During the summer months, the roads to the West Country are usually packed with cars. On this particular autumn weekend though, there a far fewer vehicles.
But although the temperature has dropped a few degrees, there are still plenty of good reasons for heading to some of Britain’s best beaches - including the chance to learn how to surf.
I’ve hired a MINI Countryman for the weekend with the aim of heading west, where some of the country’s best surfers hone their skills.
Bude is probably the most popular hang-out for surfers, thanks to its great selection of beaches and coves. I’m also recommended to visit Gwithian and Hayle, which are blessed by good waves all year round. Thanks to the gently sloping nature of Gwithian beach, the surf here forms and breaks very slowly, making it a good option for beginners.
But on this occasion, I decide to visit the picturesque village of Croyde in north Devon, famous for its spectacular coastline and excellent surfing.
I reach my destination just in time to catch the stunning sunset over Croyde Bay, and my stresses from the week drift away into the glowing amber horizon.
When I meet local surfing expert Carlo Fusie-Ferrero, it strikes me that he’s very much the surfer dude, with his muscular physique and wavy hair streaked with blond highlights. His image is even emblazoned on a double-decker bus, which serves as the headquarters for his Croyde Surf Academy. The interior has been fitted with changing rooms, while surfboards are propped up outside.
Carlo has been surfing in Croyde for more than 20 years and runs courses at the Academy for beginners through to advanced surfers, from age five to 85. Everyone in my group is a beginner, which is why local surfing celeb and all-round beach babe Sophie Hellyer is on hand to help out with our lesson too.
She’s an English and British champion surfer from Croyde, who now travels the world ‘riding the waves’ in exotic locations. Carlo and Sophie are surfers through and through, so if they can’t get my pizza-loving, gym-allergic body up and onto the board, then nobody can.
Our first surfing lesson is scheduled for the morning, but Carlo isn’t satisfied by the size of the waves, so we hold off until lunchtime. He is proud to tell us that he never takes anyone out to sea unless he is sure the conditions are good enough for people to learn. He also says he gets everyone up and standing on the board on their very first lesson. No pressure then...
It’s hard not to get lost in Carlo’s sharp blue eyes when he hands us our wetsuits. I squeeze my body into the lycra-tight material and manage to waddle out of the bus with a slightly baggy crotch. Of course, Sophie looks effortlessly cool and I make a mental note not to munch on any more scones with clotted cream (even if I am in Devon).
We stand behind our surfboards in a semi-circle as Carlo begins the lesson on land. First things first, we learn how to fall off the board safely and what to do if we get into trouble out at sea. Then, it’s on to technique. All of us in the group opt for the easiest way to stand up because our flimsy core muscles won’t allow us to just ‘pop up’ from the board and land straight on two feet.
In pairs, we carry our surfboards down the little rocky hill from the Academy to the bay and out to the water. I glance back to look at all the British holidaymakers safely tucked behind their colourful wind breaks further up the shore and realise its now or never.
With the surfboard securely attached to my ankle, I wade out into the choppy water. Fortunately, I’ve been put in Sophie’s group - the sight of me wriggling and writhing onto the surfboard like a beached whale is not something I want Carlo to see up close.
“Knees, front foot, back foot, hands...” I repeat my strategy over and over in my head as Sophie lines me up on the board. I lie in position on my tummy like a giant slug.
“Ready?” she asks. But it’s not really a question. Off I go, sea salt in my eyes and snot running down my face. Of course, I fail to stand up but it feels fantastic. I wriggle back on and try again and again, each time getting a little bit closer to the upright position.
With the right encouragement and guidance from Sophie, I finally stand up. I can’t help but whoop about my success to anyone and everyone nearby. Granted, I’m only standing for a few seconds, but when you’re on top of the board, you really feel like the queen of the ocean.
On the walk back up to the Academy bus, we share tales of tribulations and triumphs, and can’t wait to get back out there for another go.
I secure my surfboard on top of my car and pile the rest of my gear into the boot. Next stop - dinner...
Carlo recommends we meet in The Kings Arms in Georgeham, just a few miles from Croyde. The cosy and candlelit atmosphere, combined with warm hospitality, makes it the ideal place to end an active day outdoors.
I may not be a fully fledged surfer dude, but I’ve definitely developed a passion for riding the waves.
And although it’s not exactly bikini weather right now, it doesn’t really matter. Even surfing on a rainy day is a fun activity, which makes it an ideal British sport.
Leanne Rinne was driving the new MINI Countryman, designed for people with a more active lifestyle. It is the first MINI to feature five doors, five seats and optional all-wheel-drive.
Croyde Surf Academy (www.croydesurfacademy.com) offers group lessons from £35pp and the academy is open all year round.