Looking for winter waves in Porthcawl
With the Olympics and Queen's Diamond Jubilee, tourism in the UK faces a massive year. Magazine asked non-British born people to describe the part of the UK that sums up a more unusual aspect of British life. Here, Californian writer and surfer Michael Kew discovers the joys of surfing in Porthcawl, Wales.
Love letters to UK places
Penned by those born abroad
People surf in Wales. Lots of people, as I discovered on one of my travels from California.
Arriving in Swansea via the relaxing National Express bus line from Bristol, I headed out to Mumbles - the country's surfing pole star - to meet up with Welsh former professional surfer Carwyn Williams.
One night, we walked down to The White Rose on the bay front and chatted with drinkers of all generations. Many people wondered why I had travelled from surfy, sunny Santa Barbara to sodden Wales.
I was here for a two-week bonanza of Welsh secret-surf-spot glory iced with an intimate relationship with booze, smoky bars, and mud-caked shoes.
Another evening, following a glut of clean waves over the shallow rock bottom of Porthcawl Point, a small crew of Welsh surfers and I convened inside a cosy, stone-walled pub in Porthcawl proper.
A town where the younger buildings are 400 years old was humbling.
With firewood crackling and pints steadily consumed, conversation flowed around our small wooden table beside Celtic paraphernalia, rugby posters, and grinning, grizzled men fresh off work, ripe for happy hour. Everyone seemed to know each other.
To my left sat Johnny James, a 31-year-old gardener with a boyish face and a friendly, calm demeanour.
"Many people from London or wherever haven't a clue about Wales," he said between sips of Guinness. "They think we're just completely backwards. We're on the periphery as well as it were in economic terms in the UK - pretty poor - but we're grateful for what we have."
Across the table sat Herbie, 43, a jovial Porthcawl surf shop owner with a striking resemblance to Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
"[The surf] here might be a bit bad on days, but we're pretty proud of who and where we are," he said. "I don't think there's a better country in the world, and I've been to quite a few."
Two days later, I found myself basking in weak sunlight down at Langland Bay, swilling a beer beside Pete Jones, a former European and British surfing champion who now runs a surf shop in Llangennith. The 51-year-old respected elder statesman of Welsh surfing was fresh from a dip in the sloppy beach-break peaks.
"I'm proud to be Celtic," he said. "Yeah, of course I am. We have got a lot of in-grown determination, you know. As a nation, I think we are quite determined. Celtic identity is good."
Finishing the beer, I asked Jones to assess Welsh surfing considering his extensive global travels through the years.
Your favourite place
We're asking non-UK born people to describe the unusual places that sum up a less-explored side of the UK. Send your pictures and videos to email@example.com or text them to 61124 (UK) or +44 7624 800 100 (International). See our terms and conditions
"Surfing in Wales is definitely really hard core because of the weather," he said. "It's so cold that you've got to be super keen, and the waves we get are not brilliant. You've got to be keen to go in on days like today - there are waves, but if you were in California or Hawaii, they'd be looking at this 3-4ft chop and they wouldn't go in.
"They'd think, Ah, this is rubbish, you know. But Welsh surfers really go for it in all conditions. I suppose you've got to, really."
"We California surfers are relatively spoiled," I replied.
"Well," Jones continued, "we do have surf conditions that are below average on a world level, and considering the surf we surf, I think we're doing pretty well. You cannot get beyond a certain level of surfing in conditions like we get because the waves just don't allow you to.
"You don't get barrels [where the wave is hollow when it is breaking, also known as a tube] very often - you get faces [the unbroken part of the wave], but you can't really learn how to ride the tube and stuff like that."
I point out that in his 30-plus years of surfing in Wales, he must have witnessed substantial growth within the sport, considering the Langland waves we were watching had roughly 40 surfers - mostly young shortboarders - all vying for rideable scraps.
"It's definitely got bigger, yeah," Jones said, surveying the scene. "It's probably grown in parallel with surfing growing around the world, but we'll never get super crowded because it's too cold.
"There's more to surfing than just surfing in warm water with perfect waves. I enjoy surfing for what it is - to be out in the elements, feeling the wind in your face. Cold-water surfing is fantastic. There's something more to it."
Back in the pub, Johnny James voiced what perhaps every surfer on the planet would say about their backyard, hinting at his dedication to Wales despite its elemental adversities.
"A lot of the boys try to go away in the winter if they can, because it does get cold here. But that's when we get most of our surf - in the winter. It's cold, yeah. It would be a bit nicer if it was a bit sunnier, a bit warmer. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn't it?"
"We always come home, though. Home is always home."