Wales’ Perfect New Wave: Snowdonia’s Inland Surfing Lake

23 August 2015
Read Time: 3.5 mins

I’m about to go surfing but I’m several miles from the sea. I’m in a Welsh valley, surrounded by green hills and lush forest, in the shadow of an old power station. The water is as flat as a lake. That’s because, right now at least, it is a lake. I sit on my board and wait – more out of habit than necessity because where I am it’s shallow enough to stand.

Then the hydraulics whir and gurgle and, as if by magic, a beautifully shaped wave over a metre high suddenly looms behind me.

“Paddle!” shouts my instructor. So I do, face-planting shortly after. No matter, there’ll be another one along in three minutes. On that one I make a far better showing. And on the one after and the one after that…

Surf Snowdonia's dramatic setting. Surf Snowdonia’s dramatic setting. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

I’m at Surf Snowdonia, a brand-new artificial wave facility at Dolgarrog in the Conwy Valley, north Wales.

Privately funded, it cost £12 million (A$25 million) to build, on the site of a former aluminium factory – though it has been decontaminated since, and approved by Welsh environmental regulators.

The attraction employs more than 100 people, many of whom live locally – some even worked in the original plant. In a region where unemployment is high, it’s perhaps not surprising that they all seem very happy to be working here.

Creating the perfect artificial wave has been a goal for the surfing industry for some time.

Many concepts have been mooted, including one venture by Kelly Slater, the American 11-time world surf champion, but this is the first top-quality wave of its kind to attract investment and open to the public.

Surf Snowdonia uses WaveGarden technology, pioneered by a group of surfer-engineers in San Sebastián, Spain, and will soon be rolled out globally.

It offers a good-length wave (up to 150 metres if you ride it the whole way) for all ability levels.

Expert surfers can surf the two-metre peak next to the central pier, intermediates can ride a 1.2 metre section in the middle, while beginners can develop their skills on the white water at the edge. This triple-function makes it great for families and mixed-ability groups.

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Waves come at a rate of 18 an hour. Such frequency would be rare in the ocean, where such consistency in quality is unheard of.

But because I’m not having to paddle hard to keep position or find the best peaks, my arms stay remarkably fresh. This means I can concentrate on my “pop” – the way you stand up on the board – and my form once I’m up.

Surf Snowdonia's wave machine is able to generate a 2m high wave and accommodate up to 36 surfers. Surf Snowdonia’s wave machine is able to generate a 2-metre wave and accommodate up to 36 surfers. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Progress here could be rapid, especially for intermediates and children. For parents, it must also be nice to have your kids within easy sight and not to have to worry about the usual ocean hazards, such as rip currents.

I liked not having to jostle for priority or worry about taking a local’s wave. You ride the wave one at a time in the intermediate and advanced sections; in the beginner zone there would be six of you.

Flawless Waves At The Flick Of A Switch

On the day I’m here the wind is moderate yet not affecting the wave shape at all, which – for someone who has been plagued by on- and cross-shore winds on far too many UK surf sessions – is a revelation.

It’s also clean: the water comes from mountain reservoirs, which in a week that saw raw sewage discharged on to many Cornish and Devon surfing beaches, is another draw.

How does it compare with surfing at an actual beach? There’s obviously no roar of the ocean, none of that washing machine-like cleansing churn you get in salty sea, no sand, no infinite blue horizon, no variety in the type or length of wave you surf.

And you can imagine, albeit with a shudder, becoming blasé about riding these flawless waves when you know they can be generated for eternity by the flick of a switch.

The writer catches a wave. The writer catches a wave. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

At the start, watching the action from the glass-fronted restaurant, we gasped as each perfect wave peeled past. It’s the kind of view you never get at an actual break unless you’re in the water.

And watching the expert surfers, such as Surf Academy head and Welsh surfing champion Jo Dennison, so close-up really is mind-blowing. But after a while you stop drooling. It seems you can OD on perfection.

That’s why the ocean will always have its draw. It plays hard to get. The crucial point about Surf Snowdonia, though, is that no one here is suggesting you swap surfing in the sea for this man-made lagoon; rather the two should complement each other.

And there’s no doubt that a trip here could make you a better sea surfer, and more excited about surfing in general. It worked for me: when my time was up I wanted another slot straight away.

And while purists may balk at the idea of booking a surf session as you would a tennis court, sometimes those of us with family or work commitments, who aren’t fortunate enough to own a campervan, just want to know we can surf when we want to surf.

Where Surf Snowdonia really wins over other simulated action sports experiences such as snowdomes – which for some reason leave me feeling sad that I’m not experiencing the real thing – is that you’re outside, catching waves in a truly beautiful setting.

And for me that alone was worth the trip.

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This article was written by Sam Haddad from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Sam Haddad

Sam Haddad writes for Guardian Travel and the Guardian Bike Blog, and is the brand editor of Cooler Magazine, a sport and lifestyle title for women.