The Road Less Travelled: Can You Surf In The UK At The End Of Autumn? We Went On A Road Trip To Cornwall To Find Out For Ourselves

Sponsored Feature: Following Ed Leigh and Phil Young’s footsteps, we joined our competition winners in the all-new Ford S-Max hunting for Autumn waves in the Uk's spiritual home of surfing

Words and photos by James Renhard
“Pack your winter suit.” read an email that landed in my inbox earlier in the week. “The forecast is for 30mph winds and six degree water! See you Saturday.”.

In theory, Autumn is the best time for a UK surf trip. The water still holds the warmth of the summer months, but the increased off-shore winds make the waves bigger than those in the summer.

The very tail end of the season is quite a time to put the age-old theory to the test.

I meet Alex, a fellow surfer who, along with myself, makes up 50 per cent of this four-person surf adventure. We throw our bags into the back of the S-MAX and begin our six-hour journey, through the crowded roads of London, and down to Cornwall. As the typical Friday afternoon gridlock on the capitals roads chokes progress, the idea of escaping to the waves is all the more sweeter.

We while away the time swapping stories of surf trips gone from the warmth and comfort of the car, as wind and hail whip across the Cornish Moors at night. “Back in Australia, me and my mates invented a game called Surf Ball” utters Alex nonchalantly. “One day Laird Hamilton spotted us playing, so dropped by for a game” he adds. When it comes to swapping stories, it’s a strong move.

It’s one in the morning when we finally arrive at our hotel in Penzance. The thought of sleeping in the parked car lingers in my mind for a little longer than it sensibly should. Instead, we steel ourselves for the quick dash from the safety of the S-MAX, across the weather beaten car park, and into the hotel reception. With a full morning of surfing ahead, Alex and I head straight to our rooms for some much deserved sleep.

The early surfer gets the waves. That’s the theory at least…

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m woken by the window in my hotel room rattling in it’s frame, such is the battering it’s taking from the weather outside. A quick check on my phone reveals that the forecast for 30mph winds was inaccurate. They’re blowing at nearer 50mph down on the coast, and the surf promises to be nerve-janglingly massive.

I meet up with Alex again for breakfast before we both head back to the car for the short drive to meet up with Jules and Jess, who’re braving the conditions with us, after winning our Live Life To The S-MAX competition that we ran with Ford.

“It’s looking pretty big out there…”

Along with a day’s surfing, the prize won by Jules also includes a Skindog surf board made specifically for him by master shaper, current European Longboard Champion, and holder of no-fewer that 16 British titles, Ben Skinner. We arrive as Julian is checking numerous online webcams pointed at all the local breaks. “It’s looking pretty big out there,” he confirms, somewhat ominously.

While the conditions were doing their upmost to put a dampener on our Cornish exploration, Jules and Jess’ spirits lit up the atmosphere. Their enthusiasm for the trip was absolutely infectious, and by the time we were ready to load up the S-MAX, all four of us were determined to find a set of waves that we could call our own.

The high winds meant that using the roof rack would have simply turned any surf boards we put on it into sails. However, after putting the middle seats in the rear of the S-MAX down, there was easily enough room for both Jules and Jess’ boards, along with everybody’s gear. All safely in the warmth of the car, we headed an hour up the coast to Newquay where we were hooking up with the guys from the Ticket to Ride surf school.

Jules and Jess looking out at the white horses roaring up to Towan Beach in Newquay

An hour later and we arrived at the surf school where we were greeted by Harry who was to be our guide in the water for the morning. In the same way as you take a look at somebody and just know they’re a fast runner, Harry is every inch the surfer. Jules and Jess already know him by reputation, and it’s immediately obvious that we couldn’t be in safer hands. All five of us looked out over the chaos happening in the sea in front of us.

Rhys, another member of the Ticket to Ride team arrived and joined us all, simply looking out in awe of what was before us. Between them, they discussed the possibilities of taking us down to other local breaks, our ears pricking up when we thought we heard what may have been some secret spots mentioned.

“This is real surfing!”

Despite they boys best efforts, everywhere looks far too dangerous to surf. While our collective passion for surfing was strong, it’s topped by no-small margin by our wish to live to surf another day. Being the perfect hosts, the Ticket to Ride boys give us a voucher to come back and surf with them again in the future, when the conditions are a little less hairy.

Back in the S-MAX, and making full use of the in-car heaters, we decide to make the most of the opportunity, and go out looking for calmer spots around the Cornish coastline.

Luckily, both Jess and Jules are natives of the area, and use their phones to find a couple of secluded surf breaks where the conditions might just be a little quieter. We put the details into the inbuilt sat-nav of the S-MAX, and then hunted for good waves.

“I haven’t seen the sea this big in ages” – Jules

With lush Cornish countryside rolling past the windows, morale in the car remains high. “This is surfing” suggests Jules. “This is real surfing.” He’s right. While catching a wave is always the end goal, the journey is all part of it. With the car breezing along winding country lanes, complete with a strip of grass down the middle, the anticipation of what may lie in wait for us starts to boil.

In no time at all, we find ourselves back on the South coast, and looking out onto a completely flat stretch of sea. The gigantic waves of Newquay have gone, but in their wake is nothing but a ripple gliding across the surface of the otherwise billiard-table like water. Optimistically, we pour out of the S-MAX and stare at the sea, almost willing waves to appear from somewhere. Mother nature isn’t obliging.

From monster waves to a completely flat sea on the South coast

Jess suggests another spot that’s back on the North shore, and in no time we’re back on the hunt. The S-MAX eats up the miles, as we weave happily through the countryside, the four of us getting to know each other. It turns out that, when she’s not catching Waves, Jess spends her time playing Roller Derby.

It’s a sport that’s as complex as it is brutal, and as she explains the rules, the three of us nod away, trying to get to grips with what Blockers, Jammers, and The Pack are. It soon becomes clear that, if at any point we actually get to surf, when Jess says it’s her wave, it’s definitely her wave.

We try another couple of potential surf breaks, only to find the waves either far to big to be safe, or non-existent. As much as a surf trip is about the journey, it would be good to find something approaching surfing to end things with.

With my phone hooked up to the console in the S-MAX, I make a quick call to Hayley from Ticket to Ride, asking if she can think of any other places where the four of us can finally get a wave.

“There’s always Retallack” she suggests, cryptically. It transpires that Retallack is a Spa resort situated about half way between Newquay and Penzance. Along with a health club, and tennis and golf facilities, it has an artificial wave called a Flow Rider. “It’s not quite surfing” suggests Hayley “but it’s as good as you’re going to get today.”.

It’s news that would have gotten a lot of people down, but Jess, Jules and Alex were positively frothing at the idea. Again, we threw the gear back in what was quickly become our mobile base-camp and we were traveling to our guaranteed wave.

Jules and Jess loading up the S-MAX

Maybe it was the thought of finally getting a ride, or just the biting cold of late November, but we all raced the short distance of the car park, and in no time had wetsuits on and were ready to surf.

The Flow Rider appears simple in design. It’s a large sheet of plastic, shaped to mimic a gentle aquatic ramp – like a mellow breaking wave. Water’s fired up the gradient, and riders drop in at the top and let the battle between water pressure and gravity hold them, floating on the crest.

Jules is first to drop in, and he looks to have it dialled pretty quickly. “It’s not like surfing, or skateboarding” he tells me after his first dip in the cold, rushing water of the Flow Rider. “It’s good though. It’s so good!”.

Jess is up next, and she looks equally at home as Jules, cruising down the wave, and finding the sweet spot on the wedge. But, when the Flow Rider spits you out, it’s absolutely merciless. In a split second Jess hits the deck and is propelled up the wave and over the back where the water collects. Immediately she pops up and lets us know she’s fine.

Jules is first to drop in on the Flow Rider

Everyone takes turns dropping in, trying to master the precarious, but enjoyable wave. As soon as anybody looks to have mastered it, they’re sent rag dolling back over the lip and into the cold water.

There’s no way this relentless punishment should be fun, but smiles never drop for a second. Alex’s confidence grows enough for him to try a few skateboard tricks on the wave. He appears to land a Pop Shuvit – spinning the board 360 degrees while he jumps above it – only to land and, as is now expected, gets fired rapidly up the ramp and over the falls.

People whoop from the side as Jules drops in and holds the board steadily in the middle of the wave for what seems like a full minute. His faced is etched with concentration. It’s the longest ride of the day, but of course ends in an inevitable tumble. Enthusiasm never dips, and our allotted hour flies by.

Jess is next to test her skills on the Flow Rider

After a warming dip in the hot-tub, which at this point is more medicinal that luxurious, everybody hits the showers, exhausted but elated. We had set out for waves, and while the ones we got may not have been what we imagined when we all woke up on that cold Saturday morning, our adventure had rewarded us with endless smiles and enough laughter to keep our stomachs aching for almost as long as the continuous bails on the Flow Rider would.

Showered, dry, and back in regular clothes, we climb back in the S-MAX one more time. Heaters on, and the sat-nav programmed, we head back to Penzance to drop Jules and Jess back at their door. By now, exhaustion should have got the better of all of us, but the stories keep rolling, and Jules continues to point out local spots that would make epic surf locations when the weather was kinder.

Jules and jess may be weather-beaten and weary, but they’re still smiling

We drop the pair home, and make the mutual promise to do this again in the future, but hopefully at a time when nature was being a little kinder to us. In reality, the lack of rideable waves hadn’t ruined our adventure. They’d made it.

While the plan was to hit a spot and surf it to it’s fullest, we had the opportunity, thanks to the Ford S-MAX, to roam around, and make a trip a real mission of discovery, albeit a warm and comfortable one.

The S-MAX unpacked, Alex and I set off on the final leg, the drive back to London. As day gave way to night, the roads that led to the capital got busier and busier, but our stoke could not be dampened. This hadn’t been a text book surf trip. This had been an adventure in the truest sense, and has built memories that will endure for some time to come.

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