Roger Mansfield, local legend and the original Great Western Gremmie, wrote this article 21 years ago for The Newquay Voice.
It’s a personal story of how surfing took off in Newquay, with a staring role for Great Western Beach.
North Coast Origins
Born on the clifftops above Newquay bay I thought that everyone had a beach and an ocean near their house. By six years of age I had copied my family to play in the sea catching waves on flat plywood surfboards. I thought it was normal; nearly everyone I knew did it!
Then, the North Coast of Cornwall in the early 1960s became the breeding ground for the naissance of a new surfing culture. This one used big malibu boards like those carried to our shores by visiting foreign travelling surfers. In Newquay it predominantly happened on Great Western beach, my playing place, so I witnessed the start of a new type of stand-up surfboard riding, later to be referred to as ‘surfing’.
In 1963, at eleven years old I had a unique baptism into a whole new sport. I and my schoolfriend Paul had been quick to notice something we thought was ‘an aeroplane wing’ on the beach which was carried into the water. We were, soon, totally amazed by the man who caught a wave and stood upright on it as it slid across the unbroken wave face!
Experiments with standing on our own plywood boards immediately followed; but failed as they immediately sunk in the water leaving us standing on the sand. We found the courage to ask the lifeguard, who recognised us from our daily visits to the beach, how they worked. He kindly responded with an explanation and a chance for us to try a small foam and fibreglass paipo board.
We experimented in the white water. I caught a wave and succeeded to stand briefly. It was one of the most amazing sensations I had ever experienced! The lifeguard had seen my success and told me I could borrow it whenever I wanted.
Little did I then guess, that I was going ride waves for the next 60 years!
The Gremmie Was Born
I immediately entered this surfboard riding peer group as the youngest member, got my parents to buy me a surfboard within one year, learnt the lingo and studied the lifestyle. I literally became a little beach boy and soon learned to answer to my new given cult name of ‘Gremmie.’
Bill Bailey was the lifeguard. He gave me the name, mentored my watermanship, and built my first surfboard, as he did for most of the new surfers at the bay beaches, which operated as the main centre for the early sport in town. Bill evolved into the central surfboard builder maestro of an innovative Newquay company making Bilbo Surfboards.
This successful business built hundreds of hand-built surfboards supplying people all over the country who wanted to give the new surfing a go. This was the era of no spare surfboards. If you didn’t own one you just couldn’t start surfing. Surf shops came later!
In this formative era, ‘The Slope’ at Great Western beach was the primary meeting place for most significant surfers in town; these travellers and committed Brits formed a bit of a clique really . Many of this group who hung out down there in the mid-60s graduated to become significant members of our developing surf culture … building surfboards, contest stars, surf event directors, surf photographers and magazine producers, surf journalists and writers . Bill Bailey, Doug Wilson, Chris Jones, Rodney Sumpter, John Conway, Alan McBride and Paul Holmes being some key examples of this elite group.
This spot was surfing’s main cultural nucleus in 1960s Newquay, if you weren’t at the surfboard factory or one of the two mainstreet surf shops that had just appeared in town. Surfers liked to hang out with other surfers and talk surfing! It helped confirm their new found identity.
Water action in those genesis days, with 9ft plus Malibus, was mainly in the often offshore, smaller clean waves, of the Newquay bay. This was where the early South African, American and Australian surf travellers found the local clan. They became our ‘gurus’ from overseas teaching by their example from their performance in the water and their style on the beach. What to ride and how to ride it!
From that example; within the first six years, a core group of British surfers had grown more confident and capable. They were now consistently seeking to surf the bigger, peeling and often better formed waves of beaches open to all the full ocean swell power, like Watergate and Fistral.
Outstandingly, in 1966, four foreign surfers took riding bigger waves to an extreme. They paddled out in near twenty-foot waves at the Cribbar reef, off the end of Towan headland in Newquay. On their malibus, with no leashes, they rode a few waves and two had some mean wipeouts off the rocks. All survived! Big wave riding in Europe was born! However, it would take another 30 years to catch on!
Pete Russell who rode the most waves that day would tell me tales of his travel overland from Australia looking for surf and adventure. His tales put in my head the idea that travelling in search of waves could be part of my own future. I left home early with my board to explore overseas.
Culture & Heroes
Rodney Sumpter was an early star. Newly arrived from a youth in Australia, where he had grown up, he took up occupancy in UK, as he had been born a Brit. His style and ability was an estimated 5 years ahead of the best local contenders (that’s how long it took for best locals to equal his performance). He became an icon to be emulated wherever he surfed on the north coast, setting the standard to beat for the whole Sixties decade.
My own local heroes, masquerading as mentors, friends and event competitors, were spread through time; namely Bill Bailey, Chris Jones, Robin Wilson, Rodney Sumpter, Chris ‘Tigger’ Newling and others. We surfed and played together, sharing years of time in the waves and hundreds of hours on the beach. This interaction shaped our lives as surfers, giving it real form and substance.
I didn’t recognise it at the time, but this expanding north coast beach-culture bubble I was innocently caught up in, was actually in place and time the pure and simple beginnings of British surfing.
By the late 60s there were surfing communities developing along the entire north Atlantic coast from St Ives past Newquay to Bude and beyond to Woolacombe; plus, all the secret spots in between which would become established surf spots with the passage of time like Millook Haven.
The archetypal surf contests were initiated in the mid 60s on the north coast, then expanded, by their example, through different parts of the country by the 70s. In origin they were the totemic meeting point for the surfing tribe to meet; compete on ability, swap stories, compare equipment and make friendships that would last a lifetime. They gave this new sport a sense of social identity.
Indeed, by the late 80s they had evolved as the focal point for the general public to recognise surfing by its competitive public frontier. The bbest surfers had graduated from being simply local heroes to the status of a professional surfer by the late 80s.
Newquay’s two main beaches competed as venues for surf contests in the first instance, but by the 80s the in-town Fistral Beach became the top-spot, over Watergate, where local heroes from all regions found the chance to compete against each other for top titles.
However, my own winning of the British Champ title happened in 1970 at Watergate Bay in clean 4ft waves, riding a 6’2” single fin surfboard shaped by Chris Jones, after our return from the World Champs at Bells beach. The era was changing and shortboards had literally just arrived!
In the early 80s John Conway staged Newquay Pro-Am at Fistral, the first contest in UK using money prizes to attract top international surfers. Subsequently, the beach became the dominant event centre in the UK, servicing annually a World Tour stop of the new international, professional elite. Newquay was to become home to a string of Championships through time. It certainly became a breeding ground for British competitive talent, most of them north coast kids. Fistral’s cranking, lowtide, bowling wave was on any good day, often, home to a pack of local heroes competing for the best take-off slot.
A particular highlight was 1986 World champs scheduled to visit the UK for the it’s first time ever in Europe This amateur World Surfing Championships came to Fistral Beach, when seventeen other surfing nations visited to ride our waves and check us out! BSA had organised a good event and I was on the roving microphone for this 7-day international event, which was blessed with some good waves and quality surfing. While Aussie Mark Sainsbury was champ and the Australia team won the World Titles, it was also the first European occasion that a 15 year of the US Team, called Kelly Slater, was first noticed competing outside of the Americas. He was just about to launch on a mega-career as multiple World Professional Champion.!
The small regional cliques of surfers had grown into hundreds by the 1970s, then thousands by the end of the 1980s. The north coast, always a necklace of beaches, coves and bays became populated by the modern sporting world of surfers, internet guided to wave spots, while the ‘secret spots’ of earlier times had become virtually non-existent. Everything changes!
All of Britain is surfed now, but it started with this north coast territory, a unique hundred miles of coast facing an exceptionally consistent North Atlantic swell. It provided the surfing example to copy for people, men and women, wanting to ride waves wherever they could be found on the shores of our ocean nation. It’s cultural surfing heritage has largely shaped the national identity of our surfing island.
Those north coast waves have guided my personal destiny, just as they have influenced the lives of the thousands who came to ride waves on this coast’s beaches after me. Even today I an sit ‘out the back’ at Great Western beach and wonder about it all
Surfing touches your life!