On Cornwall's national day of celebration, St Piran's Day, male voice choirs gather in the streets, on rugged shores and even in the local pub, to belt out traditional sea shanties and Cornish songs. Most of the time, the session is wrapped up with a song called Cornwall My Home, and it is an all-encompassing testament to the beauty of the Duchy, the true song of the people.
And it perfectly exemplifies how fiercely the Cornish love their slice of paradise, nestled in the furthest stretch of the south west of England. So intense is that feeling of place, that for some, Cornwall isn't even England – they're their own identity, and given the dramatic nooks and crannies of Cornwall, it's easy to see how that mentality came about – plus the myriad historical nuance that plays into it.
It it this sense of individualism and passion that translates to the coastline too. There's a notion in Cornwall that land and sea are a collective, connected community, with most locals more concerned about the state of the oceans than they are the cleanliness of the streets of their home. It is the birthplace of UK-based organisation Surfers Against Sewage, a group dedicated to keeping the planet's oceans as healthy as possible.
Did you know the Cornish have their own language? Kernewek, it's called. And a few years back, the Cornish were even granted minority status, which gives a variety of benefits as well as protecting the traditional recipe for a Cornish pasty - meaning you can't call it a Cornish pasty if it's not made in Cornwall. No joke.
It's common knowledge that there's waves in Cornwall, Fistral is world renowned and the 'home of British surfing' but is often overlooked on a global scale, given the sheer quality of waves on the planet. Back in the day, localism was ripe at some locales, playing into that feeling of intense passion for one's land. Nowadays, there's less aggression in most places.
The north coast sees a lot of the action, but sniff around on the right day and you'll find waves rifling into most headlands. And the scenery? You ever surfed in front of a castle? How about one of Cornwall's premier reefs which is framed by old, abandoned tin mines from the Duchy's more industrial years. Sometimes, there's punchy beachies below the gaze of towering cliffs and golden sand dunes. There's barrels, too. But you gotta be third generation Cornish before you even get to know about them, let alone learn how to pronounce their names.
Anyway, lensman Mike Newman's been documenting Cornwall's surf catalogue for a number of years, so we tapped him up to get his opinion of this dramatic place, what the waves are like and Cornwall's stunningly diverse coastline. Enjoy.
Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you get into surf photography?
I was living in Sennen and teaching surf, but only part time, so I filled the rest photographing the coastal scenery, waves and surfers. At the time no one else was doing it, and my seascapes and wave pictures started selling really well in the local gallery. I think there were only two UK surf mags at the time, and I started sending photos in to them around the same time.
Spot guide: West Cornwall
There’s so many setups around the Cornish coastline, what do you think sets it apart from other places?
In terms of surfing, there are two things that set Cornwall apart - its rugged coastline, and the narrowness of the peninsula. The convoluted, indented coastline offers a massive variety of beaches, points and wedges meaning there's a great deal of choice. And unlike, say, the east coast of Australia, if it's onshore on one coast, you can relatively quickly drive to the other coast for an offshore wave.
Let’s face it, it’s colder than most other well-known surf locales – what do you think keeps everyone motivated?
Cold? Wetsuits are so good at keeping the heat in these days that being cold in the water shouldn't be a factor. Thick and heavy wetsuits and sub zero temperatures certainly make you more sluggish than when in board shorts though.
Knowing there will be less people in the lineup on a chilly day and therefore more chance of getting that perfect wave will always motivate me.
Yes. A 5mm suit for the winter is a must...at some spots, there’s a sense of localism, but for the most part, do you think it’s a pretty inclusive surf community?
In the bad old days you'd get your windscreen covered with wax, or maybe your tyres let down, if you strayed in to someone else's surf. I remember once being told that I'd get my camera smashed and thrown in the water if I took pictures at a particular Spanish break.
Luckily I knew a surfer who lived nearby, but he had to clear it with the top guy, a muscle bound, ex drug dealing, born-again Christian before I could stand in front of the surf and shoot photos.
These days it's certainly more global, and surfers come from all walks of life. Everyone's on the internet and everyone knows when a particular spot will be working, so mostly people expect to see both locals and non locals at any given break when it's on.
Let’s talk equipment, what are you using to shoot?
Currently I'm using a Canon 1D MkIII with a Sigma 150-600mm sport for land shots, and my trusty Canon 7D with an 8mm in an Aquatech housing for the water shots.
Favourite place or surfer to shoot?
Porthleven is such a great place to take photographs whether it's six foot and offshore, being hit by a hurricane or even when it's completely flat. When it's on all the best surfers are there, and their competitive natures push the level of surfing to the max. St Ives, on the right day, has some superb light as well.
I like shooting with surfers who understand that getting a good surf photo is a collaboration between photographer and surfer, as much as just capturing an extreme manoeuvre. This is especially in the water. Locally the Smart brothers, Sam, Seb and Lew are easy to work with (and always blowing up somewhere). Likewise Jayce Robinson and James Parry are always keen to work on good pictures or video.
Cornwall has a unique coastline in the surfing world, backed by tin mines and rugged landscape, do you try and capture some of that gold in your images too?
The Cornish coastline is amazing and I love shots that give a sense of place, the drama of the landscape as much as how the wave breaks into it. That said, there are some spots where the locals would kill me if I published a photo with identifiable scenery in it.
I can imagine, OK, talk us through your top 4 images...
Russel Winter – Porthleven
This was from a session a few years back, the surf had a bit of punch and was incredibly clean and hollow. Russell is still the only UK surfer to get into the WCT, even beating Slater in Hawaii on one occasion, and this day he was on fire.
I was stoked to watch his mastery in negotiating both crowd and barrel as he consistently took set waves from the frothing pack of tube hounds and then dry-haired the barrel into the channel.
Rare and novelty breaks
I love finding odd little reefs, points and corners in my own backyard which only work occasionally, perhaps on very specific swells and tides. This day I'd taken a commission from a national paper to shoot an ex-hurricane that was hitting the west country.
It was one of the best days I've ever seen at this spot, but the deadlines meant I didn't get to surf it. Luckily, during my drive around Cornwall shooting the storm, I found two other spots to surf on the next, similar swell.
Modern Surf Industry
Surfing today is very much a modern global sport and industry, with a sheen of TV gloss & big brand advertising, mass produced product, corporate sponsorship and its attendant hype. A far remove from its roots, not so long ago, where you had to build your own boards.
So, during a shoot of Cornish shapers for an online surf magazine, I was really pleased to discover that Cornwall is chock full of intriguing and creative individuals, often hidden away in a garden shed, pouring their knowledge and passion into unique, hand crafted surf boards.
Surfing in Cornwall
For me, this shot sums up all the best points of surfing in Cornwall. A solid summer swell with hazy gold backlight through the waves at the end of the day as the coastline starts to silhouette against a Hawaiian level sunset.
Everyone else has got out, and you look for your last one in. You choose one that turns out to be the wave of the day, get fully barrelled and then pull your biggest, most extreme manoeuvre on the end section and land it. Belly in to the applause of friends and a beach barbecue, or perhaps a pint in the pub. Maybe both. Kernowaii, epic.