Riding a wave of nostalgia at Europe's first museum of surf


Riding a wave of nostalgia at Europe’s first museum of surf

Saturday, April 07, 2012


It’s believed to be the fastest-growing outdoor leisure activity – and now the sport of wave-riding has its own museum. Martin Hesp was given a sneak preview of the Museum of British Surfing which opened yesterday.

One day neuroscientists will discover which bit of the brain is responsible for the fact that human beings are addicted to sliding down things with long appendages attached to their feet, especially when this crazy-sounding thrill is laced with hazard.


?Top: Peter Robinson at the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton. Above: Hobart Braddick, left, on Westward Ho! beach around the First World War – believed to be one of the earliest images of anyone with a surfboard in Britain. And right: Agatha Christie surfing in Waikiki in the early 1920s   main picture: STEVEN HAYWOOD

Top: Peter Robinson at the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton. Above: Hobart Braddick,

left, on Westward Ho! beach around the First World War – believed to be one of the earliest images of anyone with a surfboard in Britain. And right: Agatha Christie surfing in Waikiki in the early 1920s main picture: STEVEN HAYWOOD


Until then, skiers will have to wait for next season’s snow – but surfers will be able to get an immediate fix of their favourite sliding-down-things sport by visiting a new museum designed especially to celebrate the sport.

And there is a lot to celebrate – it’s a little-known fact that surfing even has a royal stamp of approval. When he was Prince of Wales back in 1920, King Edward VIII did it standing up (as surfers like to say) while on holiday in Hawaii.

Royal-watchers may have gleaned some clues as to his later abdication, had they seen him falling in love with sun, sea and the good-surfing-life at Waikiki beach during a three-day trip to the Pacific Ocean island with Earl Mountbatten.

The concept of hurtling down mountains or giant waves might leave a minority of people cold, but the only question most beach lovers will have about the concept of a national museum of surfing is why it hasn’t been done before.

Given that surfing is now one of the nation’s most popular outdoor summer pursuits – added to the fact that people have been doing it in this country for the best part of a century – you’d have thought we’d have seen an official exhibition dedicated to the sport long ago.

But the team behind the new Braunton-based Museum of British Surfing insist theirs is the first of its kind in Europe, let alone the UK – and, in a way, this gives the sport a kind of respectable kudos.

For as long as anyone can remember, surfing has been one of those cool things that rebellious young folk do when the waves are up – despite any work pressure or other responsibilities that might be weighing on their sun-bleached minds.

But that image is as endearingly old-fashioned as a wooden belly-board. When I drove on to Croyde this week after a visit to the as-yet unopened museum, eight out of the ten surfers I saw were all aged 50-plus.

So if surfing has come of age, then someone needs to tell its story – and that someone happens to be a one-time ITV reporter called Peter Robinson.

He is director and founder of the charity which runs the new museum, which was still in a state of builder’s mayhem when I called in for an informal visit.

Surfers have a legendary coolness, and I thought perhaps Peter would need this laid-back approach in the run-up to yesterday’s grand opening – but he calmly assured everything would be in place and even took half an hour out to give me a tour of the museum, which is housed in an old stone building that once belonged to long-defunct Braunton Station.

The first thing which confronts visitors – apart from a reception desk shaped, inevitably, like a giant surfboard – is a 15ft-high photograph of local North Devon-based surfer Andrew Cotton riding down a giant wave.

“That’s the new thing – everyone’s after giant waves nowadays and they go all over the world looking for them,” shrugged Peter. “Andrew is one of the best around and, as he’s a local lad, we thought we’d introduce people to the museum with this massive image of him riding a wave in Ireland.

“The waves we’re talking about are twice as high as this building,” he added. “Imagine a wall of water like that coming at you…”

I could imagine it – but in no way would I desire such a thing to happen to me, despite my human love of sliding down things.

“It can be very dangerous,” agreed Peter, concluding our brief talk about the ultra-modern manifestation of the sport so that we could set off on a tour of its history.

Surfers of an academic bent will know that it’s a much, much longer history than you’d perhaps think. If you were looking at the face of a clock which represented the entire history of surfing, then the British part of that story wouldn’t kick in until about two minutes to midnight.

It’s generally accepted that surfing was first recorded on Captain James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific. His ships HMS Discovery and Resolution called at Hawaii in 1778 and this is what Lieutenant James King noted in his ledger…

“The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, they wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct.”

Why were they risking their lives in the mighty Pacific surf?

Interestingly, surfing for the islanders was an integral part of society – Peter explained to me how local royalty were the only ones allowed the really long boards, and kings or chieftains would use these to demonstrate their mastery of their skill in the surf. No wonder they were keen to introduce our late king to their sport…

The common crowd had shorter boards, but they too could win fame and fortune by the way they handled themselves in the ocean and so become a kind of watery world’s version of David Beckham.

However, Peter also told me that anthropologists think it increasingly probable that historically people from other parts of the world also learned to ride waves ashore, maybe as a quick, safe way of getting back from fishing grounds.

“Archaeological remains which have been found now prove that people were surfing in other parts of the world – there’s evidence they did in Peru and even India,” he said.

The museum’s inaugural exhibition touches upon all this history – The Art of Surf displays 200 years of surfing-inspired creativity, from the sketches of early explorers through to works by contemporary British surfing artists.

Among the modern artists featured are Conrad Shawcross, Ben Cook, Mark Haywood, Al Lindsay and Maria Rivans.

“Explorers and early travellers drew surfers, surfers decorated their boards – especially in the 60s and 70s, advertisers plundered surfing imagery right the way back to the early 1900s – and today there’s a flourishing British surfing art scene,” said Peter.

He first began thinking in terms of setting up a museum dedicated to the sport back in 2003, when he organised a series of successful touring exhibitions which featured the surfing- related paraphernalia that he’d built up in his own collection.

Peter and his team have spent the last three years securing the building and funding, completing the design work, and creating (so far) two new jobs. The project’s main funders are Leader 4 Torridge and North Devon, North Devon District Council and North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

As you walk around the museum, so you will see an entire “time-line” of British surfboards mounted high up on the walls. Basically, they start big – then get shorter.

For the onlooker unversed in surfing tradition, it is surprising to see that some of the early boards were giant hollow affairs, screwed together and made out of various planks of ply – looking more like extremely flat boats than anything you’d carry around on a roof-rack in the hopes of riding down waves.

And talking of unlikely surfboards, we came to the biggest of the lot… Made in Hawaii from one huge piece of wood, this thing looked more like a lethal torpedo than a piece of sporting equipment, but Peter assured me it was the genuine article.

“It’s a copy of the kind of board the old islanders would have ridden back in Cook’s day,” he said. “It’s made of wiliwili wood which they shaped with a type of adze – then they smoothed the surfaces down by rubbing them with various bits of coral, which acted like sandpaper.

“I’ve tried riding it and can tell you it’s really difficult – it constantly wants to slip sideways, which is something you really don’t want with something this big.

“One of the things about the museum is that we want to be proactive – we want to get out there on the beaches nearby to promote what we do – and we will be taking this board, perhaps once a year, and inviting people to have a go on it…”


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