An icy upsurge catches me unawares. My legs spread-eagled for balance, I nose the board into the breaking wave and raise myself elegantly above its crest. At least that was the plan.

Instead, the swell smashes me in the face and continues unsolicited into every narrow cranny between 
me and my seal-like outer layer. Having been ripped, only minutes earlier, from the cosy enclosure of my down jacket and thrust into unfamiliar freezing surrounds – wearing little more than my birthday suit – I feel as good as reborn.

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“You want to avoid the flush-through,” says 59-year-old surf guru and local B&B owner Dessy. He’s right. As well as the ice-cold flooding in, my wetsuit is tucked incorrectly into my booties and one leg swells to elephantine proportions. My chilled groin, I suspect, is at the opposite end of the scale.

I’m in Croyde Bay – literally – in North Devon, home to what Dessy calls “one of the best beach breaks in England; if not the best”. For this reason, it warrants surfing year-round. My self-appointed mission is to locate that dedicated surfer within, unhinged enough to risk beloved extremities and general wellbeing for a killer ride. I hit the surf at high tide, probably a good idea since the low-tide waves pack a harder punch. For the more experienced, there’s also a reef break at the northern and southern ends of the bay, perfect if you get a kick out of surfing shallow waters over rocks.

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I got here after a few hours on the bus from London, catching my first glimpse of the West Country through the window. Dark green, rolling hills, spotted with quaint farm cottages and spindly, leafless trees, emerge from the misty midday haze. On the north coast, the hills, battered by cold westerly winds, dive headlong into murky, grey waters. It’s no wonder the crowds wait until summer to flood this area – which is good news for a Kiwi accustomed to sharing a beach with the seagulls and no one else.

“In winter you’ve got to want to surf,” explains Dessy, who gets amongst it whenever the swell warrants in summer, winter, whenever. As long as there’s surf. “I usually last for an hour-and-a-half at this time of year. As long as you get out as soon as your lips go numb, you’re OK. That’s one of the first signs of hypothermia.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dessy’s known for being a tad crazy – in the nicest possible way, of course. For this reason, I also enlist the assistance of a sensible surf instructor, Carlo, manager of Surfing Croyde Bay. He spends a third of his life submerged, so when he hits the beach in winter his 6mm-thick wetsuit spends the night before on a heater. I’m not so lucky. My borrowed second skin is still wet from a recent icy downpour. Luckily, this only deepens my resolve and, through gritted teeth, I cajole myself into a determined ‘bring it on’ mindset.

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Avoiding the all-over-body-shock of a togged mid-winter dip – or a nuddy one, for that matter – with a winter wetsuit on, complete with three-fingered gloves and peaked hood, the unwelcome deep-freeze is more gradual. The water seeps in slowly from every angle and, after 20 minutes in the surf, my lips become numb and general communication is difficult. Despite the warnings, I push on. I manage some upstanding moments, leaving me brimming with joy and wanting more.

But, after 45 minutes, a dull ice-cream headache starts to thrum behind my eyes and I call it a day. Still, I’d recommend winter surfing to anyone. Sure, the water’s freezing, but with the right kind of equipment and dedication to the cause, the suffering is sure to pay off. 

I end a great day with a visit to prized local pub, The Thatch. Finding the place packed to the gunnels, I encounter many laidback, leathery-skinned types. With cosy, 
low ceilings, comfort food and drink on tap, 
this pub is the perfect place 
for me to float gently back down to Earth after my unceremonious, bone-chilling mid-winter rebirth earlier in the day.

Phil hit the waves with Surfing Croyde Bay surfingcroydebay.co.uk. A surfing lesson costs from £40 for 2.5hrs. You can also hire a board and wetsuit from £15 for 4hrs. Other providers are open throughout winter

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Where to eat

The Thatch is the centre 
of Croyde village. Enjoy pub grub from £10. Something fancier, such as special ribs or Mexican chicken, goes for £14.95.

If you’re looking to save some dosh, try the Brook Store, which has freshly cooked pasties – including a great range 
of vegetarian options – from £2.

Where to drink

The Thatch (again!) has a great traditional English pub vibe. It has its own cider on tap and pints start at £2.80. Get involved in ‘Open Mic’ night on Sundays, which goes off even in winter.

The Manor is a five-minute walk from the main area of shops down Croyde’s original village lane, past 16th-century thatched cottages.

Where to sleep

Sandy Hollow is clean and comfortable. The best thing about it is the owner, Dessy. He does a daily surf report for magicseaweed.com and is full of advice. He also makes a mean full English breakfast. From about £45pppn. (01271 890556)

If booking with a big group of friends, try self-catering accommodation through a letting agent such as marsdens.co.uk, choicecottages.info, coastal-cottages.com, or holidayletttings.co.uk. Prices range from as little as £150 a week.