Undeterred by the official end of summer we arrived on the North Devon coast to make the most of the sunshine. As we (and what seemed like every car and VW campervan in the country) converged on the car park at Saunton Sands, our joy about being on an actual, real holiday was only slightly marred by the fact that the dune-backed beach and famed surfing waves were now just a yellow-blue smudge on the horizon.
I visit Croyde twice each year, in shiver-inducing March and (more appealingly) in September. It’s ostensibly to surf, but is more about catching up with friends and seeing if my wetsuit still fits. Of course, this year’s trip in March was cancelled – the Airbnb host was in his second home recovering from Covid-19 and we can only guess what the locals thought of that – but I was determined to make it here for September.
We booked a caravan at the rather wonderful Ruda Holiday Park and arrived to make our own bed with the crisp, clean sheets the team leave out in plastic bags. The weather is always good in Croyde and the village was bursting at its thatched seams with visitors milling between surf shops, clutching pasties from The Stores and wondering where all the locals disappear to in high season.
A picture-perfect village in a patchwork of green hills at the crossroads of three glorious beaches, Croyde has too much going for it to be a hidden gem. Croyde Bay can be accessed on foot from anywhere in the village, which pincers the bay in a semicircle from the north to south, but you’ll need a car or sturdy walking boots to reach Saunton or Putsborough Sands. The tide goes right out at each bay, when acres of wide open sandy beach are perfect for walking and kite flying. The facilities are more than decent too, with great cafes and decent toilets (though brace yourself for the cold showers). However, most visitors are here for one thing, and that’s surfing.
I’ve always wanted to be a great surfer but British-ness is strong in me and I’m too polite to jostle for a wave. In recent years, I’ve realised that body boards are more my thing (I’m far less likely to whack myself or someone else over the head) and I hire a decent one rather than buy one that won’t last out the season.
Last weekend, the conditions were perfect – nicely spaced 3–4ft waves and an offshore wind – and the serious surfers were up at dawn. By the time the rest of us were awake, there were long queues at the surf shops and only afternoon slots left at Saunton Surf Hire, who’ve turned to click and collect in these trying times (Little Pink Surf Shop is my favourite place in the village and they didn’t have a queue that day).
There are rip currents running out to sea and only Croyde Bay has a lifeguard service (daily until November 1) so if you’re a newbie, then lessons are a swell idea. Walking on Waves at Saunton Sands was founded by British and European surf champion Sarah Whiteley while Surf South West is the original surf school in Croyde Bay. Surf South West are trialling staying open through to January, so you’ve got plenty of time left to get out on the water.
For those that prefer to keep their feet firmly on dry land, Baggy Point is the spot for you. This National Trust headland overlooks Croyde Bay and the sea views from its rugged slopes are unmissable. The South West Coast Path comes right through here and this little section of level track is the sweet spot between a stroll and an out-of-puff hike.
You might see rare seabirds, cormorants and grey seals, as well as the Ruby Red cattle that are grazing on the scrub. The view from the point takes in Putsborough Sands, with Woolacombe Beach and Morte Point beyond, as well as Hartland to the south and Lundy Island 12 miles (19km) off the coast. Come at sunset for a beautiful sky and dawdle on one of the benches that dot the route.
If you’re not on Baggy Point, you should be in the sea. Or in the pub. On Saturday, I took a dip in the glow of golden hour (no wetsuit needed) and bobbed around without a care in the world. Even better, it was followed by a pint of cider in The Thatch. A pub is the lifeblood of a village and even in a pandemic, this one is busy, boozy and cheery (with plenty of Covid regulations to make you – and them – feel safe).