My fingers drum the steering wheel and I’m ready to tear my hair out.
The line of traffic stretches out in front, blocking the way to the waves, which are inevitably going off. Frustration consuming me, I try not to dwell on what I’m missing – or the stench from my wetsuit boots.
I first dipped my toe in Porthcawl’s surf scene around 6 years ago as a Cardiff-dwelling city surfer. Originally coming from Gower, I was guilty of overlooking Porthcawl’s rich surfing heritage opting to head back further west, to familiar breaks. With city living making the journey increasingly challenging, I knew I needed to explore some closer waves.
Wanting to get to know the surf community in Porthcawl, I looked up the Welsh Coast Surf Club (WCSC) and headed down one Tuesday evening after work to meet up with the crew. Diving off the M4 slipway onto the road leading into the town, I remember feeling a surge of excitement as the sea came into view, after passing the sign welcoming me to Porthcawl.
Wandering down to Rest Bay, I couldn’t fail to notice that the town is a place of contrasts. Facing the Bristol Channel, Porthcawl is nestled on the south Wales coast between two strikingly different landscapes. To the east, industrial Port Talbot provides a dystopian, blade-runner-esque backdrop of smoke-spewing chimneys courtesy of the massive steel factory, while the Glamorgan Heritage coast in all its natural craggy beauty, lies to the south.
Long before locals realised that incoming swells could be ridden for fun, the town had been born in the Industrial Revolution. A direct train link ran from the Valleys, transporting its coveted coal and iron to the Empire via a purpose-built port. But its industrial ambitions were to be short lived, and the town brushed off its coal dust to set sights at exploiting its coastal charms as a tourist destination.
Clearly, it all went to plan: on sunny days, swarms of people fill the cafes, bars, hotels on the promenade’s sweep, some making a bee line over to Coney beach with its fairground, donkey rides and fish and chips. Every September, 30,000 Elvis impersonators make their annual pilgrimage to the town’s Grand Pavilion for Europe’s largest King convention, bumping into surfers emerging from the Esp, a shallow and fast, left hand reef break.
Entering the pub where the surf club meeting was taking place, I was greeted by the friendliest and most talented bunch of surfers you’d care to meet. From photographers, writers, camerawomen, architects, teachers, students, groms and long-time surfers, WCSC has a wide-ranging membership.
Love of surfing and Porthcawl is the bond linking this diverse group which also welcomes members further afield from Cardiff and Newport as part of their tribe. Such was the welcome that the Porthcawl surf community gave me, that a couple of years after that initial meeting, I moved to the town and became one of the locals.
One of the oldest surf clubs in the UK, WCSC was founded in 1969 as the CREST Surf Club, its name inspired by the local breaks of Coney, Rest, Esp, Sker and Trecco. Re-named the WCSC in 1971, the club continues to underpin Porthcawl’s vibrant surfing community, organising comps, and movie nights as well as the legendary Surfer’s Ball.
The Grom Club is fostering the next generation of talent, with recent alumni Emily Williams and Jo Morris making their mark on the international competition scene. Multiple British Champions Linda Sharp and Simon Tucker, Welsh Champion legends Greg Owen and James ‘Rhino’ Thomas are WCSC members to this day, as well as a talented current crew of rippers.
My Rest Bay neighbour, Steve Jones, has been surfing Porthcawl’s beaches since the 1960s, and remembers the days before crowds, water cleanliness and many females in the water. “I started surfing in 1968”, says Steve, “there were surfers around here before that – people like Ken and Ray Evans and Dale Furness, David Viking, Cliff Lewis and others who started surfing in 1965. In those days, if you saw someone driving with a surfboard on the roof of their car, you knew who it was”.
Thanks to these pioneers, Porthcawl soon started emerging as a surf town. Steve remembers Lindsay Morgan establishing the town’s first surf shop from his front room, and later publishing the initial British Surf Magazine in 1969 (which ran for three issues). Before Porthcawl’s surf shops started to take root, staple items like wax, were pretty elusive – local surfers raided chemists for ingot blocks of paraffin wax.
These days Flow Surf and Skate and PM Surf provide everything surfers need and are helpfully based on the same street. With surf culture taking hold, a steady stream of talent soon emerged and by the 1980s, Brad Hockeridge and Mark Schofield joined Simon Tucker on the British surfing podium, the three even making the world stage at the amateur world surfing championships.
Being on the south Wales coast, Porthcawl is perfectly situated to receive Atlantic swells. For the beach breaks, reefs and points to be firing, solid westerly fetch and easterly winds are ideal kindling. The waves rarely get massive due to the shallow basin and huge tidal range of the Severn Estuary, which sucks the power out of incoming swell – especially as the tide drops. Even though there are waves year-round, the winter months are when the breaks come alive.
Under the shadow of the Port Talbot steelworks and an imposing Victorian convalescence home is one of the town’s main spots. Rest Bay is a fun, pretty consistent beach break and attracts local rippers, newbies, spongers, SUPs, kayaks, baptisms, and everyone else in between. Even though it can get really hectic, it’s still possible to score uncrowded waves if you time it right. On epic days, well-formed peaks can hold up to 6ft plus, giving any spot in Britain a run for its money. Provided there’s enough swell, there can be a wave through the tidal range, but it’s generally better from mid to high.
On the pushing tide, a rip pulls you towards the rocks and cliffs on the left-hand side, and has caught out many with its strength. Conditions aren’t the best in westerly onshore winds, but Rest can handle south westerly and north westerlies as long as they’re not too powerful. There’s a pay-and-display car park a short walk from the beach and at least two surf schools are based here, Porthcawl Surf School, and Cressey’s Surf Academy. For a pre- or post-surf snack, head to Malc’s, opposite Rest Bay car park.
Around the corner is Sker Beach, the most westerly of Porthcawl’s beaches. The wave here is a bit punchier than at Rest, due to the refraction of incoming westerly swell against the point. A maze of identikit pathways and dunes through the Kenfig nature reserve takes you to the break, which is also accessible by walking around 15 – 20 minutes from Rest Bay.
Most surfers have a love-hate relationship with the wave here, however its consistency means we often spend more time than perhaps we’d like at Coney. One way of describing this spot would be unique; another would be last resort. There aren’t many places in Wales where you can surf overlooking a funfair, and the last surviving Wimpy in the country, with the clashing aroma of frying chips and doughnuts filling your nostrils as you paddle back out to the Grease mega-mix and other assorted cheesy tunes.
On small, summer days it can be a laugh to sit out back chuckling at questionable karaoke from the Hi-Tide bar. In the bleak winter months and howling winds however, the backdrop has a chillier edge.
Aside from its interesting setting, Coney is a wide, flat beach, and as it’s next to a harbour wall, offers good shelter on blown-out days or in big winter swells. If the surf is huge and onshore elsewhere, Coney can have a clean, manageable wave. This inevitably means that it gets very crowded.
It’s best surfed on high tide, and to work, it needs some strong swell pushing up the channel. If the water appears a bit brown, don’t blame the donkeys, blame the sediment, which is put through the Severn swirl – like Rest Bay, Coney has a Blue Flag. Ample parking is found around the promenade and beach car park, while you can get your caffeine fix at the Hi-Tide café or catch up on the sofas around the corner at Porthcawl Bike Hire.
The next beach along from Coney is Trecco Bay, a sandy beach break backed by a huge Parkdean static caravan park. When sizeable swell rumbles into town a fast, sucky right breaks not far from here, over shallow jagged reef. But to surf this gem, you may need to check with the locals about where to park, let alone paddle out.
Throughout all its incarnations, surfing has remained one of Porthcawl’s life-bloods and it’s a great place to live if you love wave-sliding. This looks set to continue thanks to a planned new community-driven Marine Centre built at the site of the harbour. Not only will it give the WCSC and WSF permanent headquarters in the town, but it looks set to cement Porthcawl’s place at the heart of the Welsh surfing scene.
Words: Leri Davies.
With thanks to Porthcawl’s surf-sages: Stuart Bentley, Linda Sharp, Steve Jones and Tom Anderson.