Shivering half-naked in a beach car park while hauling on a wetsuit is an experience you get used to when surfing in Britain. It is not a pastime that’s big on creature comforts.
So when I arrive at Surf Snowdonia, it’s almost disconcerting to be handed an electronic wristband for a locker. I get to put on my wetsuit in a snug changing room. There are hot showers, smart toilets, a bright café with wi-fi. It feels like turning up at a new swimming baths, except for the sign that says “To The Waves”.
Yet the coast is 12 miles away. We are in Dolgarrog, a sleepy village surrounded by green wooded hills on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, where you’d expect to be hiking, not surfing. Surf Snowdonia plans to change that with a world first: a 300m x 113m lagoon across which, every minute, a wave will gracefully peel.
Surfers dream of such waves, but in the ocean, a surfable wave relies on the combination of tide, swell and wind — all notoriously unpredictable. Hours of driving to the coast can end in frustration. Here in the Conwy Valley, that wave is guaranteed.
The £12 million centre, which opens today, has been designed by Wavegarden, a Spanish company that already runs a wave lagoon in San Sebastian. There, surf pros hone their skills on dreamy, barrelling waves, all captured for YouTube salivation. The Spanish lagoon is not open to the public, however, which is why Surf Snowdonia has the amateur surf community in a frenzy of anticipation.
On my sneak preview, I am being shown around by Jo Dennison, Welsh champion surfer and head coach of the new Surf Academy. She is brimming with excitement at Surf Snowdonia’s potential. “Because the waves here will be entirely predictable, you’ll be able to catch one whatever your level — and you’ll improve so much faster!”
She explains that each wave is created by a curved blade that is dragged down the middle of the lagoon by underwater pulleys (don’t worry, it is in a metal cage). The blade will jack up a wave on each side of the lagoon that starts at 2m for experts, reducing to 1.2m for intermediates. Beginners will learn at the edge, on the wave’s 0.5m wash of white water.
Only one expert and one intermediate will ride each wave, with just six experts, six intermediates and 24 beginners allowed in the water per session. It’s a very different experience from a crowded day at the beach.
As we get into the water with our boards, I am pleased to find that it isn’t too cold. Sourced from a nearby reservoir and kept clean by UV filtration, the water could feel Caribbean after a few hot summer days. I am keen to have a go. The problem today, however, is that engineers are fine-tuning the wave, and they keep turning it off. Dennison gives me some surf tips in the flat water. Then, suddenly, a wave is barrelling towards me. Heart pumping, I scramble to catch it and I tumble straight off my board. Drat. When a second wave comes, I just about manage to stand up, but it is too fast. I wipe out again. Despite all this talk of perfect waves, my surfing ability is as imperfect as ever. Then they announce that there’s a hitch and there will be no more waves today. It’s hugely disappointing.
When it is up and running, I can see how Surf Snowdonia will make a great day out. They have top-notch equipment — Firewire and Rusty surfboards, Rip Curl and O’Neill wetsuits and a surf shop. There’s a café overlooking the lagoon. And the verdict from the pros is positive. Tom Rezvan, a world-ranked surfer from LA, tells me he is impressed. “It’s like Californian point break,” he says. “Just like at Malibu.”
With four-person “camping pods” placed metres from the lagoon, it will be perfect for weekend surf trips. Non-surfers are catered for, too. A “crash and splash” pool filled with a squashy assault course opens soon. There’s also a play area for toddlers — although surf lessons will start at age five, so no excuses, little people.
Snowdonia already bills itself as the UK’s top adventure holiday destination, with canoeing, climbing, abseiling, riding and hiking, and now it can add surfing to that list. I can’t help thinking, though, that for surfers like me, the appeal isn’t about surfing. Hell, with my skill, I would have given up years ago if it was. Surfing is about the whole experience — chilly car parks and all. A trip to Surf Snowdonia may improve your surfing but, for me, it will never match a day by the ocean — however imperfect the waves.
Need to know
Bridget Harrison was a guest at Bodysgallen Hall & Spa (bodysgallen.com) which has B&B doubles from £179
Surf Snowdonia (surfsnowdonia.co.uk) has one hour’s surfing for £19 for beginners, £26 for intermediates and advanced, or two-hour surf lessons for £39 for beginners, £59 for intermediates and advanced. Camping pods are £100 a night B&B and sleep four (two single beds, one double)
5 great British surf schools
George’s Surf School, Polzeath, Cornwall
This much-loved surf school is by Polzeath beach, where David Cameron’s kids have learnt to surf on summer holidays. The quality of instruction is high, suited to beginners and those who wish to attain recognised surf instructor qualifications. Courses covering three to five days are available with accommodation included.
Details: A two-hour private lesson costs from £85, with £15 for each extra person joining the lesson; a three-night residential course with three days of instruction is from £425pp (01208 479006, georgessurfschool.com)
Tynemouth Surf Co, Tynemouth, Tyne and Wear
On Tynemouth Longsands beach, which has played host to several national championships, Tynemouth Surf Co is great for beginners. Its group lessons are especially popular, and suitable for all ages including those over 60. Instructors are trained to teach people with disabilities.
Details: A two-hour group session costs from £25; a two-hour kids’ club session (ages 6-16) costs from £15 (01912 582496, tynemouthsurf.co.uk)
Smart Surf School, Sennen, Cornwall
Many of the coaches at Smart Surf School have taught in Australia. Sennen Cove is a perfect location for beach sports enthusiasts of all abilities, as the southern end of the beach has smaller waves, while the northern end has bigger waves for the more experienced. The area has a rich wildlife: you can ride the waves alongside dolphins and porpoises, and spot seals along the harbour walls.
Details: Two-hour group beginners’ sessions cost from £25; 90-minute private lessons cost from £35; a Surf and Stay package includes two nights’ accommodation and a two-day surfing course from £100pp (01736 871817, sennensurfschool.com)
Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay, Cornwall
Extreme Academy describes itself as a “ski resort on a beach”. As well as surf lessons, it offers a wide range of activities such as body-boarding, kite surfing, wave-ski (using a surfboard adapted so it’s like a kayak), hand-planing (using hand-held mini surfboards) and paddle-boarding. If you want to chill out, yoga sessions can be arranged.
Details: Half-day group lessons cost from £35 and half-day private lessons cost from £95 — but are hard to book at peak times during school holidays (01637 860840, extremeacademy.co.uk)
Glide Surf School, Cromer, Norfolk
Described by a character from Jane Austen’s Emma as “the best of all the seabathing places”, the seaside town of Cromer (famed for the Cromer crab) is an ideal place to learn to surf. Paddle-boarding lessons are available, including instruction on how to ride waves on the boards. The minimum age for surf lessons is eight. The school has courses for surfers seeking to become instructors.
Details: A two-hour adult group lesson costs from £27.50; a two-hour child group lesson costs from £22.50; and a one-hour private lesson costs from £35 (01263 805005, glidesurfschool.co.uk)