Just across the English Channel, or La Manche, as we are talking about diving (plongée) in French waters, the Normandy and Brittany coastlines of France offer diving and life ashore that are both refreshingly different and yet reassuringly familiar.

Normandy, like the corresponding English coastlines of Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset, has its fair share of wrecks from shipping losses over hundreds of years and casualties from two world wars. British divers are drawn to the area by the historical significance of the D-Day campaign.

One of the earlier wrecks of the campaign is the Carbonelle, LST523. The ship had already delivered a number of loads to the beaches when, on 19 June, 1944, it struck a mine off Omaha beach and sank in 29m. Now resting upside-down with the hull collapsed and broken over the remains of a cargo of Sherman tanks, the Carbonelle is a classic representative of the campaign.

A wreck that met disaster at the tail-end of the campaign is the Leopoldville, an 11,500-ton Belgian passenger liner converted for use as a troopship. She had already made 24 crossings to Normandy, transporting more than 50,000 troops, when she was torpedoed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1944, just five miles out of Cherbourg.

There were 2300 US troops on board and 802 were lost; more men than went down with the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. Yet the sinking of the Leopoldville was hardly mentioned in the press at the time. It is now a protected wreck and a permit is required to dive it.

And although it is the D-Day wrecks that draw divers to Normandy, there are many others to explore. Near Cherbourg lies the Ussa, a 2000 ton steamship that was carrying railway wagons and hay. She struck a mine in the approaches to Cherbourg in 1917. Further east, in the Bay de la Seine, the Turquoise was a Belgian-built coaster sailing under German command when torpedoed in 1942 (Wreck Tour 29, July 2001).

Ashore, youll find a wealth of battlefield sites and museums of the campaign to explore. Every small town and village seems to have its own war memorial and story to tell. But you dont have to be a military enthusiast to enjoy the shoreside part of a diving trip, with all that ambience from countryside to classically French towns, with their markets and pavement cafÃÂs.

Then there is the food. I am not a big fan of cordon bleu cooking, but what I look forward to are the odd glass of wine, French bread, paté and cheese.

If Normandy represents the French side of Channel wreck-diving, Brittany, further west, marks the French side of the western approaches - the equivalent of Devon or Cornwall. Here there are more wrecks in typically better visibility and, as in the south-west of England, the scenic side of diving becomes more attractive.

Easily accessible by RIB is the Swansea Vale, a reasonably intact freighter that sank in the approaches to Brest after striking rocks in 1917. Further south, the Norwegian steamship Trane went down seven years later. The remains are partly buried in a coarse sandy seabed. The water above the Trane is usually so clear that you could imagine the whole scene as a prop in a large aquarium.
My favourite is the armoured cruiser Kléber, which struck a mine and sank well out from Brest in June, 1917.

If you are not into wrecks, there are plenty of offshore islands, rocks and reefs for scenic diving. I cant speak from experience, but friends tell me that, armed with charts and road maps, its easy enough to track down some nice shore dives in Brittany. You wouldnt want to go shore-diving across miles of flat sandy beach in Normandy, however.

Breton culture remains distinctly French, but in a different way to Normandy. The locals are Bretons first and French second. They are Anglophiles and the economy is geared towards tourism. Road signs are often posted in both French and Breton. The town of Concarneau is Conkernow in Breton, remarkably similar to a Cornish spelling.

For the dedicated diver, the easiest way to dive Normandy or Brittany is from one of the liveaboard boats that cross the Channel from ports along our South Coast. A liveaboard trip will probably range over a larger area to visit the best dive sites, enabling more adventurous diving and giving two slackwater dives per day. You will still get into port in the evenings, but wont get as big a helping of shoreside French culture as on a land-based trip.

Yet for many divers that culture is a main reason for visiting another country. Taking the car by tunnel or ferry and using the facilities of a local dive centre could be part of the attraction. Its also an option if youre looking for a holiday with a non-diving family, or perhaps dont get on well enough with boats to enjoy a liveaboard trip.

Accommodation options range through camping to luxury hotels. A peculiarly continental variation of camping is the prepared campsite, where a fully equipped tent is already set up for you, virtually a rented cottage made of canvas in a village of similar canvas cottages.

Also worth considering is renting a real cottage or house, which can be a good-value option for a family or for a larger group.

Brittany is well-served with dive centres in many coastal towns, set up to provide everything you could want. In Normandy these are much harder to locate, though you might be lucky in Le Havre or Cherbourg.

Another option is to take club boats across for a fully fledged expedition, though you will need a permit, available from the Affairs Maritime office in major towns and cities such as Cherbourg or Brest. Strictly speaking, such a permit is also needed for shore-diving, though I havent heard of unlicensed divers getting into trouble.

Finally, dont be tempted to take anything from the sea, be it wreckage or food, just because you see locals interpreting the regulations in a liberal way. French bureaucracy comes with a partisan flavour that could hit you with a vengeance should any local official be upset. In the past, both charter skippers and clubs have had boats and diving equipment impounded.

picturesque seaports in Brittany and Normandy can provide a good holiday base
Visibility on the Trane wreck off Brittany is reliably stunning
the Swansea Vale is a popular wreck among divers on charter boats from Camaret and Brest


GETTING THERE: Eurotunnel, call 01303 288660. Brittany Ferries from Plymouth, Poole or Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Roscoff, Caen and St Malo, 0870 900 9753/9749. Condor Ferries from Poole or Weymouth to St Malo, 01305 761551. P&O from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and Le Havre to Cherbourg, 02392 301000.
DIVING: Brittany - Atlantide, St Malo (0033 299 567673); Club Léo Lagrange, Camaret (298 279049); Kerguelen Plongée, Lorient (e-mail: kerguelenplongee@wanadoo.fr); Centre de Plongée ISA, Crozon-Morgat (298 270500); Audierne Plongée, Audierne (298 700390). Normandy - Centre Federal de Plongée de Normandie, near Cherbourg (233 447470); ASCL Paul Eluard, Le Havre (235 539572); ASPTT, Le Havre (235 456481); Club DExploration Sousmarine, Le Havre (235 481521). Liveaboard - mv Maureen from Dartmouth (01803 835449, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/maureen).
ACCOMMODATION: Wide range of options, see below.
WHEN TO GO: Summer.
WATER TEMPERATURE: Similar to UK south coast and up to 2°C warmer.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Normandy - experienced sport divers. Brittany - all levels of experience, with dive schools and training for beginners.
FOR NON DIVERS: Countryside, uncrowded beaches, sightseeing, food and wine etc.
COST: Liveaboard from £402 per week. Local dive boats about £15 per dive. Some also offer accommodation. B&B and hotel prices similar to UK, from £15 per night. A self-catering cottage for 4-5 costs £250-300 a week.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Brittany tourist information, www.brittanytourism.com. Normandy tourist information, www.normandy-tourism.org. Manche Committee Diving, 0233 013542