Counter-culture luminary who, in 1971, founded Skewjack surf village in Cornwall with the promise of two girls for every boy
When Chris Tyler founded Skewjack, Britain’s first surf village, in 1971, he promised that there would be “two girls for every boy”. As a marketing gimmick it showed a certain chutzpah, given that the phrase came from the Beach Boys’ Surf City, and Skewjack was not in California but Cornwall, a mile and a half inland from Sennen Cove, mainland Britain’s most westerly beach.
It nevertheless worked and Skewjack soon became the hub for Britain’s growing band of surfers who, perhaps inevitably, dubbed the place “Screwjack”. The Times sent a reporter to investigate the phenomenon and reported back that Tyler’s surf camp, formed in partnership with businessman Ron Bishop, was a hit. A week’s accommodation cost £8.50, and visitors arrived in their droves to enjoy as much surfing — and partying — as they could handle.
By day, an old ambulance — christened Amy — would take guests and boards to west Cornwall’s surf breaks at Sennen Cove and nearby Gwenver and Porthcurno beaches. There would be no rest come the evening. Tyler devised entertainment for each night of the week, including disco nights, medieval banquets and pub crawls by boat to the fishing port of Newlyn and the villages of Mousehole and Lamorna Cove.
Pete Toland, a Skewjack surfing instructor and lifeguard, said of the Thursday-night “mystery tour” surf trips: “It was a mystery how anyone ever made it back to Skewjack at the end of the day. The surfing was great, but it was always followed by drinking in the pub.”
Guests included Welsh bikers; Jimmy Pursey and other members of the punk band Sham 69; and Bunker Spreckels, one of surfing’s most notorious characters. The stepson of Clark Gable, Spreckels inherited a $50 million fortune at the age of 21, and promptly set about spending it on travel, surfing and the drug habit that would ultimately kill him. But before his inevitable death, aged 27, Spreckels had become a respected surfer and surfboard shaper, whose base was surfing’s mecca — the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. His visit to Skewjack, in 1973, gave Tyler much encouragement, not least because Spreckels found the time to make a board for Skewjack’s co-founder. Himself a good, solid surfer, Tyler was photographed surfing at Anchor Point in Morocco, an image that appeared in Surfer magazine.
If this was a rarity — British surfers seldom feature in the sport’s most popular magazine — Tyler was soon to garner another feather in his cap. In 1975, the BBC arrived to film an episode of Holiday ’76. The next year, life at Skewjack was broadcast to the nation.
It was to prove a mixed blessing. Visitor numbers rose dramatically but, as Tyler put it, “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.”
We started to attract the wrong crowd. In 1977 all hell broke loose
Chris Tyler was born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1938. His parents were Kenneth, a carpenter, and Eileen, a model. He attended Windlesham House School in Sussex and trained to become an architect at Mid-Essex Technical College in Chelmsford. Tyler passed his intermediate Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) exams and worked as a fisherman from Mersea Island in Essex.
By 1962, he had given up his Riba studies in favour of life in west Cornwall. Initially he worked as a draughtsman for the artist John Miller, while also pursuing his passion for sailing and fishing, and then set up his own architect’s practice in Penzance. It was this that led to Tyler taking up surfing: the office space was owned by John Adams, a key figure in the nascent British surfing scene. An athletic man, Tyler gravitated at once to surfing, which was then virtually unknown on British beaches. He helped form Sennen Surf Club in 1965, and met Vanessa Tennyson Leigh, a model and dress designer. The pair did not marry but had two sons, Cassius and Essex.
Meanwhile, his friend Ron Bishop had been working in the leisure industry and had come across a former RAF radar station for sale. They bought it and had the idea for Skewjack. The same year that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was released, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George — a tale of incomers meeting with resentment when they arrive in west Cornwall, where it was filmed — Skewjack opened its doors.
Its mantra, described by Tyler as “fun, surfing and having a good time”, made for immediate success, but it came at a cost. “It was like the Forth Bridge,” said Tyler. “By the time the summer was over and thousands of people had been through, the place was a wreck.”
Tyler’s love affair with Skewjack may have been dented by Holiday ’76, but his life also unravelled in its wake. His relationship with Leigh foundered, and Tyler spent time away from Skewjack, working as a fisherman in Scotland.
Business ventures — a holiday park in Widemouth, a nightclub in Torquay — did not work out. In the early Eighties, Tyler returned to Skewjack, which then took on a different guise. The camp began to specialise in adventure holidays for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or for those with mental or physical disabilities — this was the period that Tyler most enjoyed. However, the writing was on the wall and Skewjack closed in 1986. It was demolished in 1990.
Tyler’s adventures were not quite over, however. With his partner Bernice Clarke, he formed Penzance Arts Club, which went on to be dubbed “Groucho by the Sea”. Between 1984 and 1990, he worked with architects Barrie Briscoe and Brian Hammick on a number of award-winning projects; he also had a brief liaison with Melissa Worsley, which led to a daughter, Tessa, being born in 1987.
From 1990 to 1995 Tyler ran his own architect’s practice in Penzance, though by this time he was increasingly spending his spare time sailing rather than surfing. He was often to be seen fishing from his yacht in Mount’s Bay.
After a spell living in Brittany, there came another radical move: Tyler and Clarke decamped to Bulgaria. They bought a house in the foothills near Novi Pazar in the northeast of the country, Tyler’s dream being to live simply in a place where the couple’s horses could lean their heads into the living room. Of this existence, spent painting, woodcarving and working as an architect for ex-pats, he said: “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.”
Tyler returned regularly to Britain to see his children. His sons Cassius and Essex still live in west Cornwall, working as a picture framer and art gallery owner, respectively, and they are both keen surfers. Indeed, Essex had a cameo role in the cult surf film Blue Juice (1995), which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ewan McGregor. Tyler’s daughter, Tessa, lives in Brighton, and is an accomplished snowboarder.
Their father is assured of a lasting place in British surfing history. Skewjack has become a byword for a free-spirited, counter-cultural sense of surfing, in which logos and competitiveness are nowhere to be seen.
Chris Tyler, surfing entrepreneur, was born on December 10, 1938. He died from cancer on November 5, 2016, aged 77