The Rich History of Surfing in North East England

Magicseaweed

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Updated 102d ago

Surfing in the north east of England isn’t for everyone. Cold water means a good deal of thick neoprene is a necessity. Surfer Richie Inskip knows this and has spent a fair bit of time on that side of the earth. Here, he walks us through the area’s rich surfing history (and may have bagged a couple of kegs to boot).

More in favour of pillaging villages instead of waves, the Vikings first set shore in the north east of England in 793, around 700 years after the Romans made their first march up to the River Tyne. As a result, it is an area rich in history and with a strong industrial heritage, often celebrated more for its culture of wearing flat caps and working in coal mines than its stretch of coastline — which harbours an underground yet dedicated surf scene.

The demise of the coal industry started in the mid 20th Century but from as early as the 13th, coal was the lifeblood for the north east of England. At its peak, coal mining was responsible for employing more than quarter-of-a-million men across 400 pits, producing 56 million tonnes of coal a year.

Emily Grimes. It sure looks inviting, if you can stomach the cold, that is.

Emily Grimes. It sure looks inviting, if you can stomach the cold, that is.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

Subsequently, the River Tyne became famous for ship building and was the major route in the export of coal from the UK. But as the industrious heartbeat of the River Tyne died off, so did the jobs, but for a very small and specific population of the north east of England, a very different lifeblood existed which still offered riches a plenty, but only during the right swells.

Tynemouth is just a few miles to the east of Newcastle. Famous for the ‘Geordie’ way of life, Newcastle United Football Club and the home of Newcastle Brown Ale, it is surprising to think it is also the home and origin of the surfing culture in the north east of England.

Louis Thomas-Hudson. Second generation surfer, shop owner, legend.

Louis Thomas-Hudson. Second generation surfer, shop owner, legend.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

Surfing first reached Tynemouth in the late 60's with only a handful of Geordie surfers enjoying the north seas’ finest offerings. Even in the 1980's there were only around ten regular surfers in the Tynemouth Area. One of these surfers was Nigel Veitch, who started surfing around the 80’s and was the first British Surfer to surf on the world tour (aided by his then sponsor Newcastle Brown Ale).

The coastal route is littered with incredible English heritage sites (mostly castles), miles of unspoilt sandy beaches and a famous wall the Roman's built to keep the Scottish out.

Another Surfer was Stephen Hudson, who’s Dad, Ronnie was one of the original pioneers of local surfing in the 60's. Anyone who surfed in the north east will know of Steve, or is thankful for the impact Steve had on surfing in the UK. In 1995, he set up Tynemouth Surf Co and the shop quickly helped establish Tynemouth as the epicentre of surfing in the north east of England. The store is still there today and ran by Steve's son Louis (who absolutely rips, by the way).

Unfortunately, Steve is no longer with us and his big grin and energy is greatly missed. If you are ever in Tynemouth, be sure to pop into the shop and say hi to Louis, he is a cracking lad, great surfer and continues to do his father and the local community proud with both the store and his surfing.

Sandy Kerr navigating under a thick lip, somewhere in the north east.

Sandy Kerr navigating under a thick lip, somewhere in the north east.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

Over the years Tynemouth has produced a number of influential British surfers, including Sam Lamiroy, who moved over from Belgium as a kid and learnt to surf on the waves of Longsands beach. Gabe Davies, a once freesurfer with a big brand, whom established one of the UK's most influential surf careers.

Joel Gray, now found in Cornwall running one of the UK's leading surf coaching academies (Surf Solutions) and more recently Sandy Kerr. Born and bred in Tynemouth, Sandy is an outstanding lifeguard who has devoted his life to mastering his passion for the ocean.

Milk chocolate barrels, a staple of the North Sea.

Milk chocolate barrels, a staple of the North Sea.

© 2022 - Samuel Howard

Surfing in the north east has birthed a hardcore scene in the UK. As every cold-water surfer knows, there is a certain feeling of accomplishment to just getting into several layers of rubber, let alone spending hours surfing in water temps that are often below 7 or 8 degrees celsius.

North east England epitomises this and with the swell season peaking during the harshest time of winter, surfing here is as hardcore as you can get. Like any surf scene that resides in a challenging environment, you will find a host of underground surfers that that rip yet rarely get a mention or any kind of coverage.

Smooth operator, Emily.

Smooth operator, Emily.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

These surfers are always found in the line-up on those heavy and perfect days. Some north east surfers include Matty Dunn, Ross Hargreaves and Sam Thorpe.

Ross hails from the south of the Tyne and my home town, South Shields. Ross and I both learnt to surf at Shields beach, albeit a few years apart. Thankfully Ross had way more talent (and youth) on his side and it shows in the heavy waves the coastline has to offer.

Photographer Sam Howard in a winter glow.

Photographer Sam Howard in a winter glow.

© 2022 - Hugo Spinola

On a personal note, I moved away from the north east twenty years ago, but having strong family routes that run deep into coal mining, the area will always remain 'home' and is dearly missed. However, this wasn't an emotion I expected to be greeted with while sitting in a small independent theatre enjoying the London Surf Film Festival.

Not being one who is usually home sick, or preoccupied with thoughts and memoirs of home, this feeling came as a shock. It was surreal watching surf movies in an authentic 19th Century theatre, even more so as it was a theatre the Kray twins often visited in the 60's.

Jesse Davies on a black water bomb.

Jesse Davies on a black water bomb.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

One movie was that called Home, directed by Lewis Arnold, which captivated the essence of surfing at home. In a time where we have been told not to go outside and how our right to travel restricted, it was fascinating to be reminded about the importance of recognising the beauty and opportunity that often sits directly in front of us, at home.

With the power of the big screen, each breaking wave audibly reverberated through the walls of the old theatre and was received with neanderthal cheers. The movie really encapsulated what home means and encouraged the notion of rediscovering this feeling.

It was time to head ‘HYEM’. Geordies often use this word, pronounced with a silent H. It means 'Home'. 'I'm ganning hyem' — I am going home. But for a Geordie surfer it means; where people are friendly, the weather is cold, the swells are raw and the waves are pumping. With this newly discovered desire to travel Hyem, it was time to keep an eye on the forecast.

Emily works for NE Surf School. She knows a thing or two about the breaks of the north east.

Emily works for NE Surf School. She knows a thing or two about the breaks of the north east.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

The North Sea is a fickle beast and reports can change quickly. It was time to make the journey home, leaving the south coast of England and heading north. After you pass a city called Sunderland, the north east coastline is arguably one of England’s most beautiful stretches.

The coastal route is littered with incredible English heritage sites (mostly castles), miles of unspoilt sandy beaches and a famous wall the Roman's built to keep the Scottish out — Hadrian’s Wall.

The north east of England has lots of decent waves to offer, from beaches to reefbreaks. But as with anywhere, getting off the beaten track is always the best adventure. The further you move away from the city the more rural everything gets.

South African, Jacob Mellish blowing off some steam.

South African, Jacob Mellish blowing off some steam.

© 2022 - Samuel Howard

Often, if it were not for some of the local farms you might wonder where the nearest dwelling or civilisation was. It was this part of the north east we had come to enjoy so parked up to spend nightfall.

Surfing in the north east has birthed a hardcore scene in the UK. As every cold-water surfer knows, there is a certain feeling of accomplishment to just getting into several layers of rubber, let alone spending hours surfing in bitter water temps.

Just before sunrise there was a distinctive bang on the van, with the wake up call of 'alreet mucker' (a loving Geordie greeting). It's always warming being greeted with a broad Geordie accent, even first thing in morning. Ross had just finished nightshift and drove straight to the beach from work. Incredibly, even after a full night at work he was frothing and already suiting up.

The tide wasn't quite right but he hadn't surfed for a couple months and rightly so, he was gagging to get in the freezing water.

Sandy and a cold water mirage.

Sandy and a cold water mirage.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

A host of the local rippers were joined by South African surfer Jacob Mellish, who had travelled down from his abode on the other side of the wall. A few of us stood on the reef basking in a glorious sunrise as the local guys paddled out to score some wedgey caverns. As the tide approached its ideal position a host of locals paddled out to enjoy the rugged beauty of this wave.

The North Sea is a gnarly stretch of water so in typical fashion, swell often arrives with storm winds.

The sun was beating down and was offering some glorious light and some much needed warmth between sets. Jacob, one of the only regular footers out there, was getting fully shacked as the wave decided who to swallow and who to spit out. The majority of the locals here are goofy footers and knew the wave inside out, back-dooring the peak and taking shelter from the only bit of warmth there was on offer.

Breaking over shallow kelp-filled water is always a little sketchy, with the fear of something holding you under those few seconds longer. But the cushioning against the reef was also welcomed as bigger sets rolled in. It was not the biggest of days but it was great to see the smiles on the locals’ faces as they emerge out the barrel and kick out. This is what it was about, enjoying the reason we use the word home. We can travel all over the world, but home is where your heart is.

Aussie Rhys Smith boosting and grabbing rail.

Aussie Rhys Smith boosting and grabbing rail.

© 2022 - Lewis Arnold

Cover — Sam Thorpe by Samuel Howard.