The sun is sitting lower in the sky. The air has a brisk edge about it. Green leaves begin to carry a tell tale brown curl about their edges. Summer is over. Everyone is packing up and heading home, moving indoors. But this is perhaps my favourite time of year. The water, having drunk in the sun’s rays all season long, is at its warmest meaning a dip doesn’t have to be quick. The numbers on my favourite paths, trails and rock faces are beginning to thin out. High pressures are slowly replaced by creeping lows bringing fresh swells to patient waveriders; post surf, because there’s an ‘R’ in the month, we can reward ourselves with a supper of juicy bivalves plucked fresh from the rocks. The berries are fattening up nicely on the branches and my thoughts to turn to bramble crumble and sloe gin.

Autumn is also the time of year I set out on a ‘back to basics’ surf trip powered by public transport and pedals, a journey based on the philosophy of reconnecting with and enjoying the natural environment without leaving a lasting impression on it. My article about the trip that featured in Cooler magazine helped me crystalise the idea for my book, ‘Adventure Britain’.

Autumn Adventures_Broughton_Demi  Taylor
High Tides And Low Tech – The Lost Art Of Low Impact Surf Travel

I’m surf satisfied, smug and salty, sipping a well-earned beer overlooking Capbreton. Across the table from me legendary shaper Phil Grace is trekking in the foothills of Afghanistan accompanied only by Pashtun goatherds. Well, that’s where he’s up to in his story of his 1976 overland trip from London to Australia. With his Antipodean sights firmly set on a European adventure, young Phil had spent the summer gorging on the little-explored waves of France and Spain before running out of money in Madrid and realising that his return journey to the land down under would need to be made by public transport. Highlights included hitch-hiking through Iran, a bus through Pakistan and a train through Burma.

It suddenly hit me just how easy modern surf travel had become. I’d booked my tickets last minute online and flown into Biarritz a few hours earlier via a low-cost airline. I’d checked the star rating on the forecast website so knew that there would be decent waves waiting. I tracked Phil down using my mobile before picking him up in my hire car.  I wondered just how much technology did we need to go surfing these days? How big a carbon footprint had I left in my chase for a few perfect waves? Smugness subsiding, I wondered out loud to Phil, ‘With so may aids available to the modern surfer has the art of low impact surf travel been lost? And are we all travelling so fast that we’re missing out on half of the adventure? And am I really having a Carrie Bradshaw moment?’

That night, shunning my glinting i-pod and the lure of Wi-Fi I began to set out the commandments for my next surf trip:

1. Thou shall only use public transport (including busses, trains, feet, bicycle)

2. Thou shall not convince yourself that a plane in any way qualifies as public transport

3. Thou shall go armed only with a board, a bag and a tent

4. Thou shall ditch your mobile phone

5. Thou shall not use the Internet or other mystic surf forecast lines to glean information.

I picked a date at random and decided that when the time came I’d buy a newspaper, read the isobars on the weather map and buy my train ticket to somewheresville accordingly. I’d done my homework and had managed to get hold of a Carver board rack for my bike. Riding along the gusty cliffs of Cornwall I had finally managed to get to grips with the art of cycling with – in effect – a sail strapped to my side. I’d had summit meetings with my co-conspirator Mairi Gordon. I’d carefully watched the low spiralling in the Atlantic on the BBC’s evening weather and despite looking pretty wet and wild, The Gower in Wales looked like it had potential. We were packed and ready to go the next morning. Or so we thought. That night the sky ripped open over the UK, severe weather warnings were issued and train lines south of Cardiff were washed away. “Just give me a sign, any sign if this trip is a bad idea,” I thought. But two days later, optimistic, undeterred and with the tracks to Swansea reopened, we loaded ourselves up and headed to our portal to paradise: Truro train station.

By car the journey from Truro to Swansea would have sped past in a black topped blur in about 4 hours, cost around £60 return in petrol and required minimal effort – bar a bit of clutch control here and there. We knew that to travel the 240 odd miles by rail would take us around 6 hours, require 3 different trains – all of which our bikes would need to be booked on to – and cost £85 each. What we quickly learnt is that it would also require speed of the Puma for hauling ourselves, bikes and boards on and off the trains unscathed and the cunning of a fox to work out which end of the train the bike store would be for each leg of the journey  – sometimes the guards knew and sometimes they just didn’t care.

We bundled onto our first train ‘assisted’ by guard who was firmly in category 2 and wedged ourselves into an available void by the doors. No racks: boards, bikes, bags and bodies at all angles as if doing some bizarre contortion act. Surely there must be a better way to travel the hour and a half to Plymouth. “Do you do this often?” I asked the bike with the professional looking panniers, hopeful of getting a few pearls of wisdom. “No never,” he replied as we jolted off.

Five minutes before Plymouth, we’d loaded ourselves up and were hatching a plan of military precision for Operation Disembarkation – Mairi on the train, me on the platform, passing out the kit: board, bike, board, bike. Simple. Halfway through the operation the doors started to beep. I stared wide-eyed at the platform guard, who looked back at me eyes narrowing, a smile beginning to curl on his lips as I shouted out in slow mo, “Nooooooooo. Waaaiiit…”. The door began to close as Mairi emerged with her bike, the door wedging half closed on her, one bike wheel sticking out of the train. “Nooooooooo.” The doors shot open again for a second, virtually spitting Mairi and her bike onto the platform before the doors closed firmly and the train sped off. Knuckle touching, high fives and adrenalin whooping – no one gets left behind!

Lifts, platforms. Load on, bundle off. Lifts, platforms load on again. We were in Bristol, just an hour and forty minutes from Swansea, on our third train of the day. The doors were about to close as Mairi checked her bag. She looked at me in horror and for the second time that day we had a slow-motion moment. “Nooooooooo’, she said. “My wallet. My phone. I left them on the last train.”

We woke to the gentle roar of torrential rain and on shore winds whipping across the tent but were still optimistic as we huddled in our sleeping bags. Erecting the tent the night before, with the assistance of gales and hysteria, had felt like we were part of some bizarre rhythmic gymnastics display with Mairi and I on either end of wildly flapping nylon sheeting. Our reward had been a dinner for kings – crisps, houmous and red wine by the light of a head torch. The morning after the night before Llangennith was big and stormy with some fun peaks coming through so after a decent stomp up the beach and buoyed by unfounded cheeriness, we suited up and headed in.

Autumn  Adventures_Campbreakfast_Demi TaylorThe next morning, checking the surf we ran into former world number five longboarder and friend Chris “Guts” Griffiths who mocked us for camping in such hideous weather. “See those static caravans behind you? With toilets and showers? That one’s mine, and nobody’s using it at the moment,” he teased. “I’ve got the keys on me if you’d be interested in borrowing it.” He said swinging them on his finger. Well, it was the hardest split second decision we’d ever had to make but weighing up the options thought it was probably bad surf trip karma to look a gift house in the mouth. We grabbed the keys, broke camp and peddled up the hill towards our new found luxury as fast our bikes would carry us. Over a cup of tea Guts told us about the next day’s forecast and that Langland would be the go if we wanted to get a quick surf in before heading home. And then he offered to pick us up in his van, take us there and drop us on to Swansea station. Well, we thought. What would Phil Grace have done? Snubbed a lift? I don’t think so. And it was car-pooling after all so our carbon footprint wouldn’t be too big… Buzzing from our happy turn of events and with Llangennith still stormy Mairi and I loaded the boards onto the bikes and cycled down to Broughton, a fun left point a 10 minute ride away.

As I looked out of the train window at the passing Cornish countryside I realised that although we’d gone less than 250 miles away, we’d been on a real journey. By breaking out of the car, we’d broken out of the bubble. Without that shell we were interacting more with our environment, the elements and other people.  I looked over at Mairi her thumb tapping away at her finger as if searching for its severed, phantom mobile appendage. Without the cushion of our mobiles or the Internet, we’d had to communicate more with the people we met along the way. Our trip had had a lower impact on the environment but ultimately had made more of an impact on us… Scotland anyone?

What we learnt:

Every surf girl needs a decent rack. If you’re cycling with your board in one hand, it’s pretty difficult to change gears with your other hand. A Carver Surf Rack is ideal as it fits to your seat post without damaging your bike

A 30 minute connection between trains is not an eternity while juggling bikes, boards and a need for coffee.

You don’t have to cut off your nose to spite your green face – it’s all about balance

Gin and apple juice isn’t a bad drink after all

A weatherproof Etobicoke Finisterre jacket is not only toasty warm and, made from recycled polyester, environmentally minded but it stuffs into its own fleece lined pocket to make an excellent travel pillow.

A block of feta, toasted seeds and some salad make for pretty good provisions

Not relying on the internet means you have to talk to people to find out information about tides and local conditions, which is a good thing

When foraging, the blackberry at the tip of the stalk is the juciest, best and first to ripen. Check out Food for Free by Richard Mabey

Optimism and a good travel buddy make for a good trip.


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