THE M1 AND A50 WERE MY ROADS OF CHOICE for heading north and west that afternoon. Traffic was thankfully light as I passed through the heart of England. ???? Crewe was once a major railway hub, though these days it's a backwater. My brother lives there, however, so it made a convenient place to stop for the night. ???? Next day I was up early on the M6 heading north. What a mistake! The M6 has more traffic than tarmac, and at the mercy of Manchester's rush hour, all I could do was wait with everyone else. ???? North of Manchester the traffic started to clear, and I headed for Lancaster. Morecombe Bay is a wide expanse of sand with little to interest the scuba diver, so why come here? To visit Capernwray Quarry. one of the North's few managed inland dive sites, just off the M6 near the village of Over Kellet. ???? In the stonechip car park, I was confronted by a building you would expect to win architectural awards. The dive centre and restaurant is beautiful - clean, superbly designed and attractive. My van lowered the tone considerably (a BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne would have been more appropriate) and as I closed its door it started to rain, though it dampened my enthusiasm less than it dampened my clothes. ???? I was greeted warmly by director and operations manager Chris Collingwood. He introduced me to David Baugh, Capernwray's gear hire manager and one of its chief instructors. ???? I was taken around the centre and shown the lake overlooked by that impressive building. The reception area holds a lot of information about the lake, its history and attractions, which include several trout and, unusually, an American white sturgeon. That would be worth a look, I said. David agreed to try to show me and, after agreeing a dive plan, we parted to gear up. ???? As I re-entered the car park, I did a double take at a guy walking towards his own car. He did the same, then asked: 'Weren't you at Stoney Cove yesterday?' I had parked next to him at the Cove - either diving is a small world, or one of us is a stalker! ???? The rain eased, the clouds started to clear and the sun even peeped out. Fully kitted, David and I waddled to the lake. ???? The slipway made an easy entry point and, as the water started to deepen, dark shapes were visible hanging near the surface. I dipped my face below the water and saw several large trout of different species waiting by the drop-off. ???? We swam over them and out towards a large buoy marking the location of a diving bell in about 20m, though it was clearly visible from the surface. In fact, with my face in the water, I could almost see the bottom. ???? The structure is a fairly new attraction and clean, but makes a change from the aircraft and cars you find elsewhere. Capernwray also has those, and the cars had been contributed by joyriders years before the lake became a dive centre. ???? From the bell, we headed for the far side of the lake, where the sturgeon hangs out. It was donated by a local man after it outgrew its tank. ???? We were about to enter the search area when David started gesticulating wildly. Sure enough, along the bottom cruised a white fish about the size of a medium-sized pike, but unlike any fish I had seen before. Its white back was studded with Jurassic-looking armour-plated scales, barbels searched under its mouths. It was understandably shy and, seeing three bubble-blowers, started to retreat, though I had time to squeeze off a couple of shots. ???? From there, we followed the contour of the back wall of the lake to what has become known as the Gnome Garden. ???? Some people have the strangest taste in garden ornaments. Let's just say that if some of those gnomes were alive, they could enjoy prosperous careers in porn! ???? Past one of the cars, we turned and headed back into the lake to find a helicopter perched atop a sea container. Keeping the wreck off the bottom avoids having divers kicking up too much silt. ???? On another nearby container is a mock-up of the underwater part of an oil-rig, another nifty attraction. ???? Capernwray has been innovative with the objects it has placed. I'm not so sure about the ex-Blackpool Beach cartoon characters, though I'm told that they're a big hit with visiting divers. ???? As we made our way up the slope towards the slipway, I remembered the trout. Waiting at 5m to get rid of that pesky nitrogen, I could see them circling above. Just as a gang of youths can look intimidating, they milled about watching me, but seemed friendly enough. Divers can buy fish-food for them at the centre. ???? Talking of which, I was starving, so I ordered a bacon and egg bap in Capernwray's restaurant. The room, downstairs from the shop and reception, overlooks the lake and was empty except for one diver waiting for his companions to finish a dive. It was his first time in UK waters after years of Mediterranean diving, but he had enjoyed himself. ???? The bap was sublime, the egg yolk runny enough to coat the lightly cooked meat which, with brown sauce, caused a taste sensation. I commend the chef. ???? What I can't commend was my van. It chose the moment when I was as far away from home as I would get on this trip to fail me. ???? David, a former mechanic, set to work on the diesel engine and diagnosed a connection between the hyperdrive and the flux capacitor, or something like that, but it was repairable. I stopped overnight in Crewe again before making my way to my last destination. ???? I rose early the next morning, hoping to beat the rush on the M6, but the van was playing up again. ???? I ended up calling the RAC. Two hours (the weather was wet and there had been a lot of calls) and a jump-start later, the van was running. But I decided to play it safe and head for home in the rain rather than stop at Gildenburgh Water. ???? I rearranged the visit, but because of other commitments could not return until a month later.
David Baugh passes the oil rig mock-up at Capernwray
The Wessex dragonfly helicopter.
One of the pornstar hopefuls in the Gnome Garden
Inland Sites 2005
National Diving Centre, Chepstow
National Diving Centre, Stoney Cove