Cornwall’s surfers are used to big rollers. But they’ve never seen one quite like this…
Let’s start with some surfonomics. Did you know that there are half a million surfers in Britain? And that nearly a fifth of those are in Cornwall, pumping about £153 million into the local economy every year? That’s twice as much as in 2004. Neither did we, until we looked it up. But several things are obvious: surfing is a big, frothy business, Cornwall is riding the crest of a financial wave, and therefore there has never been a better time to go there in a £250k Rolls-Royce Ghost with a gold-plated surfboard on top.
And here’s another stat (god bless Cornwall College and their helpful fiscal studies): the average British surfer spends £495.21 on their board, wetsuit and accessories, a number confirmed by Martin John from the Aggie Surf Shop in St Agnes, where we park the Ghost along the store’s candy-striped frontage, taking up three too many bays. “Our most expensive board is about £1,000,” he says. “But the majority are about 500 quid. How much is that one?” he asks, eyeing the shiny plank suckered to the roof of our Rolls.
Words: Dan Read // Photography: Rowan Horncastle
“About 30 thousand pounds, give or take” I explain, to which he stops stroking the board and holds up his palms, like I’ve just pointed a revolver at his face. “But don’t worry, it’s not mine. Stroke it all you like”.
In fact, our nine-foot-two wooden longboard belongs to a mysterious Rolls-Royce customer who intends to carry it around on their bespoke Ghost, presumably somewhere like Biarritz, not Bodmin. Having said that, the board is actually as Cornish as Poldark’s pasty. It was shaped at Arbo Surfboards near Truro, by one of the master shipwrights of the Royal Barge Gloriana, then lavishly and cleverly decorated by Emma Wood at a company called Woodpop.
We’ll come to the artistic details shortly, but first, we must lash it safely to the car and drive to a beach without having a rather expensive, splintery accident. “Move along darling,” says a mother to her young daughter as they brush past the Ghost outside the surf shop. “We’re not posh enough to stand next to that.” With that, the 6.6-litre V12 stirs to life and we set sail, as one does in a Rolls-Royce.
Pinching the steering wheel as if holding the stem of a champagne flute, I coax the Ghost down narrow coastal lanes, merely encouraging it to change direction when a corner arrives. Keeping a stately pace with the sea on our right, the Spirit of Ecstasy – three inches tall atop the pantheon grille, way down there at the end of the bonnet – leans headlong into the ocean spray, quite literally riding a roller. Hang loose, girl.
“Oh my word,” says a man in a leather fedora and hiking trousers, as he ushers us into a parking space at Porthtowan beach. “What a sight! Wonderful!” How much for the parking, I ask? “Oh, I don’t work here, but I wouldn’t worry about it,” he says. “Alright there!” shouts a lady through the window of her battered Focus B-Max. “Want our parking ticket? Got ’alf an hour left on it!” And there I was, worried the locals might reject our aristocratic imposition.
As we back down the slipway to take some pictures, Tris Surf Shop – founded here in the 70s – virtually empties as the pros come over for a look. Ignoring the car, they go straight for the board, which we unstrap so they can have a proper look.
Made from a hollow frame of Paulownia timber – lighter than balsa wood – it also incorporates walnut, sycamore, anigre and birch veneers, inlayed using a technique called marquetry to create intricate patterns and tessellations. Quite common on an antique table top, or indeed on the custom dashboard of a bespoke Rolls-Royce, but on surfboards? Not so much.
“Most people I consulted told me it was impossible,” says Emma Wood, the artist behind the woodwork. “A surfboard is made up of complex curves, being both concave and convex at the same time. But with the help of Paul Reisberg of Arbo Surfboards, we developed entirely new processes to enable us to produce these boards.”
The glaze is so lustrous it actually looks wet, even when it’s bone dry. Not exactly the grippy deck you find on most boards, but then most boards aren’t £30k sculptural artworks. “Could you actually use it out there?” I ask a wet-suited dude, pointing towards the Atlantic whitecaps. “A bit of white spirit and some wax and it’ll be good to go,” he says, flicking a salted blond lock away from his eyes. “Be nice for cruising around, I reckon. Gliding on some glassy two-footers. S’pose it’s a bit like a Rolls-Royce like that.”
Back in the car, and having deposited a thousand grains of sand into the thick, lambswool carpet (nothing a good butler can’t fix), we climb the lane out of the cove to the clifftop coast road. It’s around 6pm and a steady flow of cars come the other way, all with boards on their roofs, streaming down to the sea for a post-work surf. Each year, they will each spend an average of £222.86 on car parking, and £966.27 on fuel to reach their favourite beaches.
Would any of them drop the price of a tidy split-screen campervan on a surfboard made from exotic wood and precious metal? Or ten times that on a Rolls-Royce to carry it around? Even in these Cornish boom times, I think we know the answer to that. But do they mind seeing it go by and borrowing a bit of their beachfront for a day? Not one bit.
Because remember, where there’s a surf culture, there’s a car culture. From the Pontiac Woodie to the VW Camper, to the Citroen Mehari and the original Meyers Manx dune buggy, some of our most bodacious classics have a connection to the sea. After a day at the coast in a Ghost, we see no reason why it shouldn’t have one too.
Rolls rules the waves, man.