BACK INT OLDEN DAYS, if you wanted to be a diver you joined the local British Sub-Aqua Club branch to do your pool training, and then drove for however long it took to get to Stoney Cove for your novice dives.
The club would train newcomers only in winter, as members were too busy diving in summer, so it was January when you dropped into open water for the first time, and March before you warmed up again.
Today BSAC clubs still take and train new divers, but such divers are as likely to train with a PADI school, and a wide selection of purpose-built inland dive centres around the country will happily see them through their first fin-strokes, and as happily provide an instructor to see that this happens in safety.
Its still cold in January, however. In fact, it was only 4C as the waters of the latest centre to open, the Blue Lagoon, closed over my head. Over the years Ive got used to it, though I still wince a bit as my hood fills with water.
Like many other inland dive sites, this place was once a quarry. When work was abandoned, artesian spring water gradually filled the excavations, and local divers and jet-ski enthusiasts discovered it. At the start of 2005 it was just a big lake with no facilities, the banks cut up by vehicles and scarred with litter and the aftermath of the British obsession with the barbecue.
Martin and Sharon Ainsworth, owners of the Above and Below dive school and shop in Hull, bought the place in January 2005. Its near the village of Womersley, a few miles from Pontefract in Yorkshire.
Since then a huge amount of work has been carried out, with more to come. Fifteen hundred tons of rock have sorted out roadways and parking for 120 cars, while 350 salt-treated sleepers have stabilised paths and banks. Note the salt-treated, which means that the sleepers arent creosoted, so you can sit on them without ruining your drysuit.
Lights are waiting to be installed and plans for a purpose-designed main building have been approved by the local council.
Meanwhile temporary buildings offer classroom and changing facilities, toilets, shop and café, all heated and diver-friendly.
To demonstrate just how times are changing, the café special was homemade carrot and ginger soup with crusty bread. Dont worry, bacon and sausage butties remain on the menu for those of us with more basic tastes.
The Blue Lagoon is about five minutes from the motorway, close to where the M62 and A1 cross. Drive through the gates and youll see the effort that is going into the site. A smooth roadway leads into the car park, and a short walk takes you into the main block.
Visiting clubs are welcome to use the classroom and other facilities, regardless of affiliation, and opening hours are late enough that you can go diving after work in summer or do night dives in winter. Oxygen and first-aid support is always available, with a member of staff on dedicated surface cover duty.
Blue Lagoon is also doing its environmental bit. Site Manager Alan Turner and his wife Gillian moved onto the site last June. Alan operates the regulator service and cylinder-testing facility, but get him started and hell wax lyrical about the ecological balance, caddis fly larvae, dragonflies, newts, tufted grebes and swans.
Not using creosoted timber also has ecological benefits, and the council suggested a green travel policy because the site is on a main bus route.
Lugging dive gear on a bus may not be the most practical idea Ive ever heard, but the centre charges£5 per car plus£5 per diver, so the more divers per vehicle the cheaper the day, and that encourages divers to leave their own car at home and travel with a buddy.
Membership costs£5 per diver on your first visit, for which you also get a fancy plastic card complete with photo that will identify you on future trips.
The sun was shining out of a bright blue sky as Alan and I submerged. I got a surprise - the viz was a good 10m or more. Im more used to diving inland sites where good viz means being able to see my fins when Im wearing them.
Even better, the whole area of water is nice and shallow and the bottom is mostly light-coloured, so the sunshine was reflected back, as on a tropical dive. It isnt an effect you get very often in dear old England, especially in January.
At first the water seemed full of large suspended particles, but a closer look revealed thousands of tiny insect larvae, pulsing, swimming and feeding as they waited to become adults.
The bottom was alive with more invertebrate life, and in clumps of straggly weed there were huge cloudy sacks of other immature critters. Ive never seen as much living stuff in one body of water.
Alan led us out across the lake on our pre-agreed dive plan, and a very gentle 10-minute swim took us all the way across to the far wall, where we turned left to the training platform.
This is an old trailer-bed some 12m long, and Alan went to one end while
I went to the other. Although at the extreme edge of visibility, he was still, remarkably, in sight.
The platform is intended to provide
a stable surface that wont stir up to kill the viz, a sound idea for first-timers or those practising skills such as mask- and DV-clearing.
The platform may be A Good Thing but it isnt very exciting, so we pressed on to the fishing-boat wreck. One of two wrecks currently in the water, this 6m-long boat really benefited from
the excellent viz. The full length of the wreck and the bottom around it were in plain sight.
Blue Lagoon requires divers not to penetrate the wrecks, but just in case, this one is clean as the proverbial whistle and has nothing on which to become snagged if the more, er, adventurous get carried away.
Not that there is a great distance to be carried away at the moment - its only a small boat. But more tempting additions to the Lagoon are planned. Waiting by the waters edge next to the dive centre were a small tank and a great big cannon, both emptied of nasty fluids and ready to go in the water.
Swimming back across the lake, we passed a magnificent half-metre-long mirror carp, and a foot-long sturgeon looking for all the world like a small shark. Neither wanted to be photographed, unlike the newt feeding on insect-larvae. He was so happy to pose, he must have known I didnt have the right kit for macro.
If, that is, he was a he and not a she. How do you tell male from female newts under water in midwinter This is not a rhetorical question.
It was time to come up. Downsides
If you want to make a stride-entry, the only platform is a long walk around the edge of the water from the changing rooms or car park.
We had originally planned to go in that way, but the sunshine and a drysuit with coldwater underclothing combined to make it seem a less attractive option than getting into the water from the beach just outside.
OK, beach is pushing it a bit, its a strip of gravel a few feet wide that runs around the entire lake, but it means you can get in and, probably more importantly, out of the water just about anywhere. The gravel shelves gradually down to about 1m deep before the slope steepens and drops off to the maximum of about 6m.
And thats the only real downside, no depth. There are some good arguments in favour of limited maximum depth (trainees cant go too deep, it stays light, your dive times can be longer, if you can control your buoyancy at 5m you can control it anywhere, etc) but for a lot of divers it will be just too shallow to be taken seriously.
I like shallow dives for photography, and Ive always thought that when youre out of your depth youre deep enough to drown, be it 3m or 3000m to the bottom. For those of you who think differently, there is a plan to deepen part of the northern end of the lake to 20m when the new buildings are constructed.
Anyway, you know those dives where you surface grinning from ear to ear, desperate to find a decent marine-life identification guide so you can work out what it was you just saw Well, this was one of those dives.
I know, it was inland, no deeper than 6m, 4 Suunto, and my fingers were beginning to go numb, but I dont think Ive ever enjoyed a quarry dive more.
Reflected sunshine, as on a tropical dive - though the slightly blue diver gives the game away.
A feeding newt.
The small fishing boat wreck
The platform is 12m long so provides a good illustration of the visibility possible at the Blue Lagoon.
A light tank awaits its fate as an underwater attraction
• Blue Lagoon Diving & Leisure, Womersley, Yorks
01977 621516, www.divebluelagoon.co.uk
• Alexandra Lake, Thurrock, Essex
• Blue Lagoon, Arlesey, Herts
• Blue Lagoon, Bletchley, Beds
• The Delph, Eccleston, Lancs
• Eight Acre Lake, Hull, Yorks
• Hodge Close, Ambleside, Cumbria
• Leybourne Lake, Larkfield, Kent
• The Rez, Longsdon, Staffs
• Wast Water, Cumbria
National Trust, 01946 726 110
• Wraysbury Lake, Staines, Middx