Getting everyone on board in Cromer
As the waves roll on to the sand on a warm summer's afternoon in Cromer, the sight of a group of surfers waiting for the right break is a rather heartening one, writes Rachel Buller, as she tries her hand at surfing for the first time.
Surfing is not easy. It might look as easy as laying on a big board in the sea, before casually standing up as the wave carries you to shore, but this is an illusion.
Not only is it pretty tricky to master, it puts you through your paces physically. Most importantly though it is great fun and amazingly invigorating and a great way to get active.
Of course, the experts make it look easy. They sit astride their boards, bobbing in the sea before springing up and riding gracefully in, powered by the waves.
The growing presence of surfers in the sea at Cromer is largely down to the popularity of the Glide Surf School on the promenade by the pier. Set up by teacher Ben Kewell five years ago, it has become a permanent fixture on the beach from May to October, attracting pupils from the age of eight to 70.
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Missing the surf culture of his home county of Devon, Ben decided to set up the business after noticing that there didn't seem to be many people doing beach activities in Norfolk – in particular younger people.
Having learned to surf in Plymouth at the age of 18, he has travelled all over the world surfing and when he moved to Norwich to study at the University of East Anglia he set about transporting some of that beach culture to Norfolk.
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This autumn, work will start on transforming the disused toilet block on the promenade into a base for the surf school, to include a surf shop and also act as a base for the North Norfolk Surf Lifesaving Club.
'I came to Norfolk to do my teacher training at the UEA and I couldn't get a job back home in Cornwall or Devon so decided to stay and got a job teaching PE at Stalham High School.
'I saw the potential here in Norfolk – there was very little to encourage people to get involved on the sea. There was no real beach culture as such and I always thought that was strange when you have this amazing coastline here. In the South West there is lots going on all the time on the beach, especially in the main resorts; there are lots of activities and clubs.
'I was very aware that in places like Cromer and Sheringham, these big seaside towns, there was very little organised by way of beach activities and was surprised there weren't more kids in the sea or on the beach. It doesn't have to just be surfing – even just hanging out on the beach playing football in the evenings. You have these great beaches but often no one on them apart from people walking dogs.'
He initially set up for six weeks over the summer and it went from there. By the third summer he was looking to do it full time and it has grown from half a dozen surfboards and wet suits to a popular and thriving business.
'I get a lot of people in the 20 to 35 age group, a lot of people who are having a weekend away and want to do something different. I have also got a few regulars who are in their 50s and one man in his 60s who likes to come down once a week. It really is something everyone can do.'
Ben's lessons aren't just about grabbing a board and hitting the sea; before you start there are some reminders about basic beach safety: what the different flags mean, what dangers to watch out for and being aware of currents.
Then there is the warm up, a run into the sea, plenty of leaping around and going under the water – in preparation for when you go flying off the board numerous times – and then it is time to get the surfboard and head out.
Two hours in the sea leaves you feeling physically exhausted yet it is so addictive and afterwards, while tired, you also feel incredibly invigorated.
'It is just great fun and really good for fitness and also confidence. You get a full body work out and I think best of all you are outside enjoying what Norfolk is all about, this great coastline,' said Ben.
'It is also suitable for all ages and actually, once you have the kit, which doesn't have to be expensive, you can pretty much surf any time and it will cost you nothing. Around here Sheringham, East Runton and Mundesley are all pretty good. The waves aren't enormous but if you learn about the tides, with plenty of practice, you will be able to get some good surfing in.'
Ben does a lot of work with schools and groups through the North Norfolk Schools Partnership but funding for that will end soon.
'I am hoping to be able to offer some subsidised lessons for next year because it has been so great for the kids,' he said. 'It's a great way to get them active and excited about getting in the sea.'
Ben also works with charities like Surf Relief UK, Surfable and Lifeworks, which enables the surf school to be registered to teach children with disabilities.
He has also added stand-up paddle boarding to his portfolio and in October he will be organising a course for people to achieve their Level 1 Coaching in surfing run by the UK governing body for the sport.
The surf school runs seven days of the week, from May 1 to October 31, with lessons taking place at the east side of the pier.
For more information see www.glidesurfschool.co.uk