British surfing has a surprisingly long history, although on a world stage the country is not regarded as a 'must visit' surfing destination. Surfing in the UK is certainly more 'Endless Winter,' the title of a recent documentary on the subject, than 'Endless Summer'. California, Australia and Hawaii are the big players, however, a revolution has been going on on British shores. Beaches in Britain have changed in character since I was a child. In the late seventies and eighties going to the beach mostly involved a bucket and spade, and a scantily-clad swim (neoprene was not involved).
While the buckets and spades and associated windbreaks and picnics are still a feature of British beaches these are now accompanied by crowds of enthusiastic neoprene-clad beginners (including myself) throwing themselves at the waves (especially in peak season). Wetsuits and boards are for hire all year round in key surf areas, such as North Devon and Cornwall in southeast England, and Rhossilli and Pembrokeshire in Wales. There are also home-grown surfing pros from around the country, each with their own surfing spots. Of course surfing in Britain has not suddenly sprung up and the existence of surf clubs can be traced to the 1920s, with a surge in popularity, with influences from California, taking place in the 1960s.
Museum of British Surfing, copyright H. Winlow March 2013
We heard about The Museum of British Surfing after moving to Devon from a work colleague with a surfing interest. We decided to take a look around over Easter weekend. The museum is very small but it is packed full of stuff of interest to surfers, and in particular to those with an interest in the historical development of British surfing. The museum just celebrated its first anniversary and last year it opened with an exhibition on 'The Art of Surf.' It has an earlier 10 year history in the form of travelling exhibitions.
The current exhibition 'Sixties Surfer' celebrates the arrival of modern surf culture on British shores, and coincides with the 50 year anniversary of the opening of the first surf-shop in the country. Around 80% of the museum contents have been changed over since last season, reflecting the dedication of the small museum team. The more permanent part of the museum is dedicated to the development of British surfing over a longer historical period, and to the development of surfing in Devon, the home county of the museum.
The 'Sixties Surfer' exhibition features a large number of original artefacts, including longboards, shortboards, belly-boards and surfing paraphernalia. We realised that surfers in the sixties were pretty hardcore when we encountered some most uncomfortable looking wetsuits. These were often handmade and involved the use of copious amounts of talcum powder. The museum artefacts are accompanied by a number of display panels providing further background information. Use is also made of audio-visual displays, showing historical images, newspaper clippings and video clips.
Belly Boards, 1946-1960, copyright H. Winlow March 2013
The exhibition reflects the changing size and shape of surfboards which took place in the sixties. Generally earlier boards were longboards (known as Malibu boards at the time) and, as in California, shortboards and a different riding style became popular. The design-styles reflected the wider styles of the era. The board on the right of this image was one of the earliest short boards in Britain and it was shaped in 1968 in Woolacombe by Clinton 'Fitz' Fitzgerald. The other board features a piece of paisley pyjama cloth and was shaped in 1968 by Tiki founder Tim Heyland.
The 1960s saw the introduction of shorter surfboards, copyright H. Winlow March 2013
In the permanent part of the museum there are a number of replica surfboards, as well as memorabilia and audio-visual displays. This section is also full of intriguing information. For example, the earliest recorded example of surfing in the UK took place in Bridlington by two Hawaiin princes; Agatha Christie was a keen surfer in the 1920s; during the first world war makeshift surf-boards, made from coffin lids became popular; and Edward Windsor Prince of Wales went surfing in Waikiki with Duke Kahanamoku, who is widely regarded as the father of modern surfing.
Macabre Riding? Coffin Board 1920s, copyright H. Winlow March 2013
This section of the museum also includes a display cabinet of surfing memorabelia, including movie posters, games, books, and clothes related to surfing. My husband was amused by a late 1970s book titled the 'The Islander: Further Adventures of Lom Lombard, Surfing Superstud' which was accompanied by a lurid cover!
In June 2012 the museum won the prize for being the best collection in the UK put together on a small budget, in the inaugural Collections Management Awards run by the Collections Trust. It has also been shortlisted for the sustainability category, (along with four other museums) in the Museums & Heritage Awards for Excellence 2013, taking place in London this May. This is based on the museums focus on environmental and economic sustainability.
The 'Sixties Surfer' exhibition opened on Easter Friday and is running until 31st December 2013. Current prices are Adult £4, Concessions £3.50, Child (5-15) £2.50 (under 5's free), Family ticket (2 adults & 2 or more children) £12. Season tickets are also available. I would personally recommend allowing for a one hour visit to make the most of the collection.
The museums excellent website is frequently updated with recent news and events and also includes information about some of the key artefacts and about British surf history. The website complements a visit to the museum very well.