Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Scribblings from the Surf' - Devon Life 8/09: Surf Shop Characters

The second in a series entitled 'Scribblings from the Surf'. For more information on Devon Life, click here. To read the article, see the text below or click on the pictures of the original article below that.
Barrister and writer Tim Kevan meets a few of the characters involved in North Devon's vibrant surfing scene.
Mention surfing to most people and they probably won’t get past the image of a spaced-out blond Californian using words like ‘cowabunga’ and ‘awesome, dude’. But it’s an altogether different crowd which run some of the biggest and most influential surfing businesses in Devon. A crowd that mixes a love of the sea with a love of the countryside more generally and which offers a rich blend of music, art and straightforward passion for life.

Tiki Tim
The most famous brand in British surfing is Tiki. Its co-founder is Tim Heyland who was described in a recently published book The Surfing Tribe by Roger Mansfield (Orca, 2009) as “a legendary surf explorer and surf industry pioneer”. Yet his background could hardly have been less likely to lead to such a description coming as he does from twelve generations of military and diplomatic figures. The turning point came when his father was based in Brazil in 1963 and Heyland decided to make a surfboard for himself out of solid hardwood carved with a machete. This at a time when he was collecting snakes and animals for American zoos. A stint as a Paraguayan cowboy followed before he eventually returned to England. He remembers arriving in North Devon “with £5 in my pocket, a dog on a piece of string and a home-made wetsuit. I had to sleep on the beach in the early days”. From these humble beginnings he and business partner Dave Smith have built Tiki into the major producer of surfboards and wetsuits in the country and the main Tiki shop in Braunton, North Devon is possibly the largest surf shop in Europe. He has also surfed the globe, having had a couple of breaks in Indonesia named after him and being one of the first Britons to take on the famous North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii as well as the first person to surf North Devon’s own big wave Oyster Falls back in the early seventies. A countryman for all seasons, he is just as happy looking after his kunekune pigs and four dogs at home with his children as he is surfing big waves around the world.

Saltrock Surfwear
Two other North Devon pioneers with equally unconventional backgrounds are Gus and Ross Thomson the co-founders of Saltrock Surfwear. Their own story perhaps mirrors that of their parents who left this country to set up a farm in Zimbabwe before moving to South Africa where their father established himself as a potter. The two brothers took up surfing there back in the mid-1970s and by the early-1980s they left their homeland in search of adventure. After many beaches and paths less trodden they arrived in the UK and eventually ended up printing t-shirts designed by the highly talented Ross who himself had given up the possibility of a professional surfing career to pursue his art. From the early days using a printing system they designed themselves using scrap wood, metal and dustbins, they have built the business into one of the biggest beachwear brands in the country with nine shops of its own and distribution to over 200 outlets including John Lewis in which it has been the number one boyswear brand. Yet despite their success they have remained true to their roots continuing to maintain their head office in Braunton. Like Tim Heyland, both men are true country people at heart with Gus in particular enjoying both fly and sea-fishing to a very high standard, having caught in his time both a 400lb bull shark and a 100lb tarpon in his travels around the world.

Gulf Stream Surfboards
At the other end of the commercial spectrum to Tiki and Saltrock is Gulf Stream, Devon’s biggest manufacturer of custom-made surfboards. What started as a small business run out of friends’ garages in Croyde has grown into a full-blown cottage industry based at their factory in Woolacombe. Visiting the place is like walking into an artist’s studio and it is clear that this is the secret of their success. Talk to its founder Jools Matthews and watch him hand-craft the boards and you realise the skill, dedication and creative energy which goes into making each individual sculpture. This is coupled with the talents of Ellis Beeton who has made Gulf Stream’s artwork justifiably famous throughout the industry. All of which does not lose sight of the fact that their biggest pride is in how these works of art perform in the water and it is no surprise that professional big wave-rider Andrew Cotton uses them as his board of choice. The mellow feel of the company is reflected in their musical interests outside of surfing, with Jools performing as a DJ around the area with his collection of vintage vinyl funk and jazz records and Ellis playing bass guitar and singing at the open mic night he organises each week in The Thatch pub in Croyde. But it is perhaps in top local surfer Simon Skelton who works in their shop in Braunton where the character of the place most comes through. An avid vintage board collector, he is also well known for entertaining customers for hours on end to the gentle lilt of the Irish and Cornish folk music he plays to an exceptionally high standard on his prized 1865 ebony George Case English concertina. Authentic sea dog he may be, Bill and Ted he’s not.

Brief guide to surfing North Devon
Saunton Sands: long gentle waves recommended for beginners.
Woolacombe: good all round wave to suit most abilities.
Croyde Bay: fast waves better for more experienced surfers, particularly at low tide.
Putsborough: provides good shelter from southerly and south westerly winds, particularly around high tide.

Equipment and lessons
Many of the surf shops hire out both surfboards and wetsuits at very reasonable prices. It is highly recommended that beginners start with lessons. Surf schools include surf champion Sarah Whitely’s Walking on Waves ( and Surf South West (

The area is packed with holiday accommodation ranging from high quality hotels to B&B, self-catering and campsites. Just make sure you book in advance.

Photographs provided courtesy of

1 comment:

stephen said...

I really enjoy your writing and think it's really informative about the sport. I am about to take a short course in surfing whilst on my annual break in Devon. I'm pretty sure I'll retire there, it's a different life. I will be staying in a lovely luxury hotel in devon peering right over the sea so the views should be amazing. I will be starting around saunton sands so wish me luck!