|IF I HAD MET JAMES HOLT A FEW YEARS AGO, I might not have taken his claims for Norfolk diving that seriously. Lets face it, we all know that the North Sea is cold, dark, stormy and altogether not a good place to go diving.
Thats preconceptions and prejudice for you. I bumped into James while we were both involved in a diving project in the Channel Islands. We got talking about Norfolk wrecks and, as I had recently done some excellent diving on the Dogger Bank, just north of his patch, it wasnt hard for him to convince me that I really should dive in Norfolk.
Eventually I make it to the county for a couple of days mid-week diving. James boat Mayflower is busy doing some survey work at Lowestoft, so he has teamed up with the other local dive boat Desert Moon, skippered by John Martin, to show me some of the wrecks. An added advantage is that, with two skippers on board, they can take it in turns to dive.
On the way out, James fills me in on the history of our first target. HMS Umpire was a U-class submarine, rammed in error by the trawler Peter Henriks on 19 July, 1941, just nine days after it was commissioned and on its first night at sea.
U-class submarines were originally intended to be training boats and to play the enemy in anti-submarine exercises. Nevertheless, with a dual role in mind they were armed, and at the outbreak of war entered operational use in home waters and in the Mediterranean. More U-class subs were built through the war with minor variations in design, a total of 34 entering service.
Descending the shotline, I meet the port side of the wreck at just 14m and continue to the seabed at 18m. The water feels positively warm compared to that of South Wales, where I have been diving the previous week.
On exposed ribs some spectacular anemones can be seen. This shallow, there is good visibility and plenty of sunlight to appreciate the colours.
The wreck lies on its starboard side and is partly broken up. I immediately find the remains of the conning tower, broken from the hull with the main gun mount just forward of it. Further forward, the torpedo room is partly open, with two sloped torpedo-loading hatches in the deck.
The bow is well broken, with no sign of the torpedo tubes, but I can see a reload torpedo inside. The Umpire was part of the second group of U-class submarines constructed, and was armed with a 3in gun and four 21in torpedo tubes.
Earlier James had told me that the gun could be seen on the seabed. I catch his attention and write Gun on my slate.
He heads off towards the stern and away from the wreck. The gun is several metres out and well aft of where the gun-mount lies.
Fourteen of the crew of 31 were lost when the Umpire was rammed, with most of the survivors escaping through the engine-room escape hatch using submarine escape apparatus, so this area must have been intact when it went down.
Now the engine-room is the most broken part of the wreck, with the aft section of the wreck completely separated from the keel. Looking forward, I can see two diesel engines, but there are no signs of electric motors. It looks as if the hull was broken open for commercial salvage of the copper in the motors, and perhaps the torpedo tubes were salvaged from the bow at the same time.
To me, this illustrates the dichotomy of the war graves issue. Here I am, sketching the wreck, taking photographs and being careful not to disturb anything, while years ago, probably soon after the war, the integrity of the wreck was badly damaged by commercial salvage.
After an hour-long dive with no decompression, I surface to bright sunshine. John puts the boat in gear and we head north-west for our second dive.
One of the nice things about this stretch of coast is that slack water varies by several hours as you travel east or west or further offshore. By taking the boat east, diving, then heading west, you dont have to wait a full tide between slack water.
Today we have a three-hour interval and arrive at the site of the Fane a little early for slack water.
While waiting, we discuss tomorrows plans. There are more than 150 wrecks within 25 miles of harbour, all within easy diving depth. By the time I settle for the paddle steamer Kylemore and the collier Amberley, James has already tempted me with a fair selection of them.
He begins by describing an unidentified steel-hulled sailing ship, upright and intact with masts collapsed across the deck, in just 27m of water and 22 miles straight out from Blakeney.
Then, on the inside edge of Hassbrough Sands, there is the Ulster, wrecked while carrying immigrants to Australia. Cargo included gold sovereigns and bales of leather hides. Apparently leather in the centre of the bales is still in good condition.
Off Cromer is HMS Vortigern, a destroyer in 18m. Another destroyer is La Combattante, a Free French vessel famous for firing on and sinking a British MTB by mistake, now in 22m off Triton Knoll.
A more modern wreck is the EMS, a ro-ro ferry which sank with a full load of trucks on board in 30m. And a different kind of ferry was the Blackburn, designed for delivering trains for the Great Central Railway. Apparently it still has a steam train on its deck.
Making an interesting story, but probably not so spectacular a dive, is the Marmari, an ex-cruise liner and fleet tender dressed up to look like an aircraft-carrier and act as a decoy for German reconnaissance. The Marmari collided with the wreck of the tanker Argo and sank on top of it! Both wrecks were subsequently dispersed with 500 mines and wreckage is spread over a square mile.
James father Stephen Holt is working on a guide book to Norfolks wrecks. He kindly sent me proofs of the pages featuring the wrecks I dived, from which I drew much of the background information.
Which brings us back to the wreck of the Fane, a 1119 ton Norwegian steamship which struck a mine on 6 August 1917, sinking in 29m.
Here the visibility is down to about 7m. It is a fair bit darker on the wreck, but still easy enough to find my way around by natural light. John has dropped the shot just aft of the bows, the most broken area of the wreck as that is where it struck the mine.
The port side of the holds has collapsed inwards, but the starboard side is intact and provides a line to amidships and the stern.
At the stern, the propeller is still in place, but the rudder has fallen to the seabed. Just aft of the last hold, a spare propeller lies flat on the deck.
Once again, exposed parts of the wreck are covered in bright plumose anemones. By the end of this account you might well be weary of my remarks on dense coverings of orange and white plumose anemones, but it would be easy to become blasŽ about the pretty and colourful marine life on these wrecks.
We motor gently back to Morston. Theres no point rushing, as we cant get to the mooring until the tide has risen.
On the way, John changes course a number of times to skirt sandbanks. I mention reading an old story about the sailing smacks of Lowestoft navigating by the shape of the waves, and dipping a waxed lead to sample the seabed.
By the type of sand or gravel collected, the fishermen could tell which of the many sandbanks they were passing. James will later show me just such a sounding lead.
Navigating through the marshes, we pass tripper boats watching the seals which have hauled themselves out on the sandbanks.
Back ashore, James and I head for Wells-next-the-Sea. John likes to keep Desert Moon at a mooring and ferry divers out on the tender, but James would normally keep Mayflower up against the harbour wall at Wells. Its more constrained by the height of tide at which the harbour is navigable, but involves less shifting of kit.
Today, Mayflower is at Lowestoft on a survey job. In its place are a handful of small RIBs, three-quarters of the way through a round-Britain endurance run.
Next morning we have a change of skippers. John is back looking after one of his other businesses and his place has been taken by Dave King.
During the week they take it in turns to skipper the boat, then at weekends they are usually both on board, taking turns to dive.
Our first call is on the Kylemore, a paddle-steamer originally launched in 1897. The Kylemore survived service as a minesweeper during World War One, but was eventually bombed and sunk by German aircraft on 21 August, 1940.
The wooden upper decks have eroded and collapse to the point where the waterline of the flat-bottomed wreck is now just above the seabed in 23m. Even so, the wreckage retains the original outline of the paddle-steamer.
Amidships a single boiler is forward of a transverse steam-engine, the shaft extending to both sides of the ship and the paddle-wheels. The starboard wheel has partly collapsed outwards, but the entire port wheel and the framework for its cover are beautifully intact. I play hide-and-seek with a shoal of pouting that have set up home about the wheel.
In service, the Kylemore was fitted with two gun platforms. The guns have obviously been salvaged, but the mount for the 3in gun can be found collapsed to port near the bows and a smaller machine-gun mount can be found on the seabed just aft of the port paddle-wheel.
On areas of deck forward and aft of the paddle-wheels, tiled floors and the remains of toilet bowls indicate that there was once a whole row of toilets overhanging the water. A vision passes through my mind of marine plumbing 100 years ago, the toilet flushing immediately in front of the paddle-wheel for the discharge to be mashed up.
One of these toilets must have been in use as an ad-hoc magazine, because a crate of machine-gun ammunition rests on the tiles with a lobster defending his home beneath.
After the dive, the sea is flat-calm and the current going in the right direction. Dave shuts off the engine and we drift towards our next wreck site. The tide pushes us a few miles, then Dave restarts to get us the rest of the way before slack water.
The Amberley rests upside-down on its starboard side in just 18m, the wreck rising as shallow as 11m. A sandbank holds it from capsizing further.
It is an unusual design of ship, a collier with engine-room aft and wheelhouse amidships. The last wreck I dived with this layout was the Trane in Brittany.
The Amberley foundered after its cargo shifted in a gale in 1973. The crew were evacuated by helicopter and the Amberley eventually went down on the outside edge of the Blakeney Overfalls.
With steel superstructures the Amberley is incredibly intact and covered in the densest mass of anemones yet. The visibility is only about 7m, but sunlight makes it a very bright and colourful dive.
I hang around outside, sketching and photographing for most of my dive, venturing inside just a few cabins near the stern. There is lots of potential for some serious inside exploration with good lights and a line.
Yet another great dive. Two days, four absolutely first-class wreck dives, all long and shallow. I had plenty of time on each wreck to make detailed sketches, so watch out for one of them as a Wreck Tour sometime next year.
With this many wrecks from which to choose, I am sure to be back. One particularly tempting concept is a three-day trip to Holland.
It is only 80 miles across the North Sea and depths are diveable all the way. Making the most of his on-board compressor, James idea is to dive a couple of wrecks on the way, overnight at Flushing, spend a day diving wrecks on the Dutch side of the North Sea, another night at Flushing then another couple of wrecks on the way back. The North Sea is starting to sound very acceptable.
|A live torpedo can be found beneath the torpedo-room escape hatch on HMS Umpire |
|lobsters are everywhere on the Umpire |
|deckhouse at the stern of the Fane wreck |
|trunnions from the 3in gun mount on the Umpire |
|Anchor winch and bow railing on the Amberley |
|small boats moored in the marshes at Blakeney |
|James Holt swims through the port paddle-wheel on the Kylemore; on the same wreck, the tiled floor of the head, with the remains of the porcelain toilet bowl to the left; cargo winch near the bow of the Fane |
|bollards and railing at the Amberleys bow |
GETTING THEREHead for Cambridge or Kings Lynn, then Fakenham, then follow the B1105 to Wells-next-the-Sea. Mayflower berths at the main harbour wall. For Desert Moon, follow the A149 from Wells towards Blakeney. Two miles before Blakeney, turn left at Morston at the sign for Morston Marina. Watch out for the vicious speed bumps. The tender runs from the first row of old wooden jetties.
DIVING & AIR:Norfolk Dive Charters, skipper James Holt, boat Mayflower, 01328 821192. Dive Norfolk, skipper John Martin, boat Desert Moon, 01604 407611. Mayflower has an on-board compressor and nitrox-mixing. Both skippers have compressors ashore..
ACCOMMODATION:Norfolk Dive Charters and Dive Norfolk both provide B&B.
FURTHER INFORMATION:Admiralty Charts 108, Approaches to the Wash, 106, Cromer to Smiths Knoll and 105, Cromer Knoll and the Outer Banks. Ordnance Survey Landranger map 132, North-west Norfolk, Kings Lynn and Fakenham, and 133, North East Norfolk, Cromer and Wroxham. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 3, by Richard & Bridget Larn.
Start a Forum discussion on this topic