Travel

Vomit, Tears and Endless Fingering: Newquay Is a British Rite of Passage

But for how long? I went to the summer teen drinking hotspot to see what's new since the local council started cracking down.

by Hannah Ewens, Photos: Jake Lewis
22 July 2015, 5:00am

All photos by Jake Lewis

Newquay is a seaside town of two stories. In the sleepy sunlight hours it's a place defined by its craggy cliffs and Cornish pasties; the colourful surf shops flogging a Santa Cruz lifestyle and Camden Market burlap change purses. But by night the place staggers into action, and of course it's this Newquay – a Newquay of puke, herbal ecstasy and endless fingerings – which makes the papers. In the imaginations of those who've been reading headlines about the town in the national press for the past 15 years, it's likely something akin to a budget Magaluf with added goose-pimples; wasted feral children roaming in packs, thrusting their "European driving licences" at bouncers, making Vines of each other eating glass and drinking alcohol through their eyes.

Somewhere around the turn of the millennium, a new tradition dictated that kids who'd just finished their GCSEs would flock to Newquay en masse to celebrate by the Celtic sea. Bringing a supply of booze from home, fake IDs were rarely questioned by some restaurants, off-licences and venues when stocks needed topping up, and so the town became a playground for under-18s: a place where they could get shit-faced unsupervised for a week.

A Drink Aware report from 2010 estimated that after the climax of the GCSEs, some 5,000 16 and 17-year-olds descended upon Newquay each year. Considering its population is under 20,000, that's a huge number of binge drinkers to land on one small town in the space of a month. As well as this, Newquay is the stag night capital of the UK and at the height of the holiday season, the town's population reportedly swells to a staggering 120,000 people.

Media coverage of this rite of passage peaked in 2009, during what was branded the "fortnight of shame" after the tragic deaths of two teenagers in separate cliff falls. During that time, locals banded together to form the Newquay Safe Partnership, an umbrella organisation for a number of groups determined to reduce crime and make it a family-friendly resort by promoting the introduction of ID scanners at clubs and encouraging businesses to take more responsibility in reducing street drinking.

This season yet more measures were taken to crack down on debauchery: the mankini is now banned (actually), and those brandishing sex toys in public or wearing clothing bearing offensive images will be barred from pubs. According to police and community leaders, figures are already showing a drop in crime and antisocial behaviour.

However, rules and regulations don't necessarily always win out over people's desire to get messy, as the widely ignored new anti-street drinking legislation in Magaluf has shown. So VICE photographer Jake Lewis and I travelled down to Cornwall's most popular holiday resort at the beginning of July for a three-day weekend to see what was up.

Browsing online after I took my seat on the morning train from Paddington, it quickly became apparent that while officials might see Newquay as completely regenerated – "The town has cleaned its act up," said Mayor Dave Sleeman a couple of weeks before we arrived – those who benefit from the pisshead tourist trade aren't giving it up that easily.

The hostel we stayed at, The Escape, marketed itself to stags and hens as a venue for the "ultimate Newquay weekender", complete with a bar that stays open until 4AM. The website also touts the hotel as "the perfect venue for after the GCSEs blow out trips".

A Google search shows plenty of other hostels advertising to the two demographics in a similar way, and after sharing the train carriage with a stag party and being asked by a drunk guy if we were school leavers going down for the week, I had to presume the general public weren't quite as "on-message" as the locals would like them to be.

Arriving in Newquay, you could see why people flock to the town; all roads lead to the sea, there's a Bargain Booze and the dozens of venues are all within a short walk of each other. Most of these bars and clubs are placed in and around what I'll call "The Quad", the town's liver assault capital. And at the top of the slope, looking down over the sandy beach, is the rat's nest: a large Walkabout.

We learnt from local hostel and bar staff that the summer timetable was a straightforward one. During the week, the kids come. They find their fun in the nightclubs' under-18s "nappy nights", stay in hostels and hotels at the cheaper weekday rate and get smashed on the booze they've brought down with them (a survey found that 53 percent of British parents who planned to supply their 16 and 17-year-olds with alcohol for a week-long holiday would give them five or more bottles of spirits or wine). The vast majority of these kids then go home on the Friday, when the stags and hens arrive, charging around in pink learner plates and personalised hoodies.

Did teens still consider the post-GCSE Newquay trip a thing? One short guy in a pack of 15 or so down from Bristol for the week told me: yes. "It's quite a tradition in Bristol that loads of us come down and get drunk," he said. "Most of us have older brothers, and they did it before us." It's still widespread enough a ritual, he added, that they'd seen other people they knew from home there that week. They weren't relying on the local businesses to secure booze – because no one does, apparently – and instead had brought it down themselves.

Besides the majority male skew, there didn't seem to be a specific "type" still engaging in this tradition; there was a real mix of private and state school kids, guys with Jack Wilshere haircuts, big-chested rugby lads, satellite town stoners in joggers and New Eras, awkward Inbetweeners-types and future merchant bankers.

"Why do you want to come here?" I asked the little lad from Bristol. He summed up what I imagine had brought all those disparate groups here: "It's basically our first taste of independence."

While the presence of teenage tourists was undeniable, it was clearly nothing on the old days, if the headlines are to be believed. Where were the kids at night, now unable to buy cider from the offie or shots from the Indian restaurant? A quick scout around found them outside Subway, Meatball Marinara in one hand, refilled bottle of Coke in the other; or mooching down by the beach, drinking tinnies and sharing a spliff. Nothing that was going on seemed to wild, to be honest.

Gerry, our hostel owner, who's been in the business for years, told us about the recent decline in teen binge culture. "Every place in the UK sent their kids down here before 2009," he said, referring to the "fortnight of shame" that same year. "It was way crazy; a cult thing. Now, there are just a few places – the same schools sending them back year after year."

Gerry is trying to open that market back up, while ensuring the experience is one a 16-year-old would be alright with their mum seeing on Facebook. "We don't have TVs – just music, organised barbecues and surfing," he said, gesturing to photos on the wall of guests eating burgers on the beach. "We're trying to rekindle it, but it's not the same."

He's also decided to vet potential teenage guests by offering surfing lessons as part of the deal, to put off those who just want to get pissed and cause trouble.

So, if Newquay isn't a bucket list destination for teenage binge-drinking any more, what is it?

Two nights around The Quad were enough to illustrate that men wearing tutus and oversized banana costumes still dominate proceedings once the sun goes down.

The stag experience in Newquay is exactly what you'd expect it to be: herds of topLADs with weirdly small heads on oversized bodies riding their banterlopes around dancefloors and smoking areas, pretending to wank off their friends, throwing up in their own mouths and getting their dicks out.

Bar staff told us that stags, like the teens, aren't as numerous as they once were – nor are they as badly behaved. Despite this, the bouncer on the door at Whiskers, a wine bar, told us the town would soon be introducing a breathalyser scheme. He's worked in Newquay for years and considers the measure to be bullshit, arguing that it will cause more aggro than necessary.

Watching a woman whack her friend with inflatable genitalia, I wondered how bad all this actually was. Really, the behaviour was nothing worse than I'd seen in areas with big student populations, like Newcastle, or even Canterbury. In fact, it was marginally more restrained, because the drunk people were fully-grown humans, not 19-year-olds with a £3,000 maintenance loan and zero responsibilities for the next three years.

Wrapped up in it, part of me couldn't help but feel this is the perfect place to let loose: by the sea, fresh air, away from anything that feels remotely metropolitan. Looking at London, where we're seeing a worrying increase in the policing of nightlife – where licenses are being revoked and famed venues shut down – it was easy to understand those enjoying what Newquay had to offer.

With the benefit of a hangover, however, the negatives were clear: you don't normally move somewhere to get closer to men dressed as brides starting loud, angry fights with each other.

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We spoke to one woman eating in a Belushi's who was very vocal about the detrimental effect of stags and hens on her hometown. "I've lived here forever – I was here when it was still like living a bubble," she said. "Then the 2AM licences came in. Then the 5AM license, and we were branded as a shit Ibiza. Then there's getting the two-page spread in the Sun every time a stag group does something really stupid."

She, like many others, wants them gone.

It's just that not absolutely everyone agrees. Some locals enjoy the nightlife that would inevitably crumble if it could no longer rely on custom from the rest of the UK.

One woman from Nottingham who'd moved down to Cornwall compared it to her hometown favourably. "There's no violence here whenever we come out. In Nottingham, they need the bouncers and the rules because there's fights and bottlings. We don't need breathalysers or any of that," she said. "It's safe fun here compared to other places, and we enjoy it."

There's also a sense that some in the hospitality industry don't care too much about stags and hens as long as they're fuelling work. Martyn Pegg, 43, a chef, told me that putting up with the near-constant presence of piss-drunk stags in his town centre is a sacrifice he's willing to make. "They pay our wages," he said. "If that goes, we'd be out of work, and we'd never keep Newquay as nice as it is. It's a catch-22."

And Newquay is beautiful. All that money from the tourist trade is keeping it nicely tended to. On the Sunday morning, we walked down into town, and it was like the place had been flipped on its axis.

During the day, Newquay offers everything a holiday-maker could want: local produce, glitter tattoos that apparently mean "slut", cliffs to walk across while surfers ride waves and families with kids muck around on inflatable playgrounds. The sun was shining, tourists were taking cream teas, old ladies chatted with local shopkeepers, holidaymakers were buying the usual tat. It was bizarre to think this was the same place I'd seen a man piss directly into his own friend's mouth the night before.

Before leaving, we met with a representative of Verto, a company providing the first fully sustainable homes in the UK. Looking out over the town from their building site – at the carnival marching its way through the town – you realise just how small Newquay is, and understand the desperation from some to ensure it remains pleasant. From here, you could see all the other new developments rising up around the town. These new-builds, said the Verto man, were what was going to help Newquay's economy greatly – not the stags.

Perhaps they will. But I know one common narrative of seaside towns – I'd seen it back home in the Isle of Wight; development doesn't necessarily mean a boost to a local rural economy. They were beautiful, brilliant houses on a breathtaking stretch of coast – but who was going to own them? How much were those people really going to contribute to the area's economy? Would they be permanent residences, or second-homes for the rich, the types who might pop down for the odd weekend and a couple of weeks in the summer?

This burgeoning housing development was another piece of Newquay's strangely fragmented identity. Another group of people wanting to make Newquay into their own ideal.

"Welcome to Newquay: coast of dreams," said the sign on our arrival. Whose dreams were they, exactly? Newquay no longer seems to be a teen town, and while nightlife might still be dominated by stags in the summer months, strong voices and authorities in the community are trying to stamp them out too. Locals were divided on what they want their town to be, while property developers have started to build beautiful houses for middle-class and second-home owners. It's a splintered place – not quite one thing, but not quite another, either. A stag and hen town. A new development town. A holiday-maker's retreat. Right now, Newquay is still all of these different things to different people, just hanging in the balance. But it doesn't feel like it will be able to support them all for long.

We came half-expecting teens on Spice and stags bottling each other in the streets. Instead, we found a British seaside town going through an identity crisis.

@hannahrosewens / @Jake_Photo

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