Surfing, famously, is a sport that leaves no trace. In 10,000 years’ time, when archaeologists from another galaxy land on our planet and start looking for signs of what went wrong with human civilisation, it’s entirely possible that they will discover the crumbling remains of mighty football stadiums in cities all over the world, but they’d be doing well to find much physical evidence of surfing.
True, if they were lucky they might just stumble upon the remains of Kelly Slater’s artificial wave pool in the middle of California (or, indeed, the one that’s currently under construction at Ratho, just outside Edinburgh) and wonder why, on a planet mostly comprised of oceans, anybody felt the need to recreate ocean waves on dry land.
Apart from the wave pools, though, surf architecture tends to be limited to fairly rudimentary structures on or near the beach. In surfing hotspots like Australia and California, there are lifeguard towers, built to give a clear view of the surf zone, and in chillier, less crowded places, like here in Scotland, there are sometimes beach huts.
Like the one built a couple of years ago at Balevulin on Tiree, these tend to be simple wooden affairs, designed to provide a bit of shelter from the elements and a place to store gear. Recently, however, Scotland’s surf huts have been getting considerably more ambitious – to the extent that it’s probably time to stop referring to them as “huts”.
In Thurso, overlooking the celebrated reef break at Thurso East, an impressive-looking surf shelter is being constructed under the aegis of the North Shore Surf Club, on land donated by Lord Thurso. Boasting toilets, showers, storage space, an office, changing rooms and an elevated judging area for contests, it is now nearing completion and should revolutionise the experience of surfing at Scotland’s most famous break. It should also make it easier to hold competitions, such as the Scottish National Surfing Championships, which took place there last month.
Meanwhile, about 300 miles down the road in Dunbar, the Belhaven Surf Centre at the south end of Belhaven Bay is also well on the way to opening its doors. Work on the £250,000 building started last autumn, and, all being well, it should be completed and opened some time in the summer.
The centre will boast a multi-purpose education room, an office, storage, heated changing rooms, toilets and warm showers, all at ground floor level, and it will also include two first-floor rooms, one with stunning views across Belhaven Bay. The centre will be run on a not-for-profit basis, providing a home for various surf- and beach-related organisations and businesses based in the area, including Coast to Coast Surf School, East Lothian Countryside Ranger Service, The Wave Project and Dunbar Surf Life Saving Club.
Sam Christopherson of Coast to Coast, one of the prime movers behind the scheme, describes it as a dream come true.
“We’ve always had this concept that we wanted to do something with the rangers,” he says, “so we could share a space and have environmental education and outdoor adventure running side by side. That’s been a theme since we started the surf school in 2004.
“Three years ago there was a change in the council – countryside and sport got merged – so there was suddenly somebody interested in sport in charge of countryside too, and that opened some doors for us.”
The council drew the attention of Sam and the rangers to a plot of land by the beach at the south end of Belhaven Bay, close to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere”, that had been lying vacant for many years, and asked if they’d like to lease it.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, that would be amazing,’” says Christopherson, “because it gives us a facility right on the beach. They gave us the lease of that space for 35 years and then we went off to see what we could do in the way of funding and how we could build a building that would house all the different needs that there were in the area.
“The surf school had to create a new social enterprise called Belhaven Surf Centre in order to oversee the whole thing – it’s building the building and managing its long-term use, so the building is actually in the community for the long term. There’s no profit in terms of the surf school owning the land – and after 35 years it goes back to the council.”
Christopherson is keen to stress that the thing that makes this project unique is the range of organisations that will be using the space at the same time. Far from being a mere surf hut, the Belhaven Surf Centre will combine sports coaching, environmental education and the outreach and inclusion work of surf therapy charity The Wave Project under the same roof.
“To our knowledge this is the first coastal building in the UK with so many different interests in it and the potential for cross-education is huge,” he says. “Users of the building, whether a new surfer, a high school pupil or a pensioner, can come for an activity but leave having learned about coastal safety or the local environment or having helped change someone’s life as a volunteer on an inclusive project.”
Brian Allen of the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage, who will also be using the building, describes it as a “game-changer” for the local area, and “an amazing new space, ideal to host future beach cleans and environmental education.” East Lothian Council Countryside Ranger Tara Sykes, meanwhile, believes the new centre is going to be “integral to fostering a sense of ownership in Dunbar’s coastline and encouraging more activity outdoors in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.”
“It will give us fantastic facilities for outdoor education, surf safety and sports performance development,” says Christopherson, “as well as environmental education and pushing the environmental message. It’s almost like the dream ticket.”
The Belhaven Surf Centre has been funded by Leader, Wren, East Lothian Council, Be Green and members of the local community. For more information, visit www.belhavensurfcentre.org