Editor’s Shorts: Surfing in the North

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Jack Copeland

With overcast skies, stretching out over violent charcoal seas, and the prospect of being marauded by harsh winds, it takes a certain level of commitment to face the cold, paddle out, and catch a wave in the North of England.

Understandably, the surf scene here is relatively sparse. Surf tournaments, surf shops, and wave pools are all practically non-existent compared to Cornwall and Wales, the surfing capitals of Great Britain. And, with a lack of these roots for a surfing community to take hold, there are very few surfers out on the rugged breaks of the Holderness Coast, Cumbria, and Northumberland.

I’ve come to both expect and understand the confused looks I get when I tell people, in my Yorkshire accent, that I’m a surfer. It doesn’t make much sense at all. East Yorkshire isn’t renowned for a beautiful coastline, although there are diamonds in the rough, and where I live and study most of the time (Manchester) has barely a ripple by way of surf.

Moody skies linger over the North Bay of Salford Quays in Manchester. (Photo by Jack Copeland)

But maybe, if there were a few surf shops in Meadowhall or the Trafford Centre; if there was a wave pool in the Salford Quays; and if there were surfing tournaments at Tynemouth and Scarborough, I might get a different response.

When I tell people that I surf, the reaction might then be a grin and short conversation about what board I ride, which break I surf, or whether I caught last week’s swell, instead of knitted-brows and crossed-eyes.

I would love to have more elements of surfing culture in the North. Each morning at university, as I walk around Media City, I imagine a wave pool in the Salford Quays, with wetsuit clad surfers hacking through slowly breaking peaks.

A rare sunny day in Manchester affords a pleasant view of the Imperial War Museum, Coronation Street, and BBC Studios. (Photo by Jack Copeland)

Whilst browsing through the Trafford Centre, I think back to Padstow, where I became lost in the smell of board wax and the sound of Jack Johnson as I wandered through surf shops.

I yearn to be able to share surfing with the people that I know at home but, without the easy access enjoyed by surfers in Cornwall, that’s unlikely to happen. The North is dominated by football and rugby, which is understandable.

However, I agree with Steve Wilson, a Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) representative for Whitehaven, when he stated: “[Surfing is] not ignored or neglected. It seems more like a lot of people just don’t even know it’s an option anywhere other than Newquay.”

Gratefully, I’ve found that I’m not alone in wanting more aspects of the surfing world in our corner of the country. When I got in touch with Jayne Rigby, an SAS representative for Liverpool, she said: “I think [surfing] needs more promotion here in the North. We have some great waves, and, with the right wetsuit, the coldness is nothing to fear.”

ITV and BBC Studios at MediaCityUK in Salford, Manchester. (Photo by Jack Copeland)

But also, once I heard from Steve, I found that some surfers love the rarity of surfing in the cold North, which is something with which I can empathise. It’s nice to have an interest which you know is just yours, when it comes to your local sphere, and I suppose that’s what surfing is for anyone in the North, who’s brave enough to paddle out in late-winter swells.

When I asked Steve: What would you like to see more of in the North to improve the surfing community? He replied: “In truth, I quite like the ‘underground’ surfing scene in the North.

“Whenever I go to the South West, I’m always envious of the number of waves they get, and the general better quality of waves too.

Any UK surfer should know this view. If you aren’t familiar with the notorious Fistral Beach in Newquay, Cornwall. Read up on Kelly Slater’s experience there. It should give you an idea of what to expect. (Photo by Jack Copeland)

“But then it can be so over-crowded at times, competitive, or full of people with all the gear and no idea. Surfing in colder water, with wilder conditions, can filter a lot of that out.

“Although it may be less friendly for learning, it can, on the odd day that it’s firing, make it so much better when it’s just you and a mate out scoring great waves in an area where ninety per cent of people don’t even know that there are surfable waves.”

It was after reading this that it dawned on me: maybe it is better this way. Perhaps, rather than complaining about the lack of surf shops and wave pools, Northern surfers should simply make the most out of the breaks we have.

I then asked both Steve and Jayne where the best breaks north of Devon are. Jayne revealed: “Abersoch in Wales is a great place to surf, as it’s right in the Llyn Peninsula. Saltburn in the North East is also a great place to go.”

Steve, on the other hand, told me that: “The North East often pumps. Aside from all the slabs and reefs over there, beaches like Saltburn, South Shields, Tynemouth, Bamburgh, and right up to Dunbar and Pease Bay, all provide so many options. It’s cold and wild over there, but it can be so good too.”

I’ve yet to pick up the courage to go out charging in a winter swell, but it is definitely something I want to do, and now, thanks to Steve and Jayne, I know where to look once I decide to brave the frigid waters and sharp winds.

I’m not going to lie, as a surfer living an urban lifestyle, I still daydream of having part of my surfing paradise in the city. A Finisterre shop in the Arndale, a wave house in the Northern Quarter, anything…

Street art by Amy Coney on John Street in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. (Photo by Jack Copeland)
Graffiti art on the corner of High Street and Thomas in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. (Photo by Jack Copeland)

But, until my patience is rewarded, I’ll have to make the most of the breaks we do have. For now, it looks like the Northern English surfer is going to remain a rare breed, but, a rare breed isn’t always a dying one.

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