THE ROMANS HAD ROAD-BUILDING SKILLS , unlike modern Britons. If they wanted to get from A to B, they built a straight road and sodded anyone who owned a house or field in the way. ???? When they left, the Britons forgot all that, and created a road network as confusing as an algebra equation on drugs! I have a good sense of direction. I can find my way back to the dive boat in almost zero viz, or my way home from the pub when I've drunk one too many (on foot, of course), but can I navigate my way out of Bristol? Can I hell. ???? The signposts for the A37 simply ended, but not at the A37! I went over the same piece of road five times before I gave up. I no longer believe that the A37 goes to Bristol, no matter what the maps may suggest. ???? So I was in a screamingly frustrated mood as I made my way into the wilderness that is Somerset in search of the most hidden-away inland dive centre. Weirdly, it was easier to find Vobster than it was to get out of Bristol. ???? Jason Brown, one of the centre's divemasters, had kindly saved me a space in the lower car park, which they do for disabled divers, special visitors and the like. Otherwise, if there is too little space, it's not a huge walk down from the top car park. ???? Vobster Quay started life as another limestone quarry. When quarrying finished sometime in the 1930s, the lake flooded, and in the '50s it was developed by the military into a testing centre. ???? Prototype nuclear submarines and torpedoes were tested here. Remnants of these experiments still litter the lakebed, making interesting attractions beside what the dive centre has included. ???? Jason showed me round. Like all the sites I visited, Vobster has a well-stocked shop, a good air station with air, nitrox and trimix supplies, and a catering van.
This Is Your Life When you've been diving a while, you often tend to bump into people you've met before. As I tried to talk to Jason I had to keep stopping to greet people from my past. Vobster seems to draw people from all over the south of England. ???? I had never seen so many familiar faces in one place. I almost expected Michael Aspel to appear with his red book. ???? Kitted up, Jason and I slipped into the water at the narrow slipway and descended the slope, out towards a sunken cabin cruiser. Being a Sunday, the viz in the main part of the lake had been a bit diminished by 100 practising fins. It was just OK, but as I took some shots of the wreck we were suddenly surrounded by guys in twin-sets. ???? Like negative Polaris missiles, the divers (wearing more kit than you find in most dive shops) dropped into our water space. We headed off towards the rock-crushing machinery, though it soon became obvious that several dive groups had been there before us. ???? Go to any inland site on a busy weekend, and by Sunday afternoon you can expect poor visibility.
Closet-like viz The rock-crushing works is apparently a structure as large as a house. What I could see looked impressive, but it was tricky to visualise it in the closet-like visibility. ???? We turned back on ourselves (at least I think we did) and headed for one of the latest attractions - a Hawker Siddeley HS-748 aircraft cut in three. We made for the cockpit which, as it emerged from the gloom, made an impressive impact. ???? I was even more impressed by the joker who had placed a blow-up skeleton in the co-pilot's seat! ???? We carried on around the lake towards the wreck of an old car - a Ford, I think. With its four doors and boot open, it looks like the 'after' shot of a police chase video. A mysterious silty mist around its base hid the lakebed - kinda spooky. ???? We worked our way to the lake edge to find a concentration of the old sonar buoy containers. Aircraft, vehicles and tubing are interesting up to a point, but these, looking like elongated pistons, provide something real to look at - just as a wild-animal encounter is far superior to a zoo visit. ???? Talking of wild (as in livid), as we waited at 5m on a safety stop I was repeatedly kicked in the head by a twin-set diver who had no clue I was there. ???? Still, a few of the lake's trout at the edge of the now much-improved viz took my mind off the kicking. There are about 1000 in Vobster and they are seen quite often but, like most game fish, they try to keep themselves to themselves and were too elusive to photograph. Still, I did manage to get acquainted with some of the more friendly residents - the ever-hungry mallard ducks. ???? How? By sampling the output of the catering van, my feathered friends were soon around my feet. That sausage butty went down well, though the choice of red, brown or yellow sauces put me in a panic. I always go for tomato in the end.
Secret back door I headed back towards the fabled A37 (it does go to Bristol, but through a secret back door). I stopped to make a call to secure a place in a Travel Lodge, and was surprised to find that the guy who answered could not have helped more! ???? I have no idea where he was sitting, except that it wasn't India, and he seemed to know where I wanted to get to on the Monday. He booked me into the Nuneaton branch, and even talked me through how to get there. What next! ???? I set off towards the M5 into a sunset that looked like the end of the world. Deep, dark clouds billowing above the hills were sinisterly painted by the setting sun. I expected to see the four horsemen of the Apocalypse careening down the mountainside, slashing at people-carriers and four-wheel drives in their path. ???? I really shouldn't drive on my own so much. ???? The majestic sunset was soon forgotten as I entered monstrous Middle England, with its hideously designed road systems and housing estates. I hate our industrial heartland, yet I was going to stay there. ???? This, of course, is where I started. I pulled into that Travel Lodge set in its '70s housing estate. It may have been '50s or '60s, but I didn't care. All I cared about was Monday morning. ???? I went to bed watching Finding Nemo on DVD and woke to find my computer battery dead and the sun lost behind a layer of cloud. I phoned Margaret Baldwin, Stoney Cove's Operations Manager, who had been away on holiday. She was only too happy to help but had no one to take me in the water. She would call me back. ???? I sat watching Trisha, wondering why anyone would want to appear on TV with their mother who'd stolen their husband. Then Margaret rang to tell me to come on down.
The catering van at Vobster (Vobster thermidor anyone?)
Jason Brown and the skeleton inside the aircraft cockpit
Have you lost a red Escort?
Old torpedo components.
Jason Brown has left the water
Inland Sites 2005
National Diving Centre, Chepstow
National Diving Centre, Stoney Cove