THE LAST TIME I HAD SEEN STONEY , it had been a busy place with a shabby entrance. Today it was a pleasantly peaceful place with a very grand entrance. The van and I were impressed.
As I drove down the hill, I could see the long-time building work coming closer to fruition, and the car park was decidedly empty.
I love diving during the week, when everyone else is busy shuffling papers or whatever they do. There were a mere handful of cars in the bottom car park and I could see that the visibility was excellent. I was looking forward to this.
I met my buddy Barry Collins, one of Stoneys regular Assistant Instructors. He had taken the time off work to dive with a man he didnt know. We ran through some dive options, then slipped into the cool and surprisingly clear water of the Cove to head for the Stanegarth.
In doing so, we passed the slowly disappearing cockpit of a helicopter. Last time I had seen a large pike where the front windows once were, but he was gone, as was quite a bit of the wreckage.
What sad person steals bits of wiring and metal from a diving attraction in an inland dive site When they get home, do they proudly display their treasure to a bemused-looking partner, leaving them wondering what they did wrong in a former life to end up with such a loser
Get a grip, you muppets! I urge all divers to examine their friends mantelpieces, and should there be a crumpled piece of aviation aluminium or a twisted piece of wire displayed there - laugh at them. Only when they see just how stupid they look will they stop doing it.
We found the anchor chain that led us out to the Stanegarth, a small coastal tug purposely sunk in the Cove as a diver attraction. Here the wheelhouse was occupied by a pike, but we arrived at the same time as another group of divers and the perturbed fish retreated as I approached, which was a shame.
I had a look round the vessel, which is an ideal tool to teach novices what real wreck-diving is like, in the same way that teaching someone to drive on a road-safety track gives them good in-car experience, with less chance of a people-carrier side-swiping them.
Im not suggesting that things dont go wrong in Stoney, or any of the other centres. With the sheer number of inland dives carried out each year, there are bound to be incidents. Only the day before, one had occurred here, but if the colour-keyed bumper of a diving accident is going to hit me, Id as soon it was at Stoney Cove as anywhere else in the world.
The staff there are well-trained, the equipment they use is good and the response to an emergency call is swift and organised amid the turmoil that arises on such occasions. Ive seen it happen.
That Monday was peaceful, however. The few divers around were relaxed, and the only incident occurred when someone dropped his chips on his way from the pub to his car, and the ducks were too quick for him to save them. Mugged by a bunch of mallards!
We headed back towards the shallow drop-off near the Nautilus, a mock-up of an early movie-set submarine. I have no idea who made it, but it could certainly beat anything that will appear on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, or win the Turner Prize.
The fish agreed - it was thick with shoals of big roach, resting perch and a couple of small pike. I could actually have been in a freshwater aquarium. It was a great way to end a thoroughly pleasant dive in the Cove.
Some divers criticise inland dive sites, and Stoney has taken more flak than most. Yes, the toilets are kind of rudimentary and the serving hatch for divers in the pub is not the best place to order food when its raining, but my sausage bap was good and I could handle those hungry ducks. None of it matters anyway, because by the time you read this, Stoney should be entering the cappuccino-culture world with its new facility, with classrooms, a deep pool, a retail area and catering facilities.
Margaret showed me round the still-empty building. Its constructed in a traditional wharf style, is built to last and will serve as a base of operations for the staff, and a place for divers to gather and enjoy themselves. I was impressed.
I was ready for another dive.. Wrecks, helicopters and metallic stuff are fine, but Im a wildlife photographer and I wanted things that moved, though not too fast.
Stoney is famous for its crayfish. The English crayfish, like our red squirrel and water vole, is rapidly being edged out of its natural habitat by an aggressive American, the signal crayfish. In the Cove, however, English crayfish have a haven, much like the red squirrels of the Isle of Wight.
Most divers probably couldnt give a stuff about these diminutive crustaceans, but I find the aquatic life in inland dive sites as fascinating as that in the sea. So I entered the water with excitement bubbling in my belly (though it could have been the sausages).
The crayfish are found in numbers around the base of the pub, where they probably have a good feed on what the divers drop, or what gets passed through the ducks. They live in the small crevices between the bricks and rocks strewn about the area.
Staying shallow, we made our way around the edge of the lake to the weed-beds to find glittering shoals of fry flitting in the sunbeams. And I was not the only one attracted by this sight.
I love pike. They are what you would get if Vinnie Jones had an affair with Margaret Thatcher and the result of the union developed in a pond over thousands of years.
They have Vinnies scowl and the iron will and aggression to shut down coal mines in the face of huge opposition. They are the barracuda of northern Europes lakes and rivers.
Little ones look petrified as divers close on them, but stand their ground as long as they dare. Big ones dont care. They hang in the water or cruise menacingly, mouths agape to show who is boss.
Two were cruising at the edge of the weed, eyeing the fry and us with equal disdain. I watched in awe, hoping to see an attack, but was disappointed.
We made our way back past the Nautilus to another weedbed near the bus stop. Here were more fry, pike and perch, and we had a rare glimpse of two of the Coves three massive carp.
Camera-shy, they were grubbing around at the base of the weeds, but didnt hang around for long. Not that it mattered. I was out of film so I climbed out, happy and content with the day.



The
The Nautilus.
Diver
Diver on the aircraft cockpit
The
The bow of the Stanegarth
Margaret
Margaret Baldwin, the operations manager at Stoney Cove