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Newquay: Hitting the waves

The surf might be up, but I’m more concerned about staying up. Standing composed on a narrow strip of foam firing across tumultuous waters is tough. I’m having more success face-planting into the choppy Atlantic Ocean than ‘popping up’ onto my board and remaining poised and balanced on top of a rushing wave.

Newquay: Hitting the waves
Fistral Beach, Cornwall

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But I’ve set myself a mission to surf, and I’m not leaving the water until I do. I could be here some time.

Learning to surf has long been a challenge to check off my adventure wish list, and to finally cut my salty teeth I’ve headed to the reliable swells of Newquay in Cornwall. At the height of summer, the seaside town’s prowling stag and hen parties could easily turn it into a Faliraki with pasties, but thankfully its consistent waves have earned it the more salubrious title of UK surfing capital.

One of its most iconic beaches is Fistral, not just for its coveted breakers and international surf competitions, but also for the historic Headland Hotel, a great redbrick Victorian edifice perched high above it. Imposing and dramatic, it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the setting for the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Witches.

Heading down to the water’s edge I’m hoping for a less ominous start to my surfing experience with a lesson at Surf Sanctuary, the hotel’s ocean sports school. But before I can even contemplate riding my first wave, instructor and all-round adventure guru Dom puts our group through our paces with a series of warm-up drills and exercises. With leg swings, shoulder shrugs, arm rotations, lunges, squats, twists and jumps, it feels like I’m being prepped for a boxing match; a showdown, perhaps, with the sea.

Mercifully, the ocean isn’t firing on all cylinders today, with modest waves of just a few feet high rolling in — perfect for beginner surf bums. With steady-cresting waves under a clear, warm sky, it’s hard to imagine the seascape here could be anything but placid, yet Dom is keen to caution us on the notorious Cribbar.

A formidable surf break reaching heights of over 30ft, the legendary Cribbar — also known, bluntly, as the Widow Maker — occurs only a few times a year, when low-pressure systems in the Atlantic trigger huge swells, which rise up as they pass over a rocky reef at the north end of Fistral Beach.

Lucky for us, there’s no such towering beast on the horizon today, so we’re free to paddle out to catch our first small waves and test our mettle on a board. Within seconds, Dom shouts and points to an incoming wave about 15ft away. I turn back to face the beach and, lying flat on the board, paddle as quickly as I can. The wave closes in fast and before I realise where I am and what I’m doing, a wall of water catches hold of my board and breath, catapulting me forward and sweeping the tail away from under me.

My first wipe out is quickly followed by my second, third and fourth but with dogged persistence and encouraging bellows from Dom, I summon up all my powers of concentration and balance as the next wave rolls in. Keeping calm and focused on where to place hands, torso and feet, I feel the wave hit and push myself into a squat on the board’s sweet spot before rising slowly with outstretched arms.

I’m up, standing and surfing for only a matter of seconds before being thrown off and swallowing mouthfuls of foamy brine, but it’s a triumph to fleetingly feel like I’ve tamed a surging sea. With the ocean conquered I’ve probably earned a slap-up afternoon tea up at the Headland but the lure of riding the relentless waves is too strong. I could be here some time.