Birth of Surf: How Devon and Cornwall became the home of British surfing

  • Watch Kathy Wardle's report

Devon and Cornwall have long been seen as the home of surfing in the UK, with the industry now worth an estimated £153 million a year to Cornwall alone.

The origins of surfing in the West Country go back more than 100 years - with some of the earliest documented British attempts made on the beaches around Newquay and North Devon.

At the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton, visitors can see 'coffin lid' boards used by early surfers in Cornwall around 1920.

'Coffin lid' surfers in Cornwall, around 1920 Credit: Museum of British Surfing

Museum Chair of Trustees Kevin Cook says those early surfers would have been inspired by the Hawaiian surfers they saw on newsreels of the time.

Kevin Cook, Museum of British Surfing: "Surfing really started to become recognised when you got the advent of boards like coffin lid surfboards.

"People were deliberately making something which they could ride on in the surf. In this case not by standing on it, but by lying on it.

"The reason they were called a coffin lid surfboard is because it was the local carpenters who made the boards, and they were the people typically who also made the coffins."

By the 1930s railway companies were using surfing to promote travel to the West Country, and books were being published on surfing hotspots.

During World War II it's believed American servicemen stationed at RAF St Mawgan near Newquay surfed at Watergate Bay on surfboards they may have shipped over themselves.

Expert Mark Adams from the Museum of British Surfing takes up the story: "There was talk just after the Second World War of servicemen riding full size stand up surfboards.

"In reality people were still largely using the wooden bellyboards. It wasn't until the early 60s the UK surf industry really took off.

"At the museum we have a Bob Powers board made in Woolacombe in around 1964 which is a lovely example of a British built board, and from a similar age a Bilbo board made in Newquay.

"Bilbo went on to be the iconic brand of British surfboard manufacturing."

Mark Adams and Kevin Cook, Museum of British Surfing Credit: ITV News

Cornish surfing legend Gwyn Haslock has been dubbed the 'Godmother of surfing'.

Gwyn was Britain's first female surfing champion and began stand up surfing in Newquay in the 1960s.

At that time Gwyn was one of the only women competing, and she had to enter the men's contests as there were no categories for women.

Gwyn Haslock surfing in the 1960s Credit: Gwyn Haslock

Gwyn says: "In 1965 I saw the lifeguards and some very good people doing stand up surfing.

"My brother went out and I thought oh I'd like to have a go at that, the beach lifeguards were very helpful and said I could borrow a board.

"Those days they were 10ft and heavy. They were called the Malibu boards. So I put it on my head and went down to the water and that's how I started."

At the age of 77, Gwyn can still be found surfing or swimming most days on the beaches around Falmouth and Newquay.

She says it is good for the soul: "It's just catching the wave, the speed of the wave and you just feel one with the water and the surf. I just love the sea."

In the 1950s a boom in people flocking back to the coast after World War II, and getting into difficulty as a result, meant that Devon and Cornwall were amongst the first to launch British Surf Live saving clubs.

In the late 1950s councils in Cornwall had started employing professional lifeguards to reduce the number of drowning incidents.

This attracted surfers from around the world, and a new surf culture was born.

Tim Whitefield was one of those drawn to Cornwall. He arrived from South Africa in the 1970s and settled in St Ives, going on to set up his own surf school and work for the RNLI.

Tim Whitefield, pictured right Credit: ITV News

Tim Whitefield, Surfer and Seasonal Lifeguard Supervisor: "I travelled through Europe and ended up in Southampton, flipped a coin and turned left, ended up in Penzance and took a journey over to St. Ives.

"It was most beautiful spring day, I drove down the hill, and I was told that England was always cloudy.

"There was never any surf. It was just people in weird clothing, listening to weird music. We drove down the hill and there was a surf shop called the Silver Surfer.

"It was fantastic, incense burning and and surfboards in the doorway, and we drove around the corner to the beach, the surf was about 3-4 foot offshore, perfect with about five people in the water.

"I thought, paradise, I've arrived, and I've never left. That was in 1977."

By the 1980s surfing was big business in the West Country. Surf shops were established in most coastal resorts.

In 1981 what is now the longest running surf magazine in Europe, Exeter based 'Wavelength' was launched.

Mike Lay, Editor, Wavelength Magazine: "In the late 1980s to the early 2000s they were publishing Wavelength every month, so it was a really regular feature.

"But print media has changed. The internet has changed the surf industry quite a lot in that respect.

"So Wavelength has had to adapt to that, the quality has gone up to a really high quality coffee table thing now, which has managed to keep us in business and keep us telling incredible surfing stories."

Today surfing in the south west is thriving. Surfing England, the national governing body is based in North Devon, and its coastline has been granted World Surfing Reserve Status.

Hannah Brand, Surfing England: "That is just a phenomenal achievement for the area, and that is partly due to the range of breaks we've got in this area.

"We've got beach breaks, we've got reef breaks, we've got point breaks, and those offer some world class surfing."