YOU HAVE TO LOVE ENGLAND SOMETIMES. The M4 may not be the most idyllic traffic corridor, but as I drove towards Bristol from London, the spectacular sunset ahead was making shepherds shout for joy. It was a good omen - just as well, on my vans first outing.
The original plan was to dive along the south coast from Sussex to Cornwall and share my trials and observations along the way, but the first two locations had already been scuppered by poor weather. Strong winds had finished the viz off as far west as Dorset, so I was skipping ahead in search of calmer seas.
The M4 sunset spoke to me. Overnighting in Bristol, I contemplated my revised plan, to visit some of the south-west coasts most accessible dive sites, at Babbacombe Bay, Fort Bovisand and Porthkerris Beach.

Heading south
Always check weather and visibility with a local dive centre before setting off. We forgot to do this, and phoned Wayne at the Babbacombe Beach Café when just far enough from home to make turning round the least attractive option.
Luckily the sea was flat and the viz a decent 4m. Richard, my buddy and co-driver, nervously asked how many cars were already in the little car park by the beach. We feared having to park at the top of the hill and walk all the way down and back up in full kit, and were relieved to hear that there was only one car there. Thank God for midweek diving!
Reaching the Torquay area isnt as easy as the map makes out. Just after Exeter, where the M5 dissolves into the A38 and A380, you find a bloody great big hill.
Everything from lorries to Ferraris struggle up its face. Fifth gear, fourth, third - a good car will make it with a little to spare. A diesel van loaded with dive kit, however, requires second before youre even halfway up.
Imagine my annoyance when, my foot to the floor, a prat in a GTI zoomed up behind me and flashed his lights because he timed it wrong and was stuck in the slow lane. The Dark Side of the Force took hold of my vocal cords for a moment and its as well that the baseball-cap-wearing nerd couldnt hear me.
Eventually he pulled out and, with a puff of unhealthy black smoke, revved over the summit, leaving me to contemplate changing to first. I avoided that, and we crested the summit just before the van started to shudder too violently.
After sitting in a traffic jam trying to get either into or out of Torquay (we got lost) I pointed the nose of the van down the steep, winding road to Babbacombe Bay.
Like all good divers we headed first to the loo (it was a long journey) and then to the cafe for a coffee. Yes, I know coffee has diuretic properties, so could contribute to dehydration, but a doctor once told me that the amount of water in coffee outweighs the coffees ability to squeeze it through your system, so dont worry about it.
I was more concerned about getting my kit on. Two weeks before, I had fallen rather badly off my bike and injured my right shoulder, which made getting into a drysuit interesting.
My screams of pain didnt attract too much attention, though Richard pushing my head into the front-loading suit might have done.
Wandering the 50m across to the jetty did me in. I was hot, bothered and in pain. We told the lone fishermen on the jetty of our intentions to muck up his sport for a few moments (he took it well) and climbed into the water. It was cool and soothing.
Luckily I wasnt on a trip to a deep wreck. As we bottomed out at the end of the breakwater, my computer depth reading was a staggering 3.5m!
That took narcosis out of the picture, and as we were planning a dive of only an hour, getting bent seemed remote too. But my shoulder still hurt.
I seemed to be swimming in Bad Luck Pond today. My neck seal was too tight, the suit seemed too small and I was under-weighted (a rock from the bottom fixed that). Yet just as I was getting used to the discomfort, I turned to check Richard and felt my cylinder twist and shift. I had done it up as tight as my shoulder would allow, but it slipped out from the BC!
I should have dampened the webbing before tightening it, of course. Acrobatically, I caught the cylinder between my legs. Richard pushed and pulled me like a rag doll, and with what felt like one foot on my back and both hands on the strap as if he were trying to break a wild stallion, he refitted the cylinder.

Out of reach
A lot of fishermen use the breakwater and there were plenty of lures, lines and weights tangled in the seaweed, but few fish of catchable size to be attracted, though happily out of angling range was a shoal of pollack.
We did see a severed dogfish head just below the steps of the breakwater, obviously from a catch from the day before, the body going to make rock cod fillets.
Anything in there, mate asked the fisherman. Nothing, youre wasting your time, I told him. Normally I would say there were loads in there, because I dislike anglers on the whole, but he seemed a nice bloke.
Helped out of my drysuit by the van, I discovered what a complete prat I was today. I hadnt used this membrane suit for a long time, because the neoprene one I usually use was having new seals fitted, and had forgotten about the internal braces, which were bunched up around my crotch. No wonder it had felt like a jumper that had been through a boil-wash!

Wonders of the marine world
A maximum depth of 6m meant that we could get back in almost immediately. So, after a hot chocolate, we prepared for dive two, with braces fitted properly and everything.
There are some things I want to see before I die. One is Dale Winton put in stocks and pelted with overripe tomatoes, the others are mostly places or creatures.
The large cuttlefish that come into Babbacombe Bay in April are high on that list, and we had missed April, but feeling we were due some better luck we entered the left side of the bay to sweep the area Wayne had told us the cuttlefish frequent.
Unless youre a moron (in which case you should be reading an angling magazine), youll realise from the picture that we found a pair. They werent that big and the female looked to have been knocked around a bit, but I settled down to get them used to our presence and started to shoot.
If you think that sounds boring to watch, you should have been my buddy. When I finally looked up some 25 minutes later, Richard was shivering and gesticulating to ascend.

A divers staple food
Magazines, dive courses and manuals bang on about healthy diving. Dont drink before diving, dont smoke (I got that one right) and dont eat greasy foods. So how come the staple diet of most divers involves some sort of fried pig product Bacon baguettes, sausage sandwiches, you name it, divers will be troughing it at some point during a diving day.
Babbacombe Beach Cafés bacon baguette is highly recommended, as is the hot chocolate, but its hardly health-food. Yet after a cooling dip in the Channel you need more than celery and cream-cheese dip. A salad doesnt cut the mustard, especially if that mustard is ladled over piping hot, succulent sausages nestled between two pieces of thick, crusty bread. Sorry, getting carried away.
With two dives done and a bellyful of cholesterol, we willed the van up the 1:1 incline of the hill to Torquay in first gear and were on the open road, or what would have been open road had it not been for everyone else on it.
Creeping along is becoming a national pastime, like car-boot sales (the number of signposts for these junkfests is staggering). Sitting in traffic for an hour for no apparent reason is as frustrating as trying to get around on public transport.
Still, by the time we reached the outskirts of Plymouth, the steering-wheel mark in my forehead had almost gone, and once we reached Fort Bovisand I was calm.
We found our room and ordered a pizza from the only restaurant that delivers so far out of town. I wish it hadnt bothered. Pizzas should be delicate matters, but this was like eating a soft hill of dairy products and finding a couple of bits of salami at the bottom.
We wandered up to the Pop Inn, Fort Bovisands famous pub, and were the only ones in there. Midweek diving can get a bit lonely, but it was nice to watch the glorious sunset over the Sound with a Guinness Extra Cold and a friendly barmaid.
Being a red-blooded British bloke, I should tell you how wasted I was by the end of the evening. However, I am what the Australians term a two-pot screamer. So I waddled back to the room and fell asleep watching Ally McBeal (God, I sound sad).
The morning gave reason not to believe all the shepherds you meet. Despite that glorious sunset the previous night, unless grey is the new blue the weather had taken a turn for the worst. The wind whipped at our coats, but it was blowing from the north-west and Bovisand was sheltered. Phew!

Stuff the current
Shore-diving at Bovi, like Babbacombe, is pretty unaffected by currents, so in theory can be experienced at any time. We were soon ready for our first foray into the Bovisand nature trail. Trainers, jeans, jumpers and coats and we were in.
You see, at low tide much of the site is exposed or so shallow you can paddle it. So we wandered around seeing where, when the tide came in, we would be diving. Bit odd, really.
I always feel rather insignificant watching the sea level rise. The moon pulling at the Earth, controlling the seas and oceans, kinda puts you in your place - slightly above the crabs that scurry in front of the advancing tide, or the seagulls that peck at the seaweed washed ashore at each high tide.
The waves whipped up by the north-westerly made entry interesting, especially when trying to get our fins on. I didnt expect much from the viz and around the rocks the mix of fresh and salt water confirmed my fears.
As we swam further out, however, it suddenly opened up and we enjoyed a stunning 8m. You warmwater divers are probably rolling in the aisles. But the dive was superb, with a good collection of marine life to see, including wrasse, plaice, flounder and the ubiquitous spider-crabs.

On to Cornwall
The timing of high tide meant that because of the long journey ahead we were able to get only one dive in at Bovisand before moving on.
Getting between Devon and Cornwall is leftist. I dont mean that they wear red ties and wave communist banners, but people driving on the left-hand side of the road can travel across the river for free. Go the other way and you must pay. Does Devon really believe it is superior and can therefore, like a nightclub over a pub, demand an entrance fee It all seems kind of mean.
The journey to the Lizard was a frustrating sequence of stops and starts, but gave me time to think. For example, if Cornwall were to push for independence like Scotland and Wales, it would need a national symbol. Scotland has the thistle, Wales the leek. Cornwall, Im sure, would adopt the VW campervan.
By far the countys most common form of transport, campervans can be solitary but often flock. Many have spectacular paint jobs, while others are rusty and held together by dirt and gaffa tape. A few are little more than roadkill and can be seen with two legs protruding from beneath. Get closer and youll hear the sound of the V-Dub death throe: The engines dead, dude!
Campervans are even slower than Escort vans laden with dive kit, and it took almost four hours to reach Helston, gateway to the Lizard peninsula, the home of RNS Culdrose, a 24-hour Tesco and, though this is one of the countrys most remote towns, the inevitable traffic jam.
At Porthkerris Beach we picked up the key for Porthkerris Dive Centres guesthouse, in the small but perfectly formed village of Porthallow. The village pub, the Five Pilchards, was just across the road, and we pushed open the door about 10 minutes after finding the village.
The Five Pilchards is one of those pubs that you find only in tucked-away corners of the UK. It serves good beer and meals fit for an army. I ordered a steak and got half a cow, enough to get a cardiovascular surgeon scrubbing up to unclog your arteries.
But it was delicious, and we waddled out of the pub full to bursting and slept soundly.

Pants weather again!
I woke refreshed, wondering why I couldnt hear the soft beep of the alarm clock. It was too early, that was why - I had been woken by the rain. Great, I thought, a wet day in Cornwall.
Breakfast took place at the dive centre, just up the road above the pebble beach. On the rough track I thought I was hallucinating. Huge flightless birds were grazing in the fields but I could swear I wasnt in Africa.
It seems that the dive centre also owns Porthkerris Ostrich Farm, and the birds roam freely. Ostriches are fearsome when roused, so it wouldnt do to try to nick an egg or two, even if you would have an omelette bi enough to feed a small country (one ostrich egg is equivalent to 13 hens eggs).

So to business
After disposing of another pig, we sat listening to the rain on the roof. Porthkerris Beach is renowned for its beautiful shore dive, but the weather was soaking up our keenness to test it.
However, Lisa from Porthkerris gave us a map of the beach and the rocky reef we would dive around, and chatted about what we could see, and this did the trick.
A few minutes later we stood on the beach under a heavily clouded sky, looking out over a millpond sea. We compared the map with the scene before us, couldnt work it out at first, turned it up the right way and decided which way to go.
We had been keen to dive and get away early, because of the weather, but as we rounded the kelp-covered rocks I started to enjoy myself. The viz was a credible 5m and the place was packed with life. Wrasse, pollack, edible and spider-crabs and three dogfish were just a few of the highlights.
We also found a massive barrel jellyfish, trapped in the kelp and looking quite weak. I asked Richard to pull it out, but he declined. OK, I thought, Ill have to do a bit of jelly-wrestling (great for cable TV), so using a gloved hand I extricated it.
Jellyfish are safe to handle as long as you dont touch their stinging cells, which are on the tentacles. I released it in open water and took a few shots as it swam to the surface.
After that spectacular dive we just had to get back in the water, so after a quick air-fill and a change of film we waded back in. The weather seemed to be brightening up, too.
Of course, because I had put a wide-angle lens on, we didnt see a single dogfish, though we did find a couple of small John Dories.
The sun never did come out. When we surfaced, the clouds were even lower and the air far more moist. We didnt need to rinse the kit off, we just stood around for a while.
All that was left to do was to indulge in hot chocolate - Porthkerris kitchen makes one hell of a drink. Its ostrich burger is outstanding too, and we left contented.

So that was it then
As I approached London, in far lighter traffic than we had found in Cornwall, I felt pleased.
The van hadnt broken down, I still had money in my pocket and wed done some superb shore-diving to boot.
Some people deride UK diving, but even though our aquatic jaunt had all been easy shore dives, I had enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps Ill buy a national symbol of Cornwall and spend the rest of my life just travelling and diving. Now that would be lovely.

  • If following in Gavin Parsons footsteps, contact Babbacombe Beach Café (speak to Wayne) 01803 324532; Fort Bovisand 01752 408021; and Porthkerris Dive Centre 01326 2800620 www.porthkerris.com

  • Babbacombe
    Babbacombe Bay - the café is to the right and the breakwater is in the background
    Big barrel jellyfish saved from entanglement in kelp at Porthkerris by jelly-wrestler Gavin Parsons
    Snakelocks anemones provide an attractive sight at Babbacombe Bay
    The two cuttlefish at Babbacombe which made Gavins day (but were too much of a good thing for his buddy).
    A John Dory swims close to the seabed at Porthkerris
    The weather at Porthkerris Beach was grim but the diving good