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A rush of panic disturbs the warm glory of the afternoon sunshine at Newquay’s Tolcarne Beach as the splash of the ocean’s surface being breached leads to instant thoughts of ‘shark?’, followed by ‘sealion?!’.

It’s a surfer’s nightmare.However, ‘dolphins’ emerge the culprits; five, travelling 20 metres apart, each taking its turn to leap energetically above the waterline and thrill the hundreds of beachgoers lazing and playing along the one-mile stretch of lion-coloured sand.

The sight of these sleek marine mammals is the ideal start to a wave-riding lesson in England’s surfing capital.

Newquay’s title stretches back to 1928, when Australian swimmer Charles ‘Snow’ McAllister passed through for a wave on his way home from the Amsterdam Olympics; the Australian connection then reinforced at the conclusion of World War II, when members of the country’s airforce held a ‘surf carnival’ that drew 5000 curious locals to watch the athletic antipodeans tame the town’s mighty breakers.

Although Newquay’s seven miles of coastline, comprising 11 beaches, welcomes consistent swell to its host of beach breaks, most of which work best in south to easterly offshore winds, today’s waves at Tolcarne and neighbouring Fistral are unusually small, almost frustratingly so.

However, they’re perfect for the absolute novice accompanying me, my girlfriend Leanne. Having tired of being left at home during my adventures on the beaches of Europe and Northern Africa, she has finally decided to learn to surf.

After the obligatory ‘how to stand up’ lesson from our instructor, Peter, a New Zealander far from his homeland, but very much at home in the ocean, Leanne is set her mission: to catch a wave and, at the least, get to her knees.

As she sets about the task with vigour, Peter and I chill a little further out to sea and he points out the landmarks surrounding Tolcarne, many of which I will later visit.

There’s the cliffside lift of the Hotel Victoria, in which a party of stags plunged 100ft to the ground when it failed in 2010; the harbour wall at nearby Towan Beach, where only locals in possession of a password are welcome to ride the break; the white 14th-century heur’s hut, from where a watchman would alert townsfolk to shoals of pilchard; and the home of Lord Long on Towan Island, accessible only by a 100m suspension bridge, and recently put on the market for £1m.

Further out to sea, a couple in kayaks tracks the dolphins, and a lone stand-up paddleboarder makes his way across the bay, while a jetskier makes the most of the atypical lack of swell, tearing across the smooth ocean, scattering seagulls as they scavenge for food.

For the surfers, patience is the order of the day, and eventually it pays off; I manage to latch on to some of the sea’s more generous offerings, coaxing my way to the shore along rare two-foot glassy faces, working hard to tease a ride from the shy swell.

Leanne looks on, her face a mixture of admiration and jealousy, although the next wave affords her the opportunity to improve. She scrambles aboard it, sliding down the face and getting to her knees, and then her feet, her balance that of a newborn foal.


Make the pilgrimage to Newquay, England's surfing mecca
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