Portrait of a Surfer: Chris “Skewjack” Tyler
"That man was an absolute gent."
So says my wife, Karen, after
an early evening drink in Mousehole with Chris Tyler, one of the key
figures in the history of British surfing. For those not in the know,
Chris set up the Skewjack Surf Village near
Sennen Cove in 1971. Skewjack remains Britain's one and only surf village,
a place revered by the surfing cognoscenti and still talked
about in rapturous fashion by those who were there. What, though, has
become of its founder?
Karen and I met him last week in The
Ship Inn in Mousehole. With him was his son, Essex,
a fine surfer, ex-Penzance fisherman and owner of the Tyler Gallery.
Chris was in the UK for one more night - the next day would see his return
to Eastern Europe, the place he's made home in recent years. I'd hoped
to talk to him during the research for Surf
Nation but had been told that I had more chance of an audience
with the Queen, with Chris rumoured to be living in Poland.
"No, not Poland," he told me, "my home is in Bulgaria. It's
like Cornwall when I first came down here. I felt, then, that I'd found heaven.
That's what I feel now, in Bulgaria."
Chris lives, with his partner and horses, in foothills in Bulgaria miles
from anywhere. He's keen on the isolation and sense of peace: "I
have everything I want," he says simply. But he admits that his
choice of abode is in keeping with his life. "I've always been an
adventurer, and this is the latest part of the adventure."
Chris Tyler was an architect before he founded Skewjack in 1971. He
went on to preside over an institution which was formative in the lives
of many British surfers, not least his sons, Essex and Cassius, who grew
up at Skewjack. The intention behind Skewjack's creation explains its
remarkable success. "It was born of an idealistic vision," explains
Chris. "I wanted to create a place where people could come and learn
to surf. We had an old ambulance called Amy to take people and boards
down to Sennen Cove and Gwenver. We advertised in custom car magazines, Oz, Time
Out, and had an incredible response. The Times even sent
a journalist down."
That journalist was Penny Radford, whose resultant piece, headlined 'Skewjack,
Cornwall: Surf City of UK', was published on 9 August 1971. Chris believes
she may have fallen in love with a Cornish surfer - certainly, that she
caught the bug and understood what Skewjack was all about. "Fun,
surfing and having a good time," is what Chris says typified Skewjack's
early years, though a lot of work was involved too: "It was like
the Forth Bridge," says Chris, "by the time the summer was
over and thousands of people had been through, the place was a wreck."
All kinds of people stayed at Skewjack, from bikers - "lovely blokes",
says Chris - to Jimmy Pursey and other members of Sham 69. Perhaps one
advertising campaign - 'two girls for every boy' - helped swell visitor
numbers, but more than anything it seems that Chris's sheer love of life,
and surfing, was what made Skewjack so popular. Unfortunately, though,
it became a victim of its own success.
"The BBC came and filmed an episode of Holiday '76, which was
great, but suddenly, after six or seven great years, we started to attract
the wrong crowd. In 1977, all hell broke loose. We weren't trying to compete
with the 18-30-type holidays but people wanting that kind of experience started
turning up. I carried on but it was with a heavy heart."
By 1984, Chris had decided that enough was enough. Around the same time
he also split up from his partner and, as he puts it with candour, "everything
went t*** up. We lost everything." Essex Tyler nods as his father
narrates what happened next - a move to Penzance and a new career as
fishermen. "I left Chris South in charge of Skewjack and bought
a fishing boat. The next chapter of our lives began then." Chris
admits, though, that he was devastated. "Skewjack was very much
a part of me. I was very sad to let it go."
Fast forward nearly 25 years, and father and son are in good health,
radiant after a day's sailing out of Mousehole. Life may have been tough
when they had to reinvent themselves, but Chris and Essex clearly have
an excellent relationship, and both hold themselves with dignity and
composure. What, I wonder, is Chris's fondest memory of Skewjack?
"I was asked if I'd take some students from MENCAP. I agreed and we had
a ratio of three students to one instructor. We filled all the chalets and
I was told, at the outset, that I had to treat them just like I'd treat anyone
staying on a surf holiday. So that's what I did. That week, watching them get
in the sea and love every minute of their surfing, was the highlight of Skewjack
It's nearly time to say our farewells, but Chris has another memory. "The
other day I was walking down Causeway Head in Penzance when a man stopped
me. He asked if I remembered him. I didn't, but then he told me he'd
come to Skewjack and gone on some cliff walks with us. He said 'You know
what, I've been walking ever since.' That's a bit like my life, too.
It's like surfing. You're always in search of the perfect wave."
He talks again of his home in Bulgaria, and warmly clasps Karen's arm
as we leave. As she said, an absolute gent, and one lucky enough to find
contentment on his endless search.
You can read more about Skewjack in the excellent Drift magazine.
Check out this
link to get hold of a copy of Issue 4.