“It is not easy to be Welsh,” Jan Morris wrote in The Matter of Wales. “There are many now, as there always have been, whose lives are guided by…the passions of a powerless people, in a small country, trying to honour their deepest instincts.”
Indeed the Welsh are sparse, their land wee, and they’ve grappled through the centuries to sustain their identity. But here, in the United States, with a looming presidential election — perhaps the most important of our lifetimes — we are deciding what ours will become.
Wales is one of Western Europe’s poorest nations, living in the shadow of the wealthier landscape of neighboring England, which it borders for more than 150 miles. Still, the Welsh remain fiercely loyal to their heritage, especially when it comes to rugby, a veritable religion.
“I have two favorite rugby teams,” iconic Welsh surfer Carwyn Williams told me. “Wales and any team playing against England.”
Yes, people surf in Wales. Lots of people. Arriving yesterday via the relaxing National Express bus line from Bristol, I’d aimed to rendezvous with Mr. Williams in Swansea and Mumbles, the country’s surfing polestar. From there, it was proposed to become a two-week bonanza of Welsh secret-surf-spot glory iced with an intimate relationship with booze, smoky bars, and mud-caked shoes. Last night, we walked down to The White Rose on the bayfront corner and chatted with drinkers of all epochs yet with seamless backgrounds — Welsh, rather extrinsic in relation to my pasteurized, saturated, white-toothed California upbringing. Young women and men sucked on cigarettes, drank, smiled and laughed and wondered why I’d traveled from surfy, sunny Santa Barbara to sodden Wales.
Today, following a glutton of clean waves over the shallow rock bottom of Porthcawl Point, a small crew of Welsh surfers and I convened inside of a cozy, stone-walled pub in Porthcawl proper. A town where the younger buildings were 400 years old was humbling to my relatively juvenile American nation.
With firewood crackling and pints steadily consumed, conversation flowed ‘round our small wooden table aside Celtic paraphernalia, rugby posters, and grinning, grizzled men fresh off work, ripe for happy hour. Everyone seemed to know each other.
To my left sat Johnny James, a 31-year-old gardener with a boyish face and a friendly, calm demeanor.
“Peoples’ perception from London or wherever haven’t a clue about Wales,” he said between sips of Guinness. “Well, you know, it’s bull. They think we’re just completely backwards. We’re on the periphery as well as it were in economic terms in the U.K.—pretty poor—but we’re grateful for what we have.”
Across the table sat Herbie, 43, a jovial Porthcawl surf shop owner with a striking resemblance to Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
“(The surf) here might be a bit bad on days, but we’re pretty proud of who and where we are,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better country in the world, and I’ve been to quite a few.”
Two days later, I found myself basking in weak sunlight down at Langland Bay, swilling a beer beside Pete Jones, the European surfing champion in 1977 and British champ in 1978 who now runs a surf shop in Llangennith. Fresh from a dip in the sloppy beachbreak peaks, the 51-year-old Jones was amiable and articulate, a widely respected elder statesman for Welsh surfing.
“I’m proud to be Celtic,” he said. “Yeah, of course I am. We have got a lot of in-grown determination, you know? As a nation, I think we are quite determined. Celtic identity is good.”
Finishing the beer, I asked Jones to assess Welsh surfing considering his extensive global travels through the years.
“Surfing in Wales is definitely really hard-core because of the weather,” he said. “It’s so cold that you’ve got to be super keen, and the waves we get are not brilliant. You’ve got to be keen to go in on days like today—there are waves, but if you were in California or Hawaii, they’d be looking at this 3-4’ chop and they wouldn’t go in. They’d think, Ah, this is crap, you know? But Welsh surfers really go for it in all conditions. I suppose you’ve got to, really.”
“We California surfers are relatively spoiled,” I said.
“Well,” Jones continued, “we do have surf conditions that are below average on a world level, and considering the surf we surf, I think we’re doing pretty well. You cannot get beyond a certain level of surfing in conditions like we get because the waves just don’t allow you to. You don’t get barrels very often; you get faces, but you can’t really learn how to ride the tube and stuff like that.”
I point out that, in his 30-plus years of surfing in Wales, he must have witnessed substantial growth within the sport, considering the Langland waves we were watching had roughly 40 surfers (mostly young shortboarders) all vying for rideable scraps.
“It’s definitely gotten bigger, yeah,” Jones said, surveying the scene. “It’s probably grown in parallel with surfing growing around the world, but we’ll never get super crowded because it’s too cold. There’s more to surfing than just surfing in warm water with perfect waves. I enjoy surfing for what it is—to be out in the elements, feeling the wind in your face. Cold-water surfing is fantastic. There’s something more to it.”
Back in the pub, Johnny James voiced what perhaps every surfer on the planet would say about their backyard, hinting at his dedication to Wales despite its elemental adversities.
“A lot of the boys try to go away in the winter if they can, because it does get cold here. But that’s when we get most of our surf: in the winter. It’s cold, yeah. It would be a bit nicer if it was a bit sunnier, a bit warmer. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it?”
“We always come home, though. Home is always home.”