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WHEAL KITTY COMMUNITY | SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE

From courting the royals to heading up a global movement, as one of Wheal Kitty’s founding fathers, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) hasn’t let up since day one. We caught Hugo Tagholm and Jess North in a rare moment of calm, to mull on a momentous 2018 and to take in the band of friends and collaborators that’s grown up around them.

“Normally January’s quiet, but last year, after Blue Planet, it was non-stop.” SAS’s Deputy head of fundraising and communications Jess North sips a coffee and smiles thinking back on a hectic year. “The show reached so many people that we had to ride the wave – so to speak. The phone was ringing off the hook. It’s been huge.”

Through a portfolio of activity from beach cleans to petitions, harnessing the energy generated by Blue Planet is indicative of the way SAS functions: always responding to opportunity, growing, evolving and ever-poised for the next set rolling in. Since its creation in 1990, SAS has matured to become one of the most impactful and recognisable marine conversation charities in the UK, protecting the ocean environment with campaigns that get through to government, the UN and royalty. “Tom Kay and I have stood shoulder to shoulder, growing our enterprises for over a decade now,” Hugo – who took over the helm at SAS in 2008 – explains. “You need commitment to run something successful from Cornwall. It doesn't happen by chance. There's no cavalry coming to save you, nobody who's going to get on the train on a windy, rainy January day to come and give you something. You're always going to have to get there yourself.”

In it together
And it’s working relationships like Hugo and Tom’s, that have forged Wheal Kitty, keeping the fires burning far from the city. “Tom and I share the same passion for the ocean and this amazing county,” he continues. “We share the same rigours as well, both needing to base ourselves here, while running around the country and the world, creating the change we want to see and then house down at Wheal Kitty. From a fairly desolate spot, it’s become one of the beating hearts of Cornwall.”

“We share the same passion for the ocean and this amazing county. We share the same rigours as well, creating the change we want to see and then house down at Wheal Kitty. From a fairly desolate spot, it’s become one of the beating hearts of Cornwall.”
 - Hugo Tagholm

Regularly having to meet lawmakers, funders and the media, St Agnes may seem an unlikely spot for Hugo to be based. But high winds and crashing waves are woven tight into the fabric of SAS’s work and purpose. “I’m potentially one of the only CEOs in my sector that actually has a desk overlooking the ocean,” Hugo says. “We really are living, breathing and immersed in what we do. It’s a point of difference to be celebrated and one that we strive hard to retain. That's why we're all here, that's why we all persevere. As Jacques Cousteau said, the sea is an amazing unifier – it's the unifying factor for the Wheal Kitty contingent.”

Common ground
And true to Wheal Kitty’s industrious past, Hugo sees the workshops as a galvanizing force, each member of the community putting in the energy that fuels the whole. “There's a lot of knowledge creation, product creation and innovation here, it takes an ‘x’ factor to create change. You've got to have commitment, creativity, energy and ideas. That's what these people share, it’s what I see from Tom and Ben and Mark and Em and all the brilliant men and women here.”

July 2018’s Ocean Plastics Solutions Day stood as testament to what the workshops have become, and the broader community that’s gathered around ideas grown from a St Agnes clifftop. For Hugo, it was a crowning moment. “Tom and I curated this amazing day together, with HRH Prince Charles and Camilla here; bringing together business leaders, athletes, environmentalists, scientists and all the people working towards solutions to protect our oceans, beaches and wildlife from plastic pollution. We wanted to avoid a stuffy, staid formula and left our own unique fingerprint across the day, from the tents we chose, to the way we displayed things, to the type of people we had speaking. All of them were really authentic, people who really connected to the issue.”

All in good time
But community building doesn’t happen overnight and Wheal Kitty is testament to that. “It's changed a lot since I started,” Jess admits. “There weren’t spaces to meet, everyone was in their little zones, now we have these brilliant cafes and spaces to gather and connect.” Having come to Wheal Kitty at the start, Hugo knows exactly what it takes. “There's been so much hard work that’s brought Wheal Kitty to this point – where we're all connected and can pop in, and do this thing together,” he explains; “that Dave’s [Finisterre’s Head of Creative] just come in with this breakfast sandwich I ordered from Canteen, that people can go into each other's offices and have a chat, pick up a coffee – all that stuff, the simple things, come because of hard work, because the right people came together and connected. It's a joining of minds really. The whole area exudes friendship and solidarity; it's an amazing feeling.” Jess agrees. “It’s one of the reasons I come to work now, to be a part of this community. I feel I belong to something – everyone here is doing good things.”

"The bigger our voice is, the more we can make a difference, whether in government legislation change or just getting 100,000 people to stop using plastic bottles every day. It makes a real impact." - Jess North

Reflecting back, it’s this exact feeling that drives the SAS machine. “Community is absolutely everything to us,” Jess continues. “Without the massive donor community we couldn't do anything at all. Without our volunteers we couldn’t get out there, on the ground – this year we had 75,000 beach clean volunteers. Without signatures, our petitions (just over 400,000 people signed a petition for SAS’s message in a bottle campaign) wouldn’t get traction. Even the people who like us on social media – they give us a voice. The bigger our voice is, the more we can make a difference, whether in government legislation change or just getting 100,000 people to stop using plastic bottles every day. It makes a real impact.”

And so, from the edge of the most westerly county in England comes change that ripples nationally and globally. Hugo’s proud, and rightfully so. “It's extraordinary – it's really amazing what Finisterre's done and we've seen other things flourish here – Open Surf, Canteen, this vibrant community of likeminded individuals striving to create brilliance from Cornwall. We're fiercely proud to be based down here and fiercely proud of the impact we're all co-curating, from this point in the county. I’d challenge anyone in Cornwall to find a place more dynamic and entrepreneurial than Wheal Kitty.”

Photos by Abbi Hughes