The First Time I Went… | Surfing

Hovercrafts, tweeds and alternative train travel – surfing was all so different back in the 70s

“Wanna buy some tweeds mate?”


“Wanna buy some tweeds?”

Given that I was on a beach in south-west France in late summer 1979, no, not really. Then it clicked – the purveyor of said garment, an Aussie dude, was trying to flog me a ‘shortie’.

“Wanna buy some tweeds mate?”

Once the penny dropped I decided that yes, some new tweeds would not go amiss since I was currently taking to the waves in boardshorts or borrowed wetsuits, the latter not a pleasant concept when you consider that most blokes piss in them with the abandon of a stray dog.

And having only got into this surfing lark a few months earlier there was something of an initiation ritual about buying my first ‘wettie’, although the real initiation was the trip itself – my first surfari.

I’d begun learning to surf in early May of that year, having joined Sheffield University Surf Club (not a heavily subscribed institution given that Sheffield is one of the most landlocked cities in the UK) on the insistence of a fellow member of the university climbing club, Andy Middleton.

As students at Sheffield, Andy and I were keen winter climbers, but when it came to summer – well, Andy is from St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, and surfing was his bag. As for me, I didn’t really have a summer bag…

Well, not until the invite from Andy to tag along on a surf trip to SW France that September with a few of his surfie mates, which left me a bit nonplussed.

“But I can’t surf”.

“Learn – join the university surf club, you’ll pick it up soon enough.”

“OK, I will”.

And that was that.

I didn’t, however, ‘pick it up soon enough’. Despite valiant attempts to surf over the summer on the Yorkshire and Pembrokeshire coasts with a board I’d borrowed from the university surf club, any upright ride of more than about two-seconds was still beyond me.

Like every other surfer at that time I was learning on a standard single-fin shortboard – there were no voluminous, foamy, user-friendly beginner’s boards in those days, you simply had to tough it out on a ‘proper’ surfboard. Which meant it was far from easy – that’s my excuse, anyway.

“I don’t recall that we were too bothered about dawn patrols since we were on the piss most nights”

So when I met Andy and his mates – Martin, Nick and Howie – in Sheffield in early September to drive down to Biarritz in Andy’s battered (and about to be battered even more) Peugeot estate it was more in hope than expectation that I travelled.

We also picked up another fellow surf traveller en-route, at Bordeaux railway station; Mark had travelled to SW France by train from Pembrokeshire. He had undertaken the Pembrokeshire – London leg of the journey on the roof of one of the carriages in order “To save a bit of cash”. Needless to say, he didn’t have his board with him, but we’d taken a spare along for the original train surfer.

Indeed, the car was loaded high with boards that are all now museum pieces, as are the surfers who were riding them for that matter. Little did I know at the time, but those surfers would all go on to become mates for life. I’m still in touch with all the guys who were on that trip and still surf regularly with Andy and Nick.

We crossed the Channel by hovercraft – hovercraft! – and since I’d never been to France before everything had a freshness and excitement that become harder and harder to recreate as you get older – even the road signs seemed exotic.

“He had undertaken the Pembrokeshire – London leg of the journey on the roof of one of the carriages in order “To save a bit of cash””

Six lads crammed into an estate car with camping and surfing gear to see us through the best part of a month didn’t make for a comfortable journey, the more so as we progressed south and the temperature rose (needless to say there was no aircon in the car), but no one really gave a toss – hey, we were off to surf warm, blue waves beside golden beaches upon which lay tanned, topless French girls. What wasn’t to like about that?

I recall finally arriving at the coast somewhere around Anglet on a hot and sunny afternoon. Andy brought the Peugeot to a halt some 900-miles south of our starting point in a cloud of dust beside some dusty yellow sand dunes, we spilled out into the sunshine and sprinted up the dunes to see what the glittering blue Atlantic had in store for us – and it didn’t disappoint.

A clean, shoulder-high swell was rolling ashore, and even I, the tyro in the group, realised that this was definitely a step up from what I’d become accustomed to at Whitesands Bay and Scarborough North Beach.

Within minutes we’d unstrapped the boards from the roof and, wetsuit free – as Brits there was no way we were wearing wetsuits on a hot, late summer day in South-West France – paddled out for our first foreign surf.

“Not a pleasant concept when you consider that most blokes piss in them with the abandon of a stray dog”

I still recall that feeling of freedom that you so relish when most of your surfing is done whilst wearing a wetsuit; the zing of the ocean rolling over bare skin, the ease with which I could paddle, and the lovely heat of the sunshine across my shoulders (let’s forget about the wax rash and sunburn that would later follow…).

These near-perfect conditions didn’t do much to improve my surfing, however, but that wasn’t the point, since they did everything to encourage me to get out there and keep trying…

We made our base on a campsite at Anglet, and quickly took over an area of the site for ourselves with our six tents, surfboards, general paraphernalia and the occasional purloined plastic chair and garden gnome (to give a more homely feel…).

I don’t recall that we were too bothered about dawn patrols since we were on the piss most nights and usually woke with a stinking hangover, and given that selective memory always takes over when recalling past surf trips I’m sure we must have had our fair share of flat days, but what sticks in the mind are the memories of paddling out at Anglet, Hossegor, Biarritz Grand Plage (and even Zarautz on a brief foray into northern Spain) and trying time and time and time and time again to get to my feet and surf the face of a wave like all the cool, suntanned surf dudes around me.

“I still recall that feeling of freedom”

My first real rides were a long time coming, but eventually on some sunny beach somewhere between Zarautz and Hossegor it started to happen; short five second, then maybe even ten second rides, wobbly and totally lacking in style, but the foundations of what was to become a lifetime of chasing waves.

There was encouragement from friends, and even from surfers I’d never met before, and things were certainly far more sociable in the water than they are today. Along with locals and a good smattering of Brits we also met, surfed and drank with Aussies, Yanks and South Africans at a time when surfing, even in what is now Europe’s surf capital, was still pretty much off-grid.

I’ve been back to surf in South-West France more times than I can count over the intervening years, and I always enjoy everything about riding waves here (apart from the crowds; and the currents on a big swell), but that first surfari was something special. And hey, how many people get to ride in a hovercraft on their first surf trip?!

You May Also Like

The First Time I Went… | Skiing In Japan

The First Time I Went… | Skateboarding

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.