The Camper Era
After returning from this trip, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, I bought my first camper van, an ancient Commer with a nice conversion in back. This opened up the way for me to get away to the West country more often and to retrace my steps back to France & Spain once a year, not to mention numerous weekends camping out at Compton. There was a trip to Rhosilli at Easter one year with a bunch of other guys who camped in tents. It was so cold that Jake put all his clothes on to go to bed and the boards were covered in ice in the morning.
Needless to say, I was snug & warm in the Commer. On a trip to Newquay in the Commer in September 1976, Jake & I would surf Great Western in the morning on a rising tide and Crantock on the ebb in the afternoon as the edge was taken off the swell.
One afternoon, we were out in the line-up at Crantock when Dave ‘Turf’ Salero & Brian Hill turned up on the beach, but couldn’t get out through the crunching inside section. We’d just remarked on this, when Jake saw a monster set rear up out back. As he was clearly a bit nervous, I said, “Don’t worry Jake, it’s only water”. Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to reassure him. Suffice to say that we were both cleaned up & washed in and felt no desire to venture out again that day!
That Commer eventually gave way to a bigger Commer Highwayman. This was a coachbuilt conversion & would sleep 4 in comfort. It was a big, slow beast though & the journey back from Freshwater West in Pembrooke with Mick Thomson & Magic took all day. In time, that van was superseded by a rising roof Bedford.
Unfortunately, a coming together with an 80mph drunk a week before a planned trip to Ireland meant the Bedford was written off, to be replaced, eventually, by a VW. That served me well for several years with trips back to Biarritz, Spain, Ireland, Wales & the West country before being replaced by another VW.
One day I was talking to a bunch of guys, a couple of whom I knew, when one of the guys I didn’t know very well said, “You’re Keith Williams aren’t you? You’re the guy who caught the best wave ever at Compton” I was a bit stunned by this pronouncement, as you can imagine. Having thought about it, I remembered a Saturday afternoon a few months previously, in October 1986, when the conditions were the best I’d ever seen at Compton. The swell was 6-8 feet on a rising tide with no wind to speak of. At the time, I’d gone back to long boards and had a ‘Chapter’ popout. I’d caught a couple of 4-5 footers and got tubed on the inside when I saw a big set approaching. I was able to get outside everyone else and was lined up just right for the first wave. It peaked & peeled perfectly and I decided not to attempt anything clever, so as not to risk falling off this beauty prematurely. I crouched and dragged my hand, easing forward on the board and tucked up into the curl for what seemed like several minutes before pulling out over the top as the wave closed out nearer the beach. There were many other waves on that day, but none came close to bettering that one; so maybe that was the one the guy meant. I was so stoked with the session that I hardly slept that night, still buzzing on the adrenaline rush.
Was it coincidence that saw 18 Islanders make the journey to Biarritz in the summer of 1980? I think not. As I heard someone say at the recent film night, the surf club was different then; we all knew each other pretty well from years of surfing together and the trip was arranged as much as a social event as a surf trip.
Having arranged to meet up with Sid, Jake et al at the camp site at Moliets Plage, I arrived there one sunny afternoon and on enquiring at the reception desk about where Les Anglais, Monsieur Jacobs et Monsieur Pitman might be pitched, I was told, after much misunderstanding & arm waving, that they were not registered on the site. Disappointed, I decided to head on to Bidart, where I was sure I’d meet up with them, arriving early enough for a surf before dinner.
I don’t now remember the details, but one by one we began to assemble. I do remember being in the bar at Tamarisk Plage with Sid, Mick Thomson, Magic & my newly arrived brother Steve, when a tremendous thunderstorm hit & all the lights went out.
Steve’s VW CamperSomo
Steve’s VW Camper
I headed off to Somo for a few days to meet up with Rob Clark & enjoyed a few quiet days on the beach there before returning to Bidart. We used to be able to drive onto the breakwater at Plage des Cavaliers & park up in those days & I remember sitting on the rocks lining the breakwater with Sid watching the waves.
The best waves we had all trip were at Cote des Basques. On several days running we had 4 – 6 foot waves peeling fast across the beach in glorious sunshine & warm water on a rising tide. I know Jake was made up with it, especially after 4 o’clock, when the local schoolgirls paddled out for a few waves! The weather was hot & sunny most of the time & poor old Sid’s head suffered a bit with sunburn. Even in the hottest weather, it was common in those days for doughnuts to be sold at the beach. At Bidart, a rather overweight youth used to stagger up & down the beach with a tray slung round his neck, full of apricot doughnuts. These were actually quite delicious and we reckoned that the youth was so fat because he had to eat all the unsold doughnuts at the end of the day.
There were many visits to the cafes in Bidart square & I remember Sid discovering wine in plastic bottles with flip off tops in the local Carrefour for about 30p a litre. The best bit was that they didn’t break if you were too pissed to hold onto them properly!
Cote De Basque
Cote De Basque
Whilst in Bidart, I parked the VW up on the beach road, behind the shed that housed the beach cleaning machine. The advantage of parking there was that you were shielded from the headlights of cars coming down the hill during the night to check the surf, or other nefarious activities; the disadvantage was being woken up at 6 a.m. every morning when the cleaning guy started the massive diesel engine & clattered off down to the beach. Perhaps not though, as an early start always got me into some solitary offshore waves, well solitary apart from Rob Clark who was also parked up at the beach.
Living by the beach at Bidart was one of the most unforgettable experiences. An early surf, followed by breakfast, preceded a walk up to the village (much quieter than it is today) for essential shopping & the first visit of the day to the café. Back to the beach for a sunbathe & a doughnut, followed by another surf before the tide gets too high. Then a long, hot, lazy afternoon before dinner and another walk up to the village for some more serious drinking & maybe a visit to the Pelote au Chistera at the Municipal Fronton before staggering back down the beach path to bed. I remember many evenings sitting on the wall overlooking the beach with Jake, watching the lightning storms over the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, hoping that they would clear by the morning, as they invariably would.
There was also a massed dinner one night at the restaurant by the traffic lights at Guethary, now sadly a double glazing shop, with most of the 18 of us in attendance.
France Crew 1980
The thing from this trip that really sticks in my mind was getting stranded at Cherbourg on the way home by a French fishermen’s strike, which closed the port for 3 days. It was a bit of a bore, but bearable for me as I had all the comforts of home with me in the VW, but for others, particularly families with young children, trying to live in car packed with holiday paraphernalia, parked up in the port with hundreds of others, it was no joke.
I remember the first ship to break the blockade was a Townsend Thoreson ferry which had charged through the picket line of French fishing boats with the fire hoses aimed at the strikers and ‘Rule Britannia’ being broadcast over the ships tannoy! I could even make out one of the officers on the bridge wearing a Viking helmet! This really annoyed the French, though, and negotiations to lift the blockade were brought to a halt, but their action did give us stranded Brits a psychological lift. When the time came, it was a relief to finally get onboard to sail home. The final indignity, though, was being docked 3 days pay for being late back to work!
I don’t suppose there will ever be another trip like the 1980 trip. That was just about the last year where there was the freedom to park up anywhere (except Guethary, eh Magic?) and stay overnight and before the advent of Ryanair flying vast hordes of horrid English people into Biarritz for £1. Bidart, in particular, has changed almost out of all recognition with development, new hotels, car parks, crowded breaks & hordes of the aforementioned horrid English people, although once on the beach, it is possible to lay back with your eyes shut & drift back to the golden era. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
In July 1980 Dave Williams(Magic), Mick Thompson and myself arrived at Moliet Plage south western france having travelled down in Daves VW Camper, as the advance party for the Isle of Wight Surf Club. We were waiting for Dave Jacobs, Steve Williams, Keith Williams, Ann and Tony Macpherson and there parties to arrive.
Magic and Sid at La Barre
Whilst there we would get acclimatised to the French way of life. Our days started with an early morning surf, followed by breakfast, mid morning surf, followed by lunch, (which usually consisted of Baguettes, cheese, tomatoes, a bottle or two of red wine all for the equivalent of 1£) then a siesta in the sand dunes behind the beach. A late afternoon surf, evening meal with another bottle or two of wine, then an evening surf before bedtime.
Keith, Mick, Sid, Neal and the back of ‘Magic’
This formed the pattern of our days, and as we wound our way through the camp site every morning we would acknowledge a Dutch family camped further nearer the beach with a smile to start with, next day we were greeted with a broad grin, then the day after followed laughter by the end of the fifth morning they greeted our journey with unrestrained laughter. We never did discover what they found so amusing but after the forth day we had run out of milk and Mick had resorted to putting red wine on his cornflakes. Dave never did get the wine rings out of his Formica table top
Back Row: Steve Williams, Dave ‘Magic’ Williams, Jenny Jacobs, Neal Fordham, (Steve’s friend?), Jo Clark, Rob Clark, Keith Williams, Annie Macpherson, Tony Macpherson.
Front Row: Mick Thompson, Paul Jacobs, Mark Jacobs, Dave Jacobs, Kathy Watson (Wheeler), Sid Pitman, Sue Fordham