My rented semi-dry suit was so tight that it was a struggle to inhale. I had already upset the diving officer by insisting that I would dive only with my favourite instructor, Mary Kirk. I gazed into the algae-stained waters and prepared to meet my fate.
And in Essex; how cruel.
Now, of course, Lakeside holds a place in my affection. I reminisce about the amazing sight of the white plastic garden furniture on the underwater platform, and the unmistakable taste of pond slime during my mask-clearing exercise.
Well, it made a change from chlorine. If its true that that which does not kill us makes us stronger, a bit of pond slime probably did me the power of good.
I remember the startled faces of queuing pensioners as I emerged from a womens toilet in the shopping centre. The prolonged huffing, puffing and straining as I struggled with my semi-dry inside the cubicle had convinced them that something of a deeply unsavoury nature was taking place.
I greeted them with an apologetic shrug and a cheery wave.

LAKESIDE DIVING CENTRE has improved considerably since my first visit in the mid-90s. There are toilets, changing facilities and hot showers! Theres a proper compressor, the centre regularly hosts British Divers Marine Life Rescue courses, and the shop is amazingly well-stocked.
Lakeside is in a great location; thatll be why they built an enormous out-of-town shopping centre here!
Its just a few miles outside London, heading east and easily accessible by road (just off J30 and 31 of the M25). Its way, way closer than the coast.
You wont have to get up at the crack of dawn to queue for the car park; the diving centre is smack opposite a massive multi-storey monstrosity. Not pretty, but its convenient. There are 13,000 free parking spaces here.
You can confidently take non-diving partners to Lakeside for the day. Theyre unlikely to complain of having nothing to do. Theres far more danger of credit card melt-down, once they hit the multiplicity of warehouse-sized shops.
If youre looking for a spot of lunch, theres a bewildering choice of bars and restaurants a short walk away - though its probably best to remove your wetsuit first. If you cant be arsed, theres a drive-thru Macdonalds nearby where they really wouldnt notice (or care) if you squelched in still suited-up.
For divers we have placed various training platforms, floating triangles, two lorry cabs, a London black taxi,
a Transit van, a wreck and even a BT red telephone box, boasts the website.
This may well be true. Youre unlikely see them of course, because the vis lately has been appalling. If theres one thing that Lakeside reveals, its the limiting impact of not being able to see your buddy at further than an arms length.
This is a shame because, with a maximum depth of 6m, there are no hazardous areas, making this a very convenient spot for diver training.
The good news is that the situation is likely to improve by March, so if you want to visit just phone and ask what the current vis is like. The diving centre will give you an honest answer.
I can remember the vis being 10m or so but, since the disastrous introduction of freshwater crayfish, there has been a plague of these ravenous crustaceans munching up the greenery and kicking up the silt. Yes, even the disasters at Lakeside have their comedy angle.

The biggest hazard you face is the possibility of collision with other lake-users. Yes, if you try hard enough, you could be clobbered by a giant plastic swan pedalo, or run down by an over-enthusiastic 10-year-old, sprinting like a demonic hamster inside a giant, transparent, inflatable ball.
Im not aware of any reported incidents but I imagine that it could make a classic dive-log entry.
Until now, most inland dive sites have succeeded because theres a huge demand for sheltered open-water dive sites and very little supply.
Lakeside will survive because its highly professional and customer-friendly, and offers a wide range of water sports besides diving. Triathletes come here to train, so water-quality has to be guaranteed. Its tested every month.
Just as many of our dive skippers rely on bookings from fishing charters to earn a living, Lakeside attracts a diversity of customers to sustain itself. Thats a strength that should see it through tough economic times.

Lakeside Diving & Watersports Centre, Alexandra Lake, West Thurrock, Essex, 01708 860947, www.lakeside-diving.com