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Sea Road to Lyonesse | Part I

Somewhere between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, around the Seven Stones reef, there was once a place called Lyonesse. On a clear day it could have been seen from the cliff above Sennen. Some say it’s a myth, but it’s where Josh Vyvyan comes from. His family kept a white horse, so the story goes, to ride back to the mainland before sea levels became too high. They made it out alive and to St Buryan (according to the first Domesday Book) and roughly a century later to Trelowarren on the Lizard, where they have stayed for the past seven hundred years.

I met Josh in a London nightclub. The music was loud and the beer was flowing. He was fresh back from several years on the rigs and in the middle of a mid-twenties drift away from surfing, keen to see what the city had to offer. I didn’t realise at that point how well he surfed. As landlocked surfers, we began to make strike missions to surf small, brown waves near London. We might have lucked into a couple of days here and there, hollows in the most unlikely of places. I got to see that Josh surfs with a beautiful flow, never racing, and always looking for the pocket. Due to the scale of waves on those swell-blighted shores, in his own words, tucking in like a ‘giraffe in a cereal box.’ He was a reliable guy to drop everything and hit it, blown to the coast by storm winds on empty weekday mornings when the rest of the world was doing something more important. But a year or so ago he had enough and returned to the Lizard with a view to more waves and less people.

As a restless transplant, miles from my heritage and homeland, Cornwall will always feel new to me. But I wondered about Josh and his perception of place, what does the Lizard mean to him? “It took me leaving to really understand my connection,” he said. “In the rear view mirror I saw a landscape where I knew rocks and trees like people, and greeted them like old friends when I returned.” Wherever he travels in west Cornwall, he sees ancestry and history writ on the land. The way that his family do things is all important. “We are determined to keep this place beautiful and wild. Humans are losing their connection to the earth beneath their feet, but hopefully they can come here and regain a little of something they may have lost.” A biomass boiler powered solely by wood chipped and grown in cyclical areas means the estate will never run out of power. Sixty acres have been fenced off to introduce Bodmin ponies, pigs and cows to run wild. The operation moves forward in the best possible way.


He marked my foot in ink five years ago, the Tristero symbol from the Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. His tattoos adorn the hides of many friends and fellows. He is covered in them, some crude and pointed, others funny or profound that he calls “stories on skin”. They tell the tale of a lot of water beneath the bridge. His illustration is distinctive but of course he doesn’t talk about it much, so you forget he does it at all. “All my life I have tried to explain my environment by drawing,” Josh says, “skin is just another type of paper.” His most recent venture, though, is practical and based at Trelowarren.

Peninsula Cabins are unique in nature. “I want to build spaces for people to stay that allow them to slow down and appreciate their surroundings,” Josh says. The first incarnation is Dragon Cabin, made from Douglas fir felled and milled by Josh at Trelowarren. “It is so important to be able to step outside at night and see the stars, or hear the wind and rain,” he says. “It’s what makes us feel human, and in the world we live in that feeling is hard to come by.”


Back to Josh the surfer. A while ago we ventured north to the islands. Like a sniffer dog, he found the best reef from a two second shot of a headland in an old film. We surfed big walling points and a left with a good hook on it. As the swell travelled over the top a right opened up – a lifetime’s proximity to Porthleven shone through as Josh started travelling, metres from the rock, blown out with the spit. We camped above the reef for a week straight and scored hard. We went south too, to France, where he drove me around for a week eating pain au chocolat and dialled me into the quiet bits of the coast. He stalked the lineup at VVF on a Campbell Brothers bonzer, swooping but never at the expense of flow, only enhancing it. I think you learn from watching any good surfer, but from Josh I learn things that I actually want to know.

All of this would be irrelevant without humility. Josh is one of the most understated people I know. He drives a knackered van and doesn’t care less for formality. If anything his background has taught him to go with the flow of his surroundings, no matter how unusual they might get. This carries through into the heart of his surfing, which unfolds with the rhythm of the wave. In tune, as it were, from Lyonesse around Cornish shores. To understand him best though, one must spend time in the winding lanes and fickle lineups, the Lizard. But when you look out over a beach and see open water beyond, that might just be his homeland, drowned and forgotten, sea roads snaking to the present.


Josh's Wardrobe

An interview with Josh Vyvyan by Dan Crockett

Photography by Jack Johns & Tom Baker

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