Looking for winter waves in Porthcawl

Surfer at Porthcawl Surfing in winter is not for the faint-hearted

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

Countryside footpath

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.

Michael Kew Michael Kew is a writer, photographer and filmmaker from California

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."

Pete Jones Pete Jones has spent decades surfing in Wales

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

Map of Wales

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"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.

Bay in Mumbles It may be cold but die-hard Welsh surfers love it

"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?"

He grinned.

"We always come home, though. Home is always home."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I'm a South African born surfer who surfs in the Gower, Wales throughout the whole winter and it may be one of the harshest and coldest experiences of my life but it is always worth it for that long ride.

Jason Nel, Carmarthenshire

Amazing surf -albeit cold as ice ,Orkney islands. I was just up there having a look around and came accross a surf shop which I thought was a bit weird considering the climate.They invited me out.Great experience.

Dugan Brugh, Hamilton, New Zealand

For me, as an Aussie farmboy I have found Somerset to be a home-from-home. I liken it to the "Cotswolds but a bit rough around the edges", in that the hedges are overgrown, the roads are covered in muck and there are many many people gaining their livelihood from the land all around us (as of course happens all over the country). But foremost are the people, often as keen to get to know an outsider as I am keen to learn more about them. Too often I hear Aussies say that England has little to offer - to them I say get out of your 8 bed sharehouse in Clapham and see just what this place has to offer!

James Earl, Cavendish, Woolavington, Somerset

It is certainly a little colder than here, 'down under' in NEW South Wales... I have surfed the Gower in OLD South Wales, which was throroughly enjoyable.

Doug, Sydney, Australia

Snowdonia and its surroundings, Wales, in the winter. The parc is absolutely beautiful, the beaches seem deserted and isolated and it has a truly peaceful atmosphere that's just perfect for a city break weekend with your lover. Driving in the mountains without a map around and asking a landowner to put up your tent is amazing: the locals are unpretentious and welcoming (+gay friendly on top!!). Get on your hiking boots, canned food and empty your mind: Experience Wales!

Adrien Chao, Paris, France

Cold doesn't matter as long as you're prepared, with a good wetsuit and a Thermos full of soup. It's about the passion for the elements and an unyielding desire to improve, which means hours in the water, no matter the conditions. I'm from San Diego (I know Kew from Surfer Magazine and the Surfer's Journal) and I would surf every day before work, no matter how junky it got; there was always the potential to break through a performance barrier, which was a fundamental motivation. Now I live in Berkshire and aside from lake paddling to keep up stamina, I've taken up change ringing. Not quite the same as getting blown out of a big blue tube, but stoke is where you find it.

Carl Friedmann, La Jolla, California

I've surfed Wales several times as I thrice drove north out of London to Scotland and down through Wales, Land's End and back to London. I stayed in a haunted Welch castle (Ruthin) once and saw a ghostly lady on the parapets. But the surf has never been "epic" in Wales. Beer is always good, though.

Robin Russo, Long Beach, CA, USA

Wales is a 'gutsy' place for gliding winter waves and it's where I started surfing. The 'Gennith' has secured a special place in my liquidity. Surfing in sub zero is pretty hardcore but it also makes it all the more special... Massive shout to PJ - you're a legend!

Tom, Westport, Ireland


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