Surfing in North Devon: a history

Surfer at Woolacombe, Devon

Surfing has a strong history in North Devon, from 'coffin lid' boards of the early 1900s to American GIs surfing at Woolacombe during training - Kevin Cooke from the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton explains the rise of North Devon's most popular sport.

'North Devon has an outstanding coastline and beaches which provide some of the best conditions in Britain for the exhilarating sport of Surfing. The strong westerly Atlantic swells arrive on the prime sandy beaches of Saunton, Croyde, Putsborough and Woolacombe, offering a magnificent range of differing surf conditions to suit everyone from beginner to professional.

Around the time of the First World War things moved forward, from just surf bathing, to actual surfing using solid wooden bellyboards. By throwing themselves forward into a prone position on the board as the wave came, people caught and rode it to the beach, experiencing the thrill of harnessing the pure energy of the water. The early bellyboards were either home-made from any piece of wood or commissioned from local carpenters, often being given the nickname of “coffin-lid” boards, by virtue of their shape and the fact that they were often made by the local coffin-maker! These boards were later to be made of plywood, creating a much lighter and more manoeuvrable board. There are lovely old pictures showing people posing and having fun at Saunton, Croyde and Woolacombe.
The trend for beach holidays grew and increasingly more visitors would travel from the cities by train to Barnstaple, Braunton, Mortehoe and Ilfracombe on the “Atlantic Coast Express” to enjoy this new fun and healthy activity.

The Second World War brought a lot of extra people to North Devon – evacuees and servicemen in preparation for D-Day. The beaches became training grounds populated by troops, weaponry and landing craft. In addition to British soldiers, many others came from America and a few from Australia. These visitors from afar brought their own ocean experience with them, including the art of “stand-up” surfing!

Inspired by tales from abroad, newspapers, magazines and films a couple of locals built their own long surfboards using plywood, following the Australian tradition. Then, following the American model, glassfibre and foam “malibus” were developed, one of the early pioneers being Bob Powers over in Mortehoe in the early 1960’s. Full-blown surfing began to take off and Braunton  acquired its own surf shop when Tim Heyland and Dave Aldrich-Smith set up “Tiki” in South Street.

More and more travelling surfers from all over the world started to turn up on the beaches of North Devon. They brought knowledge and expertise,  many being  shapers who designed and made their own boards and who stayed, making North Devon their home for longer or shorter periods. In the 1970’s, Braunton was a massive centre of surfboard manufacture, boasting makers such as - Tiki, Creamed Honey, John Hall, Chapter, Phil Jay, Westcoast, Celtic, KeJo, Bruce Palmer, Windjammer and Freebird – most of them shipping boards all over the UK and Europe.

Surfing grew more and more. The “A-frame” waves at Croyde at  low tide brought world-class surfers who were also able to experience: The Point, Oysters, The Cave, Puts and Combesgate before heading off to enjoy a few beers at the Beach Club, the Thatch, the Kings Arms, the Red Barn or the Marisco.

Nowadays, surfing culture remains vibrant within North Devon, with The Museum of British Surfing and Surfing England, the national governing body for surfing in England, both being located in Braunton.'

Find out more about the Museum of British Surfing here.