That’s swell: why north Devon has just become a World Surfing Reserve

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North Devon has long been a mecca for British surfers, drawn to the variety of waves that break along its golden beaches. However, last week, it gained international recognition when it was declared a World Surfing Reserve, one of just 12 places on the planet. It shares the title with globally renowned sites including Malibu in California and Australia’s Gold Coast.

Stretching for 19 miles, the north Devon reserve encompasses eight high-quality surfing spots including Croyde, one of the finest beach breaks in England, as well as family-favourite Woolacombe, and longboarding paradise Saunton Sands.

But what does it mean to become a World Surfing Reserve? Climate change and overdevelopment threatens to disrupt the carefully balanced geophysical ecosystem at these surf spots. If the cliffs, dunes and sea bed shift significantly, the swell cannot shape into the perfect crescent waves needed to surf. By achieving this protected status, local surfers are given a more prominent voice when it comes to challenging decision makers on environmental matters affecting the coastline. This ranges from fighting sewage dumping in the ocean, safeguarding the shoreline from encroaching development, and conserving wild spaces for wildlife such as bottlenose dolphins, grey seals and basking sharks. In north Devon this will give surf spots comparable levels of protection to nearby Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks. The area’s surfing history and culture was also a key feature in the award of WSR status.

Selected from those eight prime spots – the others are Oysters Reef, Combesgate and Westward Ho! – here are five of the best places to surf in the north Devon reserve, for wobbly beginners and advanced waveriders alike.

Woolacombe

Woolacombe North Devon UK
Head south along the beach for quieter spots in summer. Photograph: travellinglight/Getty Images

Fun, mellow waves make this surf spot a firm favourite with beginners and advanced surfers. Backed by wild dunes and rolling hills, this glorious two-mile stretch of sand is widely recognised; it was named ​​one of the best beaches in the world at the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice awards in 2020. Crowds tend to gather near the town centre in summer, so head further down Marine Drive and you’ll find empty peaks to yourself. Hire a board and wetsuit (from £16 for three hours) from Woolacombe Surf Centre, which also offers lessons (from £35 for three hours) with a photographer on hand to capture your wave-riding prowess in action.

Arms feel like spaghetti? Dry off and head to The Red Barn for a frosty cider on the terrace, before dinner at the Barricane Beach Cafe, nestled on a neighbouring cove. Locals frequent this unassuming takeaway hut for its authentic Sri Lankan curry (the sizzling black pork and pineapple is excellent) from 5pm every evening during the summer. Tuck in on the beach while the sun sets; just remember cash as it doesn’t take cards. Bed down in this self-catered studio (from £70 per night), just two minutes from the beach. Thoughtful amenities include wetsuit hangers in the shower room, plus a yoga mat for that essential post-surf stretch.

Croyde

Surfer at Croyde Bay
Croyde is one of the UK’s most celebrated surfing spots. Photograph: Trudie Davidson/Getty Images

Fast, barrelling waves characterise Croyde, especially at low tide, creating a magnetic appeal for intermediate to advanced surfers from all over the UK. Just watch out for snapped boards when waves reach over six feet. Beginners can certainly hit the water on smaller days, but there are definitely better spots for learning on this list. Ralph’s Surf Shop offers an excellent array of surfboards to hire, from beginner foamies to hard-top shortboards, plus wetsuits (£25 for up to 24 hours).

For surf-friendly digs, reserve the studio at Baggy’s (sleeps two adults and two children from £100 per night); soak up sea views from the adjoining summer hut, complete with shared barbecue deck. Come nightfall, head down to The Thatch, a lively, welcoming pub at the heart of the village. Here, the cheesy nachos served with generous dollops of guacamole and jalapeños are hard to resist. Wash them down with a pint of local Sandford Orchards cider.

Saunton

Surfers take to the surf at Saunton Sands
Saunton is great for novices. Photograph: Gary Blake/Alamy

Long, slow waves peel off the headland at Saunton Sands, creating one of the best spots for longboarding in the UK. Marvel at local pros gracefully cross-stepping to the nose of their boards, as they dance across the face of the waves. It’s also a great place for novices to learn with group lessons (from £40 for two hours) and board hire (from £15 for three hours) available from Walking on Waves Surf School on the beach. Downside? The car park is pricey at £8.50 for four hours, increasing with each hour. Join the dawn patrol before 8am when parking is free; you’ll likely have the water to yourself – well, almost.

If you’re travelling with friends, book Casa Paloma (sleeps six from £773 for seven nights), just two miles from Saunton. This three-bedroom, 1970s California- style bungalow comes with a board rack and wetsuit storage in the garden, plus a handy outdoor shower. The owners run the Wanderlust Life jewellery brand, whose flagship store is nearby in the surf-centric village of Braunton. Head in to learn about the history of wave-riding at the Museum of British Surfing, before refuelling at Heartbreak Hotel, where light-as-air doughnuts, accompanied by a flat white, will become part of your daily holiday routine.

Putsborough

Putsborough Sands abuts Baggy Point, separating it from Croyde.
Putsborough Sands, at the southern end of Woolacombe Beach, abuts Baggy Point, separating it from Croyde. Photograph: Carl Forbes/Alamy

Trace your finger along the map, south of Woolacombe Beach, and you’ll find this not-so-secret surf spot at the end of a winding country lane. Putsborough is sheltered from south-westerly winds, offering up clean waves when everywhere else is blown out. During the summer, it has a buzzy, family-friendly feel with smaller peaks than other breaks, while stormy winters can whip up steep, hollow waves to rival neighbouring Croyde. Hit up Barefoot Surf School for a wetsuit and board (from £30 for 24 hours).

Chocolate box village Georgeham is just up the road, dotted with rose-covered thatched cottages and two decent pubs for dinner. Book The Rock Inn for venison burgers and game casserole, while The Kings Arms serves a smaller menu with classics such as steak pie. Stay in the studio at Cowslip Cottage (from £732 for three nights) with its king-sized bed and power shower for washing the salt and seaweed from your hair.

Lynmouth

Lynmouth
Lynmouth, with Countisbury Hill looming behind, is not a regular surfers’ haunt but occasionally has waves that attract advanced surfers. Photograph: Howard Litherland/Alamy

With its venerable cliff funicular railway and 19th-century buildings, the quaint town of Lynton truly has that south coast Victorian resort feel: a surfing hotspot like Santa Cruz it is not. However, at the bottom of the cliffs, you’ll find Lynmouth, home to one of the longest left-hand point breaks in the UK. There are rarely any waves here, but when a big south-westerly swell rolls in, surfers will travel hundreds of miles to ride this peak. It’s advanced level only – you’ll need your own board (there’s no surf hire nearby) and no lifeguard service.

Ready to crash? Reserve a plush bell tent (£190 for two nights) at Lynmouth Holiday Retreat, kitted out with a double bed, electric heater and transparent ceiling panels, primed for stargazing – if you can stay awake. Before you settle down for the night, treat yourself to fish and chips from the highly rated Esplanade Fish Bar.