29th Sep 2012 5:41pm | By Editor
We’re all a bit mad,” Lisa Woodruff offers, gripping a steaming Thermos lid full of tea as the wind whips her blonde hair over her eyes.
“Or just Cornish.” I’m on a breezy beach, peering out to sea in the half-light provided by an afternoon’s September-grey sky.
Hundreds of incredibly cold looking people are plunging into the churning surf, each of them sans wetsuit, brandishing a plywood board, and with a colourful bathing cap pulled on. I couldn’t help but ask, why?
The official answer is that this is the World Bellyboard Championships. A local tradition since 2002, it’s dedicated to the late Arthur Traveller, a Londoner who regularly visited Chapel Porth beach here in St Agnes, Cornwall, to ride the waves on his belly using a piece of ply.
His style of “surfing” might sound a bit odd, but “bellyboarding” on wood was all the rage in this part of England in the Fifties and Sixties.
Maybe that’s why the world championships gets such a good turnout; in among the younger folks are plenty of old-timers having rollicking good fun reliving their youth.
But there’s some truth to Lisa’s “Cornish” answer, too.
It seems appropriate that this county rests in the part of England that resembles a toe poking into the sea – the Cornish are proud of their surfing heritage, which dates from the early 1900s.
Aside from this, though, is an even deeper sense of distinct identity. During the 2011 UK census, there was a campaign to have a Cornish tick-box in the “nationality” section, and it has long been argued that it should be considered an ethnicity.
It’s true that the Cornish have more in common with Celtic culture than English; there are Cornish kilts, tartans and even a separate language.
The flag of Cornwall – a white cross on black, named Saint Piran’s Flag after a 6th-century Cornish abbott – is everywhere, too, displayed in front windows and fluttering on cars.
There’s definitely a unique up-for-anything attitude among the locals (you wouldn’t catch a glum-faced Londoner running into the cold, stormy waves with a smile on their face).
Lisa’s mate, Alice White, is now prepping to dive in. Dressed in a spotty swimsuit, at 51, she’s about to enter a “Juniors” heat – the “Seniors” are reserved for those over 60.
Why does she think it’s a good idea? “If you can catch a few good ones and avoid hypothermia, it’s great fun,” she replies.
Winning is a bonus, but no one takes that too seriously – after all, “enjoyment” is a category on which competitors are scored.
Inspired by this carefree lust for fun, I decide to brave the chilly water myself and sign up for coasteering in Newquay the next day. On the way, my cabbie seems unimpressed.