead. But not content with turning an area of untouched dunes into a golf complex, complete with hotel and extensive housing development, Trump is now trying to force the compulsory purchase of the homes of four remaining families who live on land he covets.

And he has already started bulldozing the dunes.

It is a depressing documentary, invoking the spirit of Local Hero but a far from happy ending. If it's on again, it's well worth watching, though very depressing. Corporate arrogance defeats environmental and social concerns. Yet again.

The campaign group Tripping Up Trump have spent the last few years campaigning against the development, and are continuing to support the families under threat of compulsory purchase. Their website is at I strongly urge you to visit the website (or the building site!) and lend your support.

I visited the dunes a year ago. The sea was too flat to surf, but the dunes and the beach were lovely. Not for much longer, though.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Guardian Travel Writing Competition

I was rather more disappointed than I probably should have been to discover that I was one of the runners up in The Guardian's recent travel writing competition. I sent in three pieces, one of which was about surfing at Cape Wrath, one about Orkney (carefully avoiding any mention of surfing) and one about idling around a beach in Goa (ditto). It was the Goa one that made the runners-up list - though inevitably it was the one I wrote last, in least time, and almost didn't bother submitting. Some kind of lesson there, perhaps.

A heavily-edited version of my piece is on the Guardian website HERE.

It's the piece at the bottom, with the heading (not mine): Goa before it's packed away.

My original version, twice as long, follows below. Maybe I'll post the other two pieces I wrote at some point.


Go to most resorts out of season, and you find empty restaurants, silent hotels and an air of bored anticipation. Go to certain villages in Goa, and all you find are palm trees. By law, everything else has to be dismantled and packed away before the monsoon.

Luckily we arrived two weeks before the season ended. There were plenty of beach cafés, but they were disappearing at the rate of at least one a day. Each morning we were confronted by a fresh gap in the row of shacks, as the beachfront began to resemble a child’s smile.

Pulling down a resort every year is an effective way of preventing runaway development, though this doesn’t stop the nearby resort of Palolem from throwing up a thriving town every autumn, with dozens of shops and discos, yoga centres and massage huts attracting the gap year crowd. Patnam is quieter, more restrained, with no more than a dozen beachside cafés, each serving a similar mix of East and supposedly West: chai and something resembling cappuccino; curry and something similar to pizza.

Behind each café, a few steps from the beach, sit a handful of simple but clean wooden huts to rent among the palms, with plumbed-in bathrooms and bamboo walls. They’re basic but clean, and for around 600 rupees a night for a double, a bargain.

At low tide you can wander round the rocks at the end of the beach to see how the other half live. A Bollywood comedy was shooting at the Intercontinental, so the beach there was full of actors, film crew and European crusties drafted in for background colour. When filming stopped, teenage security guards were left in charge, armed with sticks and disarming smiles, eager to chat to while away the boredom.

As the days passed, the number of tourists dwindled. The waiters weren’t too bothered – every afternoon they played raucous cricket on the beach; every evening, they kept one eye on the Indian Premier League. If there weren’t enough customers, they would close for the evening. At my favourite café, they once did this after they had taken our order and let us sit expectantly for 20 minutes. After that, we always checked that the chef would be sticking around long enough to cook our dinner. But it was well worth the gamble – his succulent, spicy fish, cooked in a banana leaf, was by far the best on the beach, and his shack exerted a magnetic pull whenever we tried to go elsewhere. When we did, we were invariably disappointed, and always swore never to abandon him again – hoping he wouldn’t abandon us either.

At sunset, we walked along the beach, keeping pace with a lone dolphin that swam lazily across the bay, until the sun had turned from gold to blood, and dipped behind the sharply silhouetted palms like a clichéd photo of the paradise it was. If they hadn’t packed up the resort around us, we might have stayed forever

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Brighton Beach

Forgive me, Reader, it's been four weeks since my last immersion.

But yesterday I had by Brighton baptism, all the more welcome for being entirely unexpected. The morning was vile, with strong winds and heavy rains. By early afternoon, though, the wind had dropped and the sun had even made a brief appearance. I jogged down to the beach to go for a run, and was amazed to find reasonable surf - and only one surfer in.

So I jogged back, changed into my wetsuit, and grabbed a board. To my dismay, I discovered that my board of choice for Brighton, a 6'10'', turned out to have a small ding in the tail. Exactly why you always need at least two boards to hand. So instead I grabbed my 6'5'' - not ideal, as the weak waves need a board with more volume. But better than a wooden spoon (which would just sink under the weight).

I jogged back again, avoiding shoppers, prams and school-kids, and dived in.

It's only been four weeks (and an operation on my hand) since my last session, but it felt like months, and paddling was a real struggle - not helped by a very strong longshore rip. And it was a beautiful evening - still and clear, with the sun picking out the piers and silhouetting the flocks of birds that swirled around them like swarms of bees.

The waves weren't great - they were big, peaking just overhead, but losing all their height and energy almost immediately, so the rides were short and soft. But a ride's a ride! And a few of them were walling up quite nicely, so the basics were there.

For a while there were four of us out, my shortboard, a longboard, a stand-up paddleboard and a kayak. Basically a specimen from every form of surf life (in descending order of evolutionary status and cool).

My views on SUPs and Kayaks are robust and unrepeatable here. In summary, what's the point?! Fortunately, with a wide beach and unpredictable peaks, there was no reason to get too close.

After about an hour, the sun disappeared, the wind picked up and a few more surfers arrived. After coming off a wave quite close to shore, I decided to call it a day - and found myself swept halfway to Hove by the strong current. Just a few metres from the beach, it was like trying to cross a swift flowing river, drifting at about a metre a second.

I picked my painful way over the cold pebbles and dripped my way back through town, tired but exhilarated.

And this morning, my muscles are glowing with the happy ache of post-surf bliss.

Monday, 25 October 2010


So that's it! Done! Since my last post I've surfed my way around Wales, and completed the loop of Britain.
How do I feel? Happy to have completed it - but sorry it's over. If I could go round again, I would.
The final three weeks were a hectic race to cover as much ground as possible, from Gower reefs to Pembroke beaches and even, finally, a new secret spot. Some great days, some terrible days, some days that promised much and delivered little, others that looked hopeless but turned out fine
Helped by two handy depressions loitering around Iceland, conditions were better than I feared they might be, and after Pembrokeshire, my new favourite part of Wales, there was enough swell pushing up towards the Irish sea for a few sneaky surfs in Mid-Wales and North Wales.
Finally, and much to my surprise, I had a lovely surf in Anglesey, the theoretical finishing line. From here to Macrihanish and the Hebrides, where I started a year ago, Ireland gets in the way, so surf is inconsistent and unreliable. But just to complete the loop, I went back to Cosby Beach to visit Anthony Gormley's standing figures.

They're still there, still gazing out to sea, still wondering when their next surf will be. But then, who isn't?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Pious Pelican

When I was living in Cardiff and surfing in South Wales, I was always intrigued by a pub called The Pelican in her Piety at Ogmore. It turns out to be charming, and a good place to wait for the howling onshore wind to drop. Yesterday (only yesterday!) there was barely a breath of wind, and the surf was great, a nice, easy, head-high wave peeling gently into the rivermouth near here, and not too many surfers in the water.

Llantwit Major was a different story. The No Dropping In rule doesn't seem to apply there. Which is a shame, as it's a nice, long right hand reef. And not too difficult to paddle into, for intermediate surfers of a certain age like me. It's just that every time you get up, there's some Llantwit ahead of you, making the wave crumble and close down before you get there. Perhaps they're just very friendly, and want to lead the way on every wave, just so you don't feel lonely. Llantwits. (I'm assuming Llant is a Welsh five-letter word for an act of copulation, where Anglo-Saxons use a four-letter one).

So anyway, I'm back on the road again, again, after a fantastic couple of weeks revisiting the north coast of Scotland. I surfed the two most isolated beaches in Britain, met four most excellent eccentrics, bumped into Snoz again, and had another shot at Thurso East.

Sandwood Bay is the northernmost beach on the West Coast of Scotland - a long, exposed bay just below Cape Wrath. It's a four mile walk over the moors from the nearest access point, the village of Oldshoremore. It took about an hour and a half to get there, carrying board, wetsuit, water and lunch. And well over two hours to get back. But it's through fantastic scenery, like this:
And when you get there, you're greeted by this:
I set off early and didn't see another soul until I was warming up, ready to hit the water, which made it feel all the more isolated - a sensation that was soon punctured by the steady trickle of walkers out on a Sunday hike. The waves started out big and wind-swept, but unfortunately soon died down to just wind-swept, with a horrendous longshore rip that tears at your legs and sweeps you up the beach. But it's still worth the trek.

On the way back to Durness, you pass through more fabulous scenery, like this:
And when you get there, you're faced with a dilemma: do you head for the campsite, along with all the motorhomes...
Or do you camp somewhere more secluded, like this?
Hmm, tricky one.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Back on the Road

Although technically I'm supposed to be in Wales, I've been on a brief detour to Orkney, followed by ten days on the North coast of the Scottish mainland, picking up a few waves I missed first time round.

Orkney is great - beautiful beaches, impressive cliffs, neolithic ruins and viking villages. Plus delicious seafood if you can catch a fisherman as he unloads his boat. Conditions for surfing were summer-small, but I managed a couple of sessions at the legendary, seal-infested point break at Scara Brae, and another on the island of Sanday.

Although it was only chest high, the first day at Scara Brae was fairly good. Conditions dropped off overnight, and I didn't have quite as much success on the second day,
possibly because I was trying to surf the wrong type of board.
This is Orkney's star attraction.
She's standing in front of Orkney's second star attraction. And a load of old stones.

Here she is again with the Old Man of Hoy.
And even more stones.

No stones here. It's Sanday.
On Hoy we managed to catch local fishermen Kenny and Gary as they landed a crate of crabs.
A few hours later, voilà!
Apparently it's very important to dress appropriately for visiting neolithic stone circles and viking villages.
The locals even have a name for people like us:

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

End of the Campaigning Season

Summer's here, and with it crowds and flat seas, so I'm temporarily off the road and out of the water.

Since I started in Tiree in September, I've surfed a grand total of 60 waves in Scotland and England, mostly in geographical order. (That's 60 different beaches/breaks, not 60 actual waves - I think I caught 60 waves just in Sennen.)

Wales is next, probably in September. And I'm hoping to catch a handful of well-known breaks I missed first time round because of time, ignorance or lack of waves (Sandwood Bay, Lynmouth, Croyde, Sthhhhh - the least secret secret spot in Yorkshire - among others)

Before that, I'm heading to Orkney in August, and hoping to find the odd wave there.

I'm planning to write up the trip, so if anyone knows any agents or publishers with a passing interest in surfing, I would be very grateful.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, thanks for your comments and thanks for all your support.

Eighty Waves

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Chapel Porth

One of the nicest beaches in North Cornwall is Chapel Porth, in the so-called Badlands near St Agnes. I caught it one wind-blown morning a few weeks ago, when it was heaving and heavy, with fat waves and too much froth. So I returned last week to try it in better conditions. This time there was a light off-shore blowing the tops off the fun, waist-high waves that were pouring into the narrow cove. Suddenly enthused and energised, I had a fabulous session, catching loads of waves in quick succession.
Afterwards, I was talking to another surfer in a van, John from West Sussex. He had been up on the hillside taking photos, and happened to catch these photos of me. Actually surfing.
Though I was rather dismayed to find photographic confirmation that I spend far too long on all-fours before I get to my feet.Anyway, thanks for the photos, John!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Heading North

Finally made it round the toe of Britain. Lots of it is lovely. Land's End itself is a reeking sock, with expensive parking, a bizarre display of 'artfully-placed' faux standing stones mixed in with a miniature village, and a '4D' Doctor Who experience. That's 2D on a screen, 1D in the time you waste, and 1D of the bit of your soul that you'll leave there forever. In the past, we used woad and aggression to deter invaders from the south. Nowadays, we rely on an 'Experience'. The Land's End Experience should not be experienced, and whoever is responsible should be dangled over the edge of the cliff until they see the error of their ways. In 4D.

But everything else was lovely.

Especially Cape Cornwall, which curiously looks like Scotland:
And Saint Michael's Mount, which looks like France:
And most of all Gwithian, next to Sennen Cove, which looks like - and probably is - Paradise:
I looked up a photographer friend, Tup, whom I met in Thurso waaaay back in October. We went surfing one day and shark-hunting two days later. Shark-hunting is a bit like wave-hunting, except a bit less anxious (these were Basking Sharks, which eat plankton, not Great White Sharks, which eat surfers). Tup claimed he had seen several the day before, from the safety of a small plane, a claim that gained more validity the following day, when two of his photographs appeared in The Sun. So Tup is basically a Shark Paparazzo. Or Sharkarrazzo.

I also nipped over to Falmouth for a charming drink with fellow writer James Henry and a night on Falmouth quayside. A night on Falmouth quayside is less exciting than one might imagine. Apart from the seagulls, which used the roof of my van as a landing strip. Or as a target.

Since then, I've been working my way up the coast, with some fabulous waves and some not so fabulous waves, in fabulous weather and some not so fabulous weather.
Karen, who is not a Sharkarrazzo, managed this fantastic shot of me on a wave at Duckpool.
Her career as a Surferazzo is still in its infancy. But after my camera battery died, she did see me on a wave that she described as "really impressive" (entirely without prompt or payment), and which was indeed the highlight of the past ten days - a long, peeling, overhead left that I at last managed to surf with balance and poise, if not actual grace.

Then a couple of days en famille with los Barkers and los Gibsons in Puttsborough, where the waves were again fabulous, the company was fabulous and the weather was mostly fabulous. And my surfing was far from fabulous.

Now I'm back in Saint Agnes, after fun sessions at Perranporth and Chapel Porth in small, clean, easy waves (unlike the filthy monsters at Putts), waiting for Skippy to finish repairing my board. Then off up to Newquay, where I scored a great afternoon of head-high waves a week ago, which slightly redeems Newquay from 'Somewhere to avoid like the plague' to 'Somewhere to avoid like a sore throat'.
Nice waves, but you wouldn't want to hang out there if you're over 19. And I am indeed over 19, despite repeated attempts to demonstrate otherwise, both in and out of the water.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The End of the World

After the delays and distractions of the last couple of months, I'm back on the road. I picked up the trail in Wembury, just east of Plymouth. Last time I was there, it was a mist-shrouded, gothic vale of dark, satanic menace. This time it was sun-filled and beautiful. Plus I met a badger ambling down the footpath by the church. I've never met a badger before. Consequently I acted with rather less equanimity than the badger, which ambled on, oblivous.

Then a sprint through Plymouth in the rain, south to Gunwalloe, where I managed a slack surf in barely-surfable conditions. It was great to get in the water and the shock of being back in a wetsuit was mitigated by the pleasure of not having to wear hood, gloves and boots now. Though I regretted the boots.And the water is amazing! So clear! It's like southern Portugal, maybe clearer. You can see every stone, every wisp of floating weed, and yesterday, every jelly fish (royal blue, easy to spot and rare enough not to be a major worry). And of course, the scenery is stunning.
Here I am at The Lizard, taking the obligatory, sad-bloke-visiting-a-major-landmark-on-his-own shot. It's further south than Land's End (of which more next time), so feels more like the End of the Land than Land's End. But that's marketing for you. Lizard doesn't sound as appealing as Land's End, so everyone goes there instead.
The forecast on the south coast wasn't looking promising, so I skipped up north, to Godrevy. Coincidentally, it's the location of the lighthouse that appears (or fails to appear) in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. It almost fails to appear in this photo, too.
Godrevy was great! One average surf in small waves, one appalling surf in big waves (wrong board, snapped leash, lost nerve), then one absolutely fabulous session in powerful, head-high waves, as dark as Davy Jones' Locker, with decent walls and no one surfing my end of the beach, which is always a bonus.
The north end of Godrevy is covered in rocks, which are in the way at high tide. But at low tide they look like this:
Yes, mussels, and plenty of them. So what's a feral surfer to do, except this?
Followed by this:

The forecast had picked up on the South Coast, so I decided to take a look at Porthleven. Like Thurso, it's a well-known, well-respected reef. I was only going to take a look...

But when I got there, it was foggy and there only seemed a couple of people out there. If I was going to surf it, it was now or never. Tomorrow it might be flat. Or worse, packed with pros. If you click on the photo, you'll see it's about head high, with someone just taking the drop.
I paddled out, full of trepidation, and prepared to do battle. There were a handful of locals out there, who, if not actually welcoming, didn't seem to mind the arrival of a middle-aged incompetent in their midst. The reef was working well, with clean lines coming in and being picked off by the locals with apparent ease. I waited my turn, and when the line-up was clear because everyone had just caught something, paddled smoothly into a small line pulsing my way.

Except by the time it hit me, it was a vicious, vertical wall of power intent on chewing me up and hurling me to the reef bed. Which is where I duly went. Rats.

I waited my turn again. Paddled. And saw the gaping void open up in front of me again. Yikes! I'm not going down there! The next two hours were a testament to cowardice, incompetence and humilliation. Hours: two. Waves attempted: a handful. Number of times my feet met my board: two. Waves caught: zero. I paddled in, weak with exhaustion and self-loathing.

The next morning, I was determined to do better. The swell had dropped, but this was worse, as there were fewer waves for more surfers. Rats again. This time, I spent most of my time going over the falls. Surprisingly, this seemed like progress. At least I was going for it, even if my timing was out. Finally, though, I actually caught a wave! Shoulder high, smooth and powerful. And such a relief! I don't think I could have paddled in without catching one, and might still be there now, flailing like a drowning butterfly. And after that, a second! It would have been nice to have caught a third, but let's not be greedy.

The main break is to the right of the harbour wall. To the left is a smaller, closer break where the local youth test their prowess.

And the rest of the youth watch them.