Surfers Against Sewage | Cornwall, UK

I have just returned from a trip to the beautiful region of Cornwall located on the far southwestern rugged shores of England. Cornwall is defined by its magnificent coastline with 300 miles of dunes and cliffs, medieval harbors and oak-forested creeks – and every mile accessible on foot.


Surfing is the big draw in Cornwall, and I was on location documenting 1% for the Planet nonprofit partner Surfer’s Against Sewage (SAS) in action for their Big Spring Beach Clean. The nonprofit’s history dates back to the 1980’s and 1990’s when local Cornwall surfer’s stood up and took action – they were sick of seeing sewage dumped into their seas and on their beaches and were fed up of getting ill when doing the sports they loved – surfing, sea swimming, windsurfing and anything else that involved being in the sea.


(From left to right: Pete Lewis, Ben Hewitt, Hugo Tagholm)

From these humble and very grassroots beginnings SAS has grown to become widely recognized as one of the UK’s leading marine conservation charities dealing with a wide spectrum of marine conservation issues from marine litter to climate change. This growth did not happen by accident. From what I could see on the ground during my time with SAS, it was due in great part by the energy and commitment of its Chief Executive, Hugo Tagholm, whom along with Director of Fundraising and Operations, Pete Lewis, and Director of Campaigns & Projects, Ben Hewitt and a dedicated staff have accelerated the growth and professionalism of SAS. Today the charity is a highly organized and efficiently run nonprofit where impact is measured using data. This fact-based approach helps secure funding for sure, but SAS’s secret in my opinion is that this new leadership team has professionalized the organization without losing the authenticity of its surfer identity. Hugo, Pete, Ben and their St. Agnes based team live the life -- they are authentic to their sport and their mission. They are not some sterile, data driven, charity in a high-rise in London. They have all the chops of the sophisticated, modern, charity, but they stay are core to their Cornwall roots as surfer’s. I think this authenticity is a key factor in enabling SAS to mobilize entire communities. Hugo and his team give off a vibe of being regular people who happen to care and happen to want to do something about it. I suspect this modest approach is a key factor that has enabled them to grow and successfully energize communities from the young to the old -- to get out and clean up trash from summit to sea.


 While most of my focus was on SAS, I did get a chance to explore some of Cornwall’s incredible coast. Wow! What history, what seascapes. I highly recommend this as a location for anyone who is looking for something a bit different. It is not only beautiful in a rugged Celtic way; the history and people are both fascinating and affectingly warm.  I suggest an April or May visit, as this is an ideal time to hit the location before the summer crowds hit the beaches in and villages in droves. 

Cornwall is known for its artistic heritage. Painters, sculptors and potters of international renown have come for its big skies, rugged beauty of the boulder-strewn moorland, and the intense light that turns the sea cerulean blue even in mid-winter. In many ways, Cornwall is the epitome of magnificent English landscapes: think dramatic coastline; rugged cliffs; crisp, blue waters; soft, sandy beaches; luscious, green countryside and sleepy villages scattered throughout.

Combine these factors with a lovely, mild climate and you have a pretty epic destination that’s hard to beat.

One thing to note about Cornwall is its distinct sense of identity. Cornwall is not England, but is England if that makes sense? The survival of Cornish identity can be traced, on one level, to the fact it is isolated on three sides by the fourth side by the Tamar River. The shape is reflected in the name: the “Corn-” comes from the Cornish word “kern” or “horn.” Such isolation has always made Cornwall tricky to govern. The Romans didn’t bother trying, as long as their supply of tin was secure. The Saxon’s did not bother to try to extend far into Cornwall either and when the Tudors tried to unite the realm, the Cornish proved to be difficult at best. More than anything perhaps, Cornwall’s identity is connected to its unique sense of place. No other region of England offers such a range of dramatic landscapes or is so steeped in mythology (King Arthur was supposedly from this region). Many archaeologists now explain the vast numbers standing stones and stone circles, and early Bronze Age monuments in Cornwall in terms of ritual to a sacred landscape. I found something magical and sacred about the landscape too and I left feeling I was only just barely scratching the surface. It does not surprise me that local surfer’s from this region stood up to protect the land and sea they love. It seems the landscape has a power to it that demands both love and respect.

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