TWENTY METRES DEEP and 130m underground, in the frigid waters of a Lake District mine, we surface into a small airspace. With enough room to pop our heads up and have a look around, a sense of safety washes over me as my instincts react to being in an air environment.
The thought passes quickly as the reality of our location returns to mind, and after an acknowledging nod we descend back into the chamber.
Having a quick look around, we pass a couple of dead-end passages and, randomly, a figurine of the Stig and a rampant rabbit lying on the floor!
We had brought a lot of equipment to get this far, but these items certainly hadn’t been on the essentials list.
Perhaps the accomplishment of planning a successful assault on the third chamber of the mine system lies in viewing the rabbit – a strange bragging right!
Hodge Close is a flooded mine in the Tilberthwaite Valley, near Coniston. Good-quality green slate was quarried here for 200 years, until the early 1960s.
Turning off the A593, the single-track road winds its way uphill, passing a few traditional slate houses until the top of the quarry is reached.
Stopping here and looking down into the deep bowl gives a sense of the effort required to execute this mission. The sheer sides drop for more than 50m.
Some faces feature large boulder piles, and two large archways at the northern end connect to the neighbouring Parrock quarry.

THERE ARE VARIOUS SPOIL-HEAPS in the area, and the deserted slate building is worth looking around. Exploring this part of the quarry provides a historical perspective, and while poking around the ruins on my last visit I heard an explosion in the distance.
It was probably from a neighbouring working quarry, and a one-off that day.
I didn’t fancy being at the back of the mine system with explosions going off.
Hodge is also a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, a popular rock-climbing venue with many nearby tracks for walkers and mountain-bikers, so don’t expect to be alone. Divers generally attract a lot of “how the hell are they gonna get down there” attention.
From the car park at the top of the quarry, the road continues until a further set of slate houses appear. The entry tunnel is accessed through a gate and down a track where you can park beside a stream – a 4x4 is recommended for this part of the journey because of the rugged rocks.
Following the stream reveals a 100m-long tunnel cut through the cliffs during the workings. This provides convenient access for divers, but the shortcut comes with a catch.
The tunnel stream has varying depths from ankle to mid-thigh level, and the ceiling drops to 1.5m in places. Two or three trips in your drysuit are required to hump all the gear from the car – in pitch darkness!
For taller people, having to crouch to negotiate the lower parts of the tunnel is a back-breaker, but character-building!
At the end of the tunnel, a poignant reminder of the challenges of diving at Hodge Close is attached to the wall. The sign warns of the dangers, and reminds us that people have lost their lives in the submerged tunnels.
The tunnel ends in a window in the middle of the cliff face, and a scaffolding ladder allows you to climb down the remaining 3m into the quarry. I brought a rope to assist with lowering side-mounts and cameras, but there is also a small one attached to the ladder.
Once down at the quarry side, there is a further 30m of loose shale track to the waterside, where a flat boulder is ideal for kitting up.
We slip beneath the warmish surface waters, the thermocline starting only a few metres down. Despite being midsummer the temperature plummets from a balmy 12° to a chilly 6°, and with the exertion of the entry leaving me sweating, I am annoyed to get chilled so quickly.
Dropping down the sheer face of the quarry wall, my eyes adjust to the gloom and I pick out the smallish hole that signals the entrance to the mine system in 25m. We check all our systems and exchange final OKs before entering the tunnel in single file.
The system is lined, but I recommend that you be prepared to run your own lines and markers. On the way in there is minimal silt and the vis is excellent, but it does get stirred up a little from both finning and exhaled bubbles.
The tunnels are straight enough, but the chambers have smaller cuts and side passages off them and these can be confusing if you are not well prepared.
The first chamber of the mine system, reached after around 30m, is the biggest of the three. There used to be another shallower entrance here in 14m, but rock falls a few years ago have blocked this.
The ceiling lies about 6-8m above your head and the walls are sheer-cut green slate, making for an impressive and imposing environment to explore.
Two tunnels head from this chamber, the one through which you enter and one heading deeper into the system.
The entrance to the further chambers is guarded by another warning sign.
Chambers two and three lie 60m and 90m further into the system respectively. Exploring here is a major undertaking. Worst-case contingencies must be planned for, and I advise building up to this from several work-up dives.
Bubbles have been trapped on the roof along this tunnel from open-circuit divers over the years, and they spookily reflect your torch beam to give a dappled swimming-pool light effect.
Chamber two branches off the main tunnel at right angles and is reached after a further small 10m-long tunnel.
Chamber three is 30m on, and where the air space and interesting rubber residents lie. It is a little shallower, with the ceiling at around 20m, and at this point you are some 130m from the system’s exit, with a 25m ascent and likely deco obligation before you can surface.

THIS IS A PERFECT NITROX DIVE for open-circuit divers, and in my bubble-blowing past I used 38% back-gas with a suitable decompression gas, which gave me virtually a no-stop profile.
Given the nature of the dive, reducing the deco obligations cuts down the risk, especially if you explore the further chambers. However, this time out my Vision CCR is perfect, with no disrupting bubbles and stacks of bottom time.
Light levels at 25m in the main quarry are very low, and it’s only at about 10m from the exit that a greenish light can be seen. On ascent the rest of the quarry makes for an interesting dive (or deco stop), with the large vans plus cars and TVs adorning the boulder slopes.
The quarry bowl is a dive in itself, and those not interested in the tunnel can have an enjoyable look around.
I haven’t noticed much life here before, but on this outing a cool little newt welcomes us back to our exit point – not a great subject for a 10mm wide-angle lens, but a neat critter nonetheless!
Back at the surface, the adventures don’t have to stop. A side-sump dive can be reached from another tunnel at the end of the quarry. At the back of this tunnel is a small hole and rather wobbly ladder.
Kitting up here, you can jump through this hole and into a 7m-deep cavern. The vis is good, and you can look around without the risks of full-on cave-diving.
There is a large air space, but the rock does come to an archway at the exit point. Exiting under this brings you out under the main archways of the quarry (giving the now-famous skull-eyes reflection), where the rusted tracks of a crane remain. Walk out to the edge and jump back into the main quarry for the swim back to your original entry point.
Hodge Close is an intimidating and challenging location in terms of both access and diving. The main quarry and sump can be fun for those fit enough and up for adventure. The main tunnels should not be explored unless you have the skills or experience to do so.
Any penetration here should be carefully planned, and cave-diving or wreck-penetration qualifications are strongly recommended. It’s a mission to get there, but sometimes it’s the level of effort that defines the dive.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Head for Ambleside and take the A593 towards Coniston. A few miles before reaching the town a small sign to the right indicates the road to Hodge Close. Follow this for a few miles until you reach the quarry car park, with the access tunnel through the private gate in the next group of slate houses. See owner for access (it usually costs £5).
CONDITIONS: The quarry is cold year-round, is around 30m deep and lies 155m above sea level. Visibility is usually around 10m, more in the mine. Divers should have technical/ overhead experience before diving in the tunnels, preferably with someone who has dived there previously. Even minor incidents there can be dangerous because of the difficulty of diver extraction. Mobile phone signal is patchy but phone, spares, oxygen and first aid should be taken into the quarry as a precaution. ACCOMMODATION Plenty of hotels and B&Bs, with Coniston followed by Ambleside the nearest centres. These areas can get very busy in summer.
GAS-FILLS Capernwray Quarry, some 35 miles away and about an hour’s drive can provide nitrox, trimix etc, www.dive-site.co.uk.