County Limits

In 2010 Greg Martin's quest to score every surfable county in England lead him up North as a historic swell smashed the coast

The latest news is there’s three tow teams getting ready to launch, hordes of pro surfers, photographers from every surf mag in Europe and a man running around with an iron bar looking for a fight… apparently.

Tensions have reached an all-time high and by the end of this day, blood will be spilled.

If the texts, rumours and phone calls are to be believed, things are going to get ugly, breaking point will be reached and violence used. Hidden away on the coast of Northumberland, the territorial battle has yet to reach me, a southerner surrounded by northerners, armed only with cameras and the weak excuse of a quest to score every coastal county for being here, but it will surely only be a matter of time. As the sun rises over the North Sea, silhouetting lines to the horizon, the only sound is an untaken left unloading relentlessly along the reef, spitting every now and again as a reminder of the power beneath the beauty. Fuck it; it’s a good day to die


The day before had been a total goose chase. A massive unruly swell was pounding the reefs from the Scottish border to Scarborough and the accompanying cross-shore winds were ruining everyone’s plans. Joel Gray, a Geordie surfer who’s coaching has pushed many groms over the years to become some of the UK’s most successful Junior competitors, was busy fielding calls about spot checks up and down the coast, hearsay about Cornish tow teams and general abuse about his recent move from Newcastle down south. “Don’t expect to turn up and be treated like a local” was the text message jokingly sent to him before the swell. Unfortunately it went to his old landline in Newcastle and the threatening Stephen Hawking style message on the answer machine was picked up by his mum.

Finally a shout from Jed Laidlaw came through that he was suiting up at a right-hander nearby that was looking pretty perfect. At this once popular seaside resort, residents raised concerns with the local council in recent years about the rapidly eroding beach which was losing all of its sand in winter storms. Bizarrely, the council listened and responded with a £10 million renovation project which involved importing 500,000 tonnes of sand from Skegness and building a new offshore breakwater to protect the beach. This new beginning for the town not only meant a nice long sandy beach, but also resulted in a sand bank building up over rocks, which in the right conditions produced a long right-hander that barrels twice as wide as it is high as it hits the rocks, then peels all the way into the bay. Can you imagine how popular the local council are now? Jed was already settled in and soon Tynemouth local Trevor Smeaton was enjoying the novelty of being on his forehand in a county of lefts and gauging massive fins out turns into the walls. The temptation of the hollowest part of the wave got too much for Joel, who ended up pushing himself too deep and taking off onto dry rock, lacerating his hands and feet and getting a black eye, but actually getting off lightly in retrospect.


As the tide moved, the welcome of this new wave had been outstayed and talk resumed to where else might be handling the winds, intertwined with more rumours about shit kicking off at other spots further south. I crossed paths with Stephen Hudson, owner of Tynemouth Surf Company, a surf shop at Longsands which has been the hub of local surfing for over 15 years. He was jittery with excitement, had shut up shop for the day and was charging off to pick up his son Louis and take him for a surf, plus he’d got someone in to look after the shop for the next day when the swell was predicted to clean up. The grom-like ampedness from one of the older generation of North East surfers was inspiring to see. At a long left peeling over some treacherous rocks and into the dirty mouth of a river, Stephen and Louis jumped in to join a crowded line-up of locals. As huge cargo ships passed worryingly close, the atmosphere in the water was undoubtedly more social than agro, but a painted wooden sign propped up in front of the waves would not give that impression. “NE 30 LOCALS ONLY!” For a while I admired the thought and calculation that must have gone into deciding on 30 locals, rather than more or less, until someone pointed out to me that the 30 referred to the postcode. It was a wasted effort as the only surfers in sight were obviously locals, the Newcastle United top over a wetsuit gave that away with one guy, but clearly the rumours of invading tourists had reached these parts and precautions had been taken.


Pete Eyres doesn’t do goose chases. A worldly travelled surfer who knows every inch of the Northumbrian coast and the exact combination of variables to light up reefs up and down it, the school teacher prefers to use his time wisely, studying charts and wind patterns before making his considered call on where he’s going to surf. Generally, if you arrive at a break and see him suiting up, you’re in the right place. As I pulled into the lay-by of a dark country lane at dawn, there was excitable bleary-eyed banter as coffee was shared out of a flask, and Pete was suiting up.

The cream of North East surfing from different generations, Sandy Kerr, Joel Gray and Davey Stores, knew the spot well enough to forego the long walk to check it, waxed up boards with a little extra length and ran off into the shadows. As I walked through fields, just making out some solid lines in the first light of day, the silhouettes of tents, a 4×4 and a trailer confirmed at least one of the stories, a tow team were here. The ski was left in the field and the Quiver Team; Mitch Corbett, Tom Butler and Josh Hughes, along with Matt Capel were already in the water, trading waves with Pete, Sandy, Joel, Davey, Owain Davies, Danny Allott and a couple of welsh lads. As ever with those Cornish boys, they were openly stoked to be amongst proper, heavy, barrelling waves, and their excitement about sharing waves with the local lads kept the line-up sweet, before they moved down to a less friendly looking slab that started rearing its ugly head as the tide turned.


Later that day the ski would be used, but without much success, to tow the team into a slab breaking in the shadow of a lighthouse. “I guess it does make sense to use a ski to get into those waves cos they’re a bitch to paddle into, but they were towing into the wrong one, there’s a much bigger version of that and if they’d involved some of us we’d have been up for showing them it.” That was the general discussion over coffees back in Tynemouth later that day. Before I eloped to Cornwall, I was born in Newcastle in the seventies. I asked my parents recently if they ever remembered seeing any surfing when we lived up there… they didn’t. But surfing in the North East stretches back to the early sixties, and in the late seventies legends like Saltburn Surf shop owner Gary Rogers were joined by one of the UK’s best ever surfers, Nigel Veitch, who in turn encouraged Jesse and Gabe Davies to take up the sport before tragically taking his own life. Jesse was one of the few people who had surfed the other ‘bigger version’ wave in the past… without a ski.

That evening an amazing sunset lit up the same spot I’d seen it rise over that day, and with Mitch, Butler and Josh in search of waves further south, Matt Capel was left to take on the throaty slab with a water photographer, hungry for a fisheye. The local lads watched from the line-up of the main spot, but none fancied joining Capel, instead giving him his dues for what was some seriously impressive surfing. “I’ve surfed that slab before, it hardly ever works, but it’s just so shallow and barely makeable. Fair play to that guy I say.” But I could see a twinkle in Pete’s eye as he said it that made me think he had been convinced by Capel’s performance to give the slab another shot some day.


Through the morning rain the next day I could see pitching wave after wave detonating down the reef at the infamous Yorkshire left. I could also see a small festival of vans parked up on the hill. The rumours of serious crowds seemed to be true. Also, as was heard on the grapevine, Fergal Smith and Tom Lowe had turned up and were picking off the heaviest set waves and going so deep with such casual confidence it was inspiring to watch. Joel Gray arrived to join Karl ‘Ledge’ Frampton, Mawsie and a few other locals in representing the North East, as well as Gary Rogers who escorted a local grom into the line-up, ensuring he’d get a wave. And sure enough the crews from Cornwall, Ireland and Wales graciously let the North East surfers take the waves they wanted, so everything was fine… apart from it wasn’t.

Something was troubling me. Where were all the other locals? I know of a handful of shit-hot NE surfers who should have been there, and there must be loads that I don’t know of. The only explanation I can think of as to why local surfers weren’t surfing their local spot on one of its best days of the year, is that the hype, drama and rumours about the influx of crowds had put them off, and therein lies the big problem. Inspiring surfing by guys like Capel, Fergal and Lowey is surely a positive thing for the North East, but the hardcore, powerful waves of Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire distract from what is essentially a fragile surfing community. “NE 30 LOCALS ONLY” might not be the right answer, and localism generally isn’t good for surfing, but at that spot back in Durham, with only a few friends and his dad in the line-up, Louis Hudson was given the space and chance to push himself into set waves and put in some much needed heavy water time. I’d never seen him surf a reef before, in fact, I’d never seen him surf that good before, and at the end of the day, the future of surfing in North East does not depend on photos and stickers, but on one simple thing… whether Louis and a handful of kids his age decide to keep surfing.