When an Atlantic swell is up, staff at the Beach cafe at Downend, on the north Devon coast, prepare to be rushed off their feet. “Everyone heads in, no matter whether it’s rain or shine,” said the owner, Colette Brooks.
From the cafe, where they serve a warming Sri Lankan curry on weekend evenings, Brooks has a front-row view of Croyde beach, which at low tide can produce barrelling waves. “I love to watch the surfers out there,” she said. “It’s a brilliant spot.”
Life could get even busier at Croyde and neighbouring beaches after next weekend, when 18 miles of the coastline are formally designated a world surfing reserve, joining 11 other stretches of coast, including Malibu and Santa Cruz in California, Punta de Lobos in Chile and Noosa in Australia.
It is the first place in the UK to achieve the designation, and champions of the project hope it will help protect the waves for future generations. “Who’d have thought it for little old north Devon?” said Brooks.
Ben Hewitt, a co-founder of the reserve, said what made this coast so special was the quality and variety of the waves. “There’s a unique set of features that create very good and varied breaks,” he said. “That’s where we’re on par with the great surfing places of the world.”
At Saunton, for example, there is a gently sloping beach that creates fun, friendly waves, ideal for beginners, while at Downend Point bold surfers launch into the waves through a rocky entry called the Keyhole, risking broken fins and scraped shins.
And then there is Croyde. “At low tide it can produce world-class waves,” Hewitt said. “It’s a magical spot, so fast, so powerful. People love it and it’s a training ground for some of the best surfers around – an absolute jewel in the crown.”
The idea of the reserve is to pull together everyone with an interest in the waves – including the surfers, schools, local authorities, land owners and conservation groups – to protect the waters against threats from overdevelopment, erosion, dredging and pollution. “It’s the first time everyone has sat around the table,” Hewitt said.
The inauguration weekend, on 12 May at Woolacombe Esplanade, will include visits by representatives from the Californian-based Save the Waves coalition, which has awarded north Devon its designation. There will be film and music events – and lots of surfing.
Even before the inauguration, much has been done. Working with the University of Plymouth, a “bathymetry” exercise – a mapping of the seabed – has taken place and there have been discussions with the builders of the White Cross windfarm, which is to be built 30 miles off the coast, to make sure it will not harm the waves.
There is much more to do. Claire Moodie, the head of Plastic Free North Devon, which has a place on the reserve’s local stewardship council, said beaches here, as in many parts of the UK, were blighted by sewage and microplastics. “Having that international designation proves how important this place is,” she said. “It gives us more weight.”
The designation should also help more people to surf. Wave Wahines, a surf club for women and girls, is involved, as is the Wave Project, which offers surf therapy and has set up an adaptive surfing hub at Croyde for people with disabilities.
Another aim of the reserve is to promote the area’s surfing heritage, sometimes overshadowed by its noisier neighbour, Cornwall. Surfing took off during the second world war when US and Australian troops arrived, and in the 1960s and 70s surf shops such as Tiki, in the village of Braunton, inland from Saunton, sprang up.
At the Museum of British Surfing in Braunton, Kevin “Cookie” Cook, the chair of the trustees, said north Devon should be proud to be taking its place on the world stage. “We stand alongside anywhere in the world – Malibu, Noosa, wherever. North Devon is our own little piece of heaven and we have to do our damndest to ensure what we’ve been so fortunate to enjoy is there for future generations – waves for all, for ever.”
North Devon joins 11 world surfing reserves. The others are:
Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the first place to be designated a world surfing reserve. Malibu’s long, peeling walls of water are seen by many as the definition of the perfect wave.
Santa Cruz, California
The reserve stretches seven miles with at least 23 consistent breaks, including Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Santa Cruz’s modern surf roots date back to 1885, when three Hawaiian princes rode hand-hewn redwood planks here.
Bahía de Todos Santos, Mexico
A centre for surfing in Mexico, the sheltered bay features point breaks, beach breaks and world-class big waves. The modern surf daytrip was born here when Californians travelled down to surf.
The first place in Europe to receive world surfing reserve status, boasting five miles of coastline including breaks such as Ribeira d’Ilhas and Coxos. A community of surfers has lived here for years.
Gold Coast, Australia
Ten miles of coastline from Burleigh Point, with its vibrant cafe culture in the north, to Snapper Rocks, on the Queensland and New South Wales border. Surfing is worth billions to the Gold Coast.
Manly and Freshwater beaches, Sydney, Australia
These beaches are seen as the birthplace of surfing in Australia with consistent quality surf, a rich surfing history and a strong community.
The Noosa’s Points are famous for waves that break in the same speed and line and rejoice in names such as Boiling Pot and Tea Tree Bay. The Noosa festival of surfing is the biggest event in the world by competitor numbers.
Guarda do Embaú, Brazil
Home to a world-class wave that breaks all year round, Guarda do Embaú was a small, sleepy fishing and agricultural village until the 1970s when surfers discovered the epic waves.
Consistent, clean surf in an ancient seafaring city, it is believed to be one of the first places the sport of surfing was practised by fishers, more than 2,500 years ago.
Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica
With beautiful blue water, it is considered to be Costa Rica’s national surf stadium. People came here to harvest wood in the 1970s and were amazed to find wonderful surf.
Punta de Lobos, Chile
Among the most famous left-hand pointbreaks in the world, it is one of Chile’s best-known waves, the linchpin of surf culture in the country. Punta de Lobos hosts the big wave contest, El Ceremonial.