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‘Off The Land’ was originally published in Volume XIII, December 2023

Photography by Pierre David | Interview by Josh Barrow



Sent on assignment to the deepest darkest depths of Cornwall to infiltrate Mike Lay’s inner circle, our esteemed photographer Pierre David came back more in love with the British Isles coastal offering than ever before. Spending time at home with one of Britain’s finest traditional longboarders, studying not just his movements in the sea but his activity on land, led to full hard drives and a new found love for smallholding.

Mike’s a full time family man who’s slowly transitioned from travelling the world and escaping cold winters to becoming a self sustainable year-round Cornish resident, living off the grid where it permits. We wanted an accompanying backstory for the photographs captured from the man himself, so without further ado, here’s a conversation with Mr Lay.


Cornwall has been the place you call home for the majority of your life. Besides it being your birthplace, what has kept you here for thirty plus years?

I guess a lot of it is actually because it’s my birthplace. I’m the kind of person who feels those connections quite strongly, to place or culture. I’m fortunate that Cornwall has a strong sense of place. From a surfing perspective, it isn’t remarkable; there is a lot of variety which I like, but objectively, the quality is pretty low. I’ve trained myself to enjoy those kind of waves— riding a longboard allows you to do that—to derive great joy and satisfaction from small, weak waves.

A more compelling reason to stay than the surf is the Cornish landscape and its Celtic cultural history. This landscape has always held me, as a playground when I was young and as a place of peace, refuge and inspiration now. The Celtic culture is something I’m tapping into more now. Of the six traditional Celtic nations (Cornwall, Wales, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man), Cornwall enjoys the least autonomy, and so there is a sense that Cornish folk need to be more intentional with their connection to culture and place. Throughout my many travels in my twenties, I was never much tempted to live anywhere else, and now with my young family, I’m even more grateful to be in Kernow.


Having travelled the world over, do you ever feel isolated living at the very tip of the British Isles?

It’s a slog to get anywhere but that is a great quality as well as an occasional ball-ache. I certainly don’t feel isolated when I’m here. I feel right where I want and need to be. As I enter into my thirties, that feeling of comfort here at the end of the land is only growing.



You’ve been one of only a few from Cornwall who’ve managed to make a living as a professional surfer. What’s your relationship with the surf industry these days?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have made a career in surfing, completely unintentionally, and truly from being in the right place at the right time on several occasions. I’m still with Reef, the brand who have facilitated the dream for these last eight years; I’ll be eternally grateful to them. I’ve bought a house with their sponsorship dollars, which is no mean feat in any coastal community nowadays.

I’m also sponsored by Finisterre, and have been for the last two or three years. Their head office is 45 minutes away and I’m friends with a lot of the team there. It’s nice to be so close to them and to represent a successful Cornish brand.

I’ve always felt slightly baffled at getting paid to surf, so my relationship with the ‘surfing industry’ has always been one of bemused gratitude. I’m also now the editor of Europe’s longest running surf magazine, Wavelength. I’m enjoying being on the other side of the aisle, and looking to tell stories which are as relevant as possible to all surfers, not just the 1%.


How would you best describe the surf community in Cornwall, especially the West where you’re based?

The community here is small and core, often stoked and occasionally pissed off. It’s busy here in the summer and pretty quiet in the winter. It’s a long way to get to with plenty of quality beaches en route, so a lot of folk don’t make it all the way west. I think that fosters a tight and identifiable local crew. It’s multi-craft, multi-generational and, more recently, multi-gendered—it’s a great place to grow up in as a surfer.

There has always been a strong longboard contingent from Sennen too—Sam Bleakley and  James Parry were big inspirations for me growing up and it’s wonderful to see the next generation emerging. They ride everything and they push each other, and the best surfers are the girls. It’s great.

What’s been the biggest highlight of your surfing career up to this point?

I enjoyed getting a couple of British titles two years ago; as hard as I try to tell myself I’m not competitive, I actually fucking love it. I’ve finished third a couple of times at the Mexilogfest which I’m proud of and I won the Singlefin Mingle in 2019. I’ve also won our local log comp, Smooth Movers, a few times. Not sure which would be the highlight of my career.

I’m probably most proud of learning to love bad waves. I honestly think it’s the key to happiness in surfing, and a valuable lesson for life in general.


Besides your talent as someone who rides a surfboard extremely well, you’re also known as a gifted poet. When did you start writing poetry for yourself and realise it gave you joy?

I started at university in Liverpool where I was studying English and Creative Writing. It has helped me feel connected to Cornwall while on the road over the past decade. I would write about home while on the other side of the world and find comfort in the ability to immerse myself in my work.


You’ve been doing public readings the last couple of years at certain events. How did that first come about?

Again, I did a lot of readings at university. And people seem to be more into it recently. There is a vibrant art scene in West Cornwall and I enjoy being a tiny bit a part of it.


If you had to select a favourite poem of all time (written by someone else), what/who would it be?

It would probably be the poem which acted as a lightbulb moment to my understanding and connecting with poetry in general: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot.

When did you start living off your own land? What’s the story behind setting up to grow your own food and is there a lot of work involved?

My wife, Frankie, deserves most credit for that side of our lives. It’s something that we’ve both been interested in for a few years now but have recently moved (along with my mum with whom we share it) to a piece of land which has allowed us to do it.

Frankie grew up on a farm in Jersey where her dad and sister still farm, so she has it in her blood. My own interest has emerged at the same time as my concern for the state of the planet, the warming climate, the mass destruction of nature at the hands of humans, the mass extinction of thousands of species, the acidification of oceans etc. I’m wary of becoming an individually motivated ‘homesteader’ as I believe it is the individualisation of society which has contributed to many of the issues I just mentioned. That being said, it has been greatly rewarding to reconnect with nature and the food we’re eating, and I look forward to being part of community movements which can share that knowledge more widely rather than concentrate it in the hands of the privileged.

What do you love most about planting and eating your own produce? Has it changed your life for the better?

It’s the most natural thing I can imagine doing. I’m in love with the whole process in a very elemental, fundamental way. Surfing for a living in my twenties was a dream, one which I thoroughly enjoyed, but it didn’t fulfil me in the way that learning to grow vegetables has. Not only that but I’m beginning to learn a little about the harms of industrial agriculture and the more regenerative alternatives which are out there. I think the benefits of it are profound now, and will only continue to grow more so in the years to come.

What advice would you give someone wanting to get into growing fruit and vegetables?

I/we are at such an early stage in our journey that I couldn’t possibly pretend to have any depth of knowledge to pass on. I am also keenly aware of the wild privilege which has allowed us to do what we are doing now. If I were looking to learn, I would seek out your closest community farm and enquire about volunteering there—not only will you be furnished with the skills to grow food but you will be helping to nourish your local community too.

On an individual level, the one thing which I have found invaluable is to learn to accept failure. It is inevitable, both for the greenest greenhorn and the most seasoned grower; it is nature.


Surfing professionally, writing, agriculture, being a husband and a father…how do you juggle it all?

The ‘surfing professionally’ part doesn’t count I don’t think, it’s never felt anything close to work. But you did forget full time beach lifeguard and magazine editor in there! It certainly is a lot to juggle and I go many weeks in the summer without any real days off. But then in the winter I get lots of days off. It’s ebbs and flows and the balance is something I’m learning to find. The most challenging and by far the most rewarding part of it all is being a father. I just hope I can be present for our son as much as possible.


What’s next on the agenda for you? 2024 and beyond…

I’m heading to Brittany for a week today to surf and explore some Celtic connections there. It’s probably the closest surf trip to home possible, so I’m excited to seek out the many connections between Brittany and Kernow. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to winter at home. I love the contrast in the seasons that we’re lucky enough to experience here (though I might not love it so much in February when it’s rained for three weeks straight).

I’m gonna go and chop some wood now. I absolutely love chopping wood.


Sorry one last question… What’s your favourite kind of (Cornish) pasty?

An 11am Philps from Praze an Beeble on the way to see my late Grandma.

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