The surprising hobby that’s drawing 70-year-olds to the beach

Advice

‘Go, go, go… paddle!” shouted the woman to my right, ending the whisper-quiet, almost meditative, silence beyond the break line. The sky had turned pink at Rhossili beach, on the Gower Peninsular in Wales, and I hoped to score one of the final waves of the day.

I sat in the vast and fathomless body of water in anticipation of the half-storey-high walls reeling towards me. In the line-up to my left was a father with his pre-teen children. To my right a woman in her sixties with a sinewy frame and perma-tan. We simultaneously sculled the water with our hands. I felt a surge of energy under my board followed by a weightless drop. I was up and riding – we both were – strangers sharing an endorphin-filled moment. She went right, I went left on the perfectly formed face. As the wave unfurled, we toppled off and emerged from the soupy, white foam stoked; she glanced over, a 100-watt smile on her face.

I’ve been surfing for 20 years, and in my fifth decade my appetite for wave riding hasn’t diminished – I’m still on a perpetual pilgrimage to find the best wave, and I regularly find these extraordinary moments on Britain’s vast, wild, 11,000 miles of coastline. More recently on my never-ending journey, I’ve noticed something new: mature boardriders like me are no longer an anomaly. At the more popular spots this summer you’re likely to see two seemingly opposing lifestyles collide; midlifers donning full rubber regalia, board under their arms, heading into the water to catch waves alongside floppy-haired youths. In the Gower, I spoke to 72-year-old Peter Jones. Or PJ.



surfing midlife grey guide


Eric Davis, 70, loves feeling the surge of the wave picking you up


Credit: Nick Corkhill for The Telegraph

Silver surfers

Rhossili/Llangennith is PJ’s local break, recognisable for the striking Worm’s Head rocky causeway at its most westerly point. “Wyrm”, as it was known in old English, means sea serpent. The Vikings named it after what they thought looked like a sleeping dragon. A fitting place for pensioner PJ to almost mythically defy the rules of nature as he glides along the water. PJ started riding waves at nearby Langland Bay when he was 17. “I rather loved the rawness of it,” he told me, as wedding-cake-white sets hypnotically rolled in. “I rode a wave all the way in and it was like instantly falling in love. I became a real beach bum from 1967 to now.”

In the 1970s, PJ gave up a professional golf career to tour the globe as a competitive surfer, travelling to Hawaii, Australia, Mexico and South Africa, before returning to his beloved Cymru and setting up a surf shop. The remarkable thing is – despite his age – he’s never given up. “Surfing keeps you young,” he says. “There are not many sports you can do at my age and be really good at them. If you’re a rugby or football player, by the time you’re in your mid-thirties you can’t do it any more.”



surfing spots in the uk travel holidays


At 76, Gwyn Haslock still hits the waves four times a week in Newquay


Credit: Sebastian Nevols

Boardriding veteran Gwyn Haslock is living proof of this. At 76, she’s the oldest female surfer in Britain (that we know of!) and still hits the waves four times a week in Newquay, the birthplace of British surfing. Riding waves is “sort of standing on air floating past”, she said in her warm Cornish lilt. The same morning before a surf on Towan beach, next to the town’s harbour, she had scoured the hallowed Cornish coastline for the best waves between Porthcothan and Watergate Bay.

Searching for perfect conditions is part of her ritual: “Watching the sun shining on the waves, the colour and the white water, occasionally you’ll see a seal – there’s nothing like it. I could stand and watch the waves all day. It’s lovely.”

Haslock started surfing in 1965, and in 1966 entered the first ever British National Championships as the only female competitor. The activity has become easier in many ways, she says. “Now we have stretchy wetsuits. Years ago we used to wear a woolly jumper in the water to keep us warm, and my first wetsuit was a dive suit. It was really uncomfortable”. 

‘However you catch a wave – that’s surfing’

Surfing might even be better now than when she was younger. “I am slower getting up, if I catch the wave. But I’m enjoying it more now in some ways than I was before. I appreciate it more,” she says. Haslock surfs with grace and elegance and makes standing on a wobbly piece of foam look effortless, but her advice for older surfers is to know what you are capable of.

“As I’ve got older I don’t go out in big waves,” she says. “My ideal wave is 2ft offshore. That’s what I enjoy. You do it within your limitations; as long as you’re enjoying it, it doesn’t matter how big the wave is.” And she’s no puritan. “I still enjoy going out on my belly board, even if you’re riding a rubber ring or a lilo. If you catch a wave, that’s surfing – you still get the same feeling.” I can attest to this, having paddled out in everything from misty seas and snow to bright summer nights and even when there is barely a ripple in the ocean – the release is always the same.



saunton sands beach uk surfing holidays


Saunton Sands was Britain’s first “surfing reserve”


Credit: Getty

In North Devon, on a beach at the end of sunken lanes, high hedgerows and a car park full of groovy vans, I learnt that many of Britain’s silver surfers came to the activity much later in life. Theresa Dacombe, 61, from Solihull, caught the bug this year at Saunton Sands, Britain’s first “surfing reserve” – an epic three-mile swathe of butterscotch sand, caught between a warren of dunes and the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean.

Her love of boardriding started on a winter holiday, post-pandemic. “We’d been travelling to the area for years,” she says. “I’d always seen the surfers, but I’d never considered giving it a go. At school I was never very good at PE and I used to be frightened of the boards; they were so hard – I was always worried that if I ‘wiped out’ I would hit my head.” 

Traditional surfboards were notoriously heavy, weighing between three to 10 stone (the latter if they were solid wood). These days beginner boards are soft, stable, made of foam, and weigh as little as half a stone. “During the pandemic, life was passing me by,” said Dacombe. “As things opened up, I didn’t want to take my fitness for granted, as who knows how fit I will be in the next few years? I decided to give it a go.” She took a lesson with Walking on Waves surf school. “Catching my first wave was exhilarating and I was surprised that I could make so much progress. I soon realised it doesn’t matter if you’re seven or 60 – you can learn how to surf.”

‘Surfing shaves years off’

“There’s no right way to surf,” I remember PJ telling me. “If you ride a wave on a longboard, shortboard; if you can stand up straight, or prefer squatting down; if you lay on your back or ride a wave sitting down. You are riding it. You’re on the wave. And the guys who are riding big waves are getting the same buzz as those who are riding little waves – it’s still nature’s energy.”

This energy is something all wave riders rave about. “That surge of the wave picking you up and being so damn close to it exhilarated me more than when I first stood up,” said Eric Davis, 70. “I was just lying prone on an old 9ft log.” Surfing shaves years off, he says. “It works on your spirit and mind, and gives you this healthy way to live. Your mind is just completely taken away from the aggravations in life – you just leave them on the beach or in the car park and paddle out and the fun begins.”



surfing holidays for older people uk travel


“They were ‘logs’ in my day”: Eric Davies, 70, loves the lighter boards that are available now


Credit: Nick Corkhill for The Telegraph

In search of more empty waves, I ventured north on my odyssey. Only 40 minutes from the centre of Edinburgh is the often forgotten, but starkly beautiful Belhaven Bay facing the North Sea. This stretch of coastline appears to have completely avoided the din of development. It was here in Dunbar that naturalist John Muir formed his early love for wild places. It’s easy to see why, with its captivating salt marshes, dunes and grasslands shouldering a mile of empty sand. It was also on this coastline that surfing pioneer Andy Bennetts, 71, caught his first Scottish wave in 1968. He had discovered surfing on a holiday in Cornwall several years earlier. “I got a lesson from the lifeguard and managed to stand up for a short time and that was me hooked,” he said. 

Nature’s pure energy

A few years later he managed to buy a board and transport it to Edinburgh, where he and a friend formed the country’s first surf club – Napier – which is still running today. The pair would explore the mercurial coves near Edinburgh, between North Berwick and Goldingham, and further away, in Fife and Berwick-upon-Tweed, “but really there wasn’t a need to find anywhere new because there weren’t any crowds”, said Bennetts.

The early days of British surfing involved grit. “There were no handy surf prediction websites, like Magic Seaweed,” Davis told me at Saunton, “the closest we got to wave predictions was the shipping forecast”. In the 1960s, surfers didn’t even have wax for their boards. “We kept slipping off. There were no surf shops in those days,” he said, “but we discovered that Boots did paraffin wax, and we started using that for grip.”



older surfers how to surf


Gwyn Haslock catching waves


Credit: Sebastian Nevols

The early pioneering spirit of Britain’s older surfers has paved the way for the activity to be accessible to people of all ages on holiday today. Surfing Britain’s waves is a thrilling and unique way to experience our underrated coastline. “You’re out in the open, you’re away from concrete, and riding a wave allows you to experience nature’s pure energy,” said PJ. “It is, quite simply, brilliant.”


Fancy catching a wave yourself? Here are five of the best beginner surfing beaches in Britain.

Belhaven Bay, Dunbar, Scotland

This one-mile stretch of beach, translated as “beautiful harbour”, is located in John Muir Country Park around 45 minutes from Edinbrugh’s city centre. It’s flanked by sand dunes, salt marshes, and grasslands, and has far reaching views out onto the Forth Estuary. Surf here is changeable and can be wild and untamed or perfectly still – check conditions before you visit. There’s ample space for beginners to learn the basics.

Board rental and lessons

Coast to Coast Surf School runs group beginner surf lessons at Belhaven Bay from £45pp, (07971 990361; c2csurfschool.com).

Where to stay

Surf holidays don’t have to mean basic accommodation. Many stay in Edinburgh and go surfing on a day trip (it’s a 45 minute drive from the city centre to the beach). The stately Dunstane Houses are a pair of Scottish villas with old-world splendour, doubles from £289 per night (0131 337 6169; thedunstane.com). Read the full hotel review here.

Rhossili Beach, Gower, Wales

Near the village of Llangennith, Rhossili Beach is all about rural charm and laid-back surfer vibes. The three-mile carpet of open sand appears to go on for eternity, with billions of grains sandwiched between wildflower-festooned hills and rolling waves.

Board rental and lessons

PJs Surf Shop rents boards and can help you to organise lessons from £35 per person, including all equipment, on Rhossili beach. Booking in advance is essential (01792 386669; facebook.com/pjs.s.shop).

Where to stay

The King’s Head Inn offers simple rooms in a 17th-century-old stone cottage opposite the surf shop and a mile from the beach. Doubles from £135 per night (01792 386212; kingsheadgower.co.uk). read the full hotel review here




Rhossili beach, Gower peninsula, near Swansea, South Wales, UK surfing holidays


Rhossili Beach is all about rural charm and laid-back surfer vibes


Credit: Alamy

Saunton Sands, Devon

This beach first appears via the winding cliff roads above and slow rolling waves break to scrawl white lines across the bluest of water like brush strokes. Opposite is a romantic tableau of sand dunes named Braunton Burrows, one of the largest systems of its kind in the British Isles, home to an abundance of wildlife, including rare species of butterflies. 

Board rental and lessons

Walking on Waves offers two-hour group lessons from £40 per person (07496 188692, walking-on-waves.com).

Where to stay

Nowhere has better views of the beach than the Art Deco Saunton Sands Hotel perched on the cliff above, doubles from £135 (01271 890212, sauntonsands.co.uk). Read the full hotel review here



surfing breaks in devon


Saunton Sands beach in Devon is ideal for surfing of all kinds


Credit: John Harper

Towan Beach, Newquay, Cornwall

Sandwiched between the town’s harbour and Great Western Beach, Towan is the place for beginners and has big messy waves during prevailing westerly and south westerly winds. This sheltered beach, with soaring views over the cliffs of Newquay Bay, can get crowded in the summer months, so get here early in the morning for the most space. Note: there are no waves at high-tide, when the water covers the whole beach and appears to turn into a lake. 

Board rental and lessons

Escape Surf School, perched on the cliff above Towan Beach is an excellent choice. Group lessons are taught by two ex-professional surfers from £30 including equipment (07810 805 624; escapesurfschool.co.uk).

Where to stay

The five-star Headland Cornwall overlooks Fistral Beach, Newquay’s most famous surfing spot, and is only a five-minute walk to Towan Beach. It features a relaxing spa as well as post-surf treatments and double rooms cost from £395 per night (01637 872211; headlandhotel.co.uk). Read the full hotel review here.



Cornwall surfing holidays Towan beach


Cornwall’s Towan beach is a great place for novices – although don’t expect to get the place to yourself


Credit: Meh Hemsworth

Woolacombe, Devon

The dramatic Baggy and Morte Point headlands are spliced by two miles of expansive sand at Woolacombe Beach. Multigenerational families kitted out with picnics, boards and beach games sprawl across the landscape during a summer’s day. Wander into the warren of sand dunes to find the excellent Porthole cafe (theportholewoolacombe.co.uk), serving handmade scotch eggs and fresh salads, perched high on the cliff.

Board rental and lessons

Local surf instructor Nick Thorn specialises in smaller groups for a personalised focus. Group beginners lessons start from £35 per person (01271 871337; nickthorn.com).

Where to stay

Two minutes from the beach are the Byron apartments (byronwoolacombeholidaylets.co.uk). From £487 per week.



Woolacombe North Devon UK surfing holidays uk


Multigenerational families kitted out with picnics, boards and beach games sprawl across Woolacombe beach over summer


Credit: Getty

For more ideas on where to stay near the sea, see our guide to the best seaside and beach hotels in the UK.


Do you surf? Please tell us about your dalliances with the waves in the comments section below

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