DIVER is touring the UK, talking to regular divers at inland dive centres to find out what makes these sites tick, both above and below the surface. GAVIN PARSONS reports first from the National Diving & Activity Centre
EVERYONE, IT SEEMS, is going upmarket. What next Will divers be shaving their beards and losing their beer-rest bellies
Oh, wait, they already have. Diving in the UK is in danger of becoming a trendy pastime full of people in Gucci drysuits and Prada fins drinking cappuccinos before the dive.
OK, I doubt whether Gucci knows what a drysuit is, and the heels on a set of Prada fins would almost certainly tangle a twin-set hose, but Cappuccino Culture is definitely with us, as inland dive centres welcome the posh-coffee brigade with open arms. It’s OK, I like the stuff too.
One of the newest centres to embrace upscale java-drinkers is the National Diving & Activity Centre (NDAC), just outside Chepstow.
By the time you read this, its new cafe and bar should be open. When I visited, it was under construction, with a view to completion this February.
UK divers are dragging their hairy backsides out of the Neanderthal era and embracing the modern world. And it’s not just our drinking habits the centre is embracing – the NDAC is also going glamping.
If you don’t know what glamping is, you haven’t been reading enough Cosmo, Elle or Times Travel Supplement. Glamping is glamorous camping, and the NDAC’s version is a set of new wooden eco-cabins.
Some would call these a low-cost alternative to hotels, but I see them as a posh camping experience. There is a comfortable bed, double glazing and modern insulation to keep the interior cosy. There is no flapping canvas, and no need to argue in the pouring rain about who forgot the tent-pegs.
What’s more, you can park outside, walk down to the dive centre each morning and enjoy a post-dive tipple rather than have to travel elsewhere.
Both the cafe and the glamping area are part of the centre’s plans to make it more attractive to divers from around the country. It is after all competing with English dive centres that don’t require visitors to pay the Severn Bridge toll, so it wants you to be able to stay in comfort for a few days without a large price tag.
CHEPSTOW IS THE DEEPEST inland diving lake in the UK, and as such sees a lot of technical dive training and freediving competitions.
There are also plenty of recreational diving attractions for general divers, schools and clubs. A map on the website details the attractions, but I guess the most prominent are the Land Rover near the entry platform, a Jetstream aircraft fuselage, a Wessex helicopter and an amphibious military vehicle.
The NDAC, or “Chepstow”, as divers call it, was originally Dayhouse Quarry, a source of limestone. Flooded in 1996, it opened as a dive centre in 2003.
Today it has everything you expect from a UK inland dive site: shop, school, gas station and an expansive car park.
Don’t worry about getting to the site early enough to park close to the water, because you can’t. The water’s edge is down a steep slope away from the car park.
The centre runs a pair of minibuses to take divers and kit to and from the water. This works well, and saves you lumping heavy kit up and down the slope. Get to the “bus stop” and load your kit onto the next-departing vehicle.
Down on the water’s edge is a kitting-up platform where the buses drop off, and a floating platform with various entry and exit points.
I talked to a few divers at various levels of experience to get their views on the centre. Martin Donovan, a trainee PADI Divemaster with Cardiff Scuba and assistant club instructor with Llantrisant Sub-Aqua Association club, dives most weekends and up to eight times a month.
“I think the centre’s pretty good,” he says. “The people are very friendly and everything is here. It’s a good site and they are very strong on safety as well.
“The pontoon is big enough to allow a lot of people going in if there are different groups, and there are good steps to get out.
“The best part is that there’s lots to see under water, and different depths. You can go down to 80m if you want to. It’s good for training and practising, and generally the visibility is good.”
“CHEPSTOW HAS IMPROVED MASSIVELY in the past few years,” says Kevin Linsell of Dive 360 in Camberley, Surrey. Kevin is a PADI IDC staff instructor and trimix diver with 10 years’ diving experience. He uses many centres throughout the year, so is a good barometer of the NDAC’s facilities.
“It’s a big centre with easy parking, and I’ve always thought it was quite good,” he says. “What I like most is that it’s improving all the time. It’s dynamic, which is more than I can say for some dive sites.
“From an instructor’s point of view it’s excellent, as it has a lot of platforms and attractions at various depths, which is handy. And even at the busiest times, I’ve never felt cramped under water.”
The NDAC, Kevin concludes “seems to tick all the boxes. You can always get parked here, even on the busiest days.”
James Perkins of Cardiff Scuba started diving last April, and has done all his freshwater dives at Chepstow – but then, he lives only a half-hour’s drive away.
His needs are simple: “It’s great; hot food and drink and loads of attractions under water – I’m always happy to come back,” he says.
“As a member it’s cheaper, so that helps,” says James. He pays £30 for the first and £25 for subsequent years for membership, which means he get £5 off the entry fee and other discounts.
“To get into the water the vans are good, but the water level has dropped quite a lot over the past year or so,” he says. “They’ve just put a new ramp in, though, so it’s more accessible.
“It’s nice where the pontoon is. One end is shallow for beginners, and the more experienced can go to the other and dive straight down to 40m.”
“Visibility-wise, some people do accidentally kick up the bottom, but overall the centre’s great – especially as everything is marked out with buoys, so it’s easy to plan a dive up front.”
MORAG FARLEY IS A MASTER Scuba Diver Trainer and has been diving for 10 years. She works for Bristol Channel Diving of Cardiff and has been coming to NDAC since it opened.
“I find it easier getting in than out, as the ladders aren’t great, but I know they’ve extended those,” she says.
“And the water level hasn’t made it easy, but they’ve extended the road, so you’re dropping in at a lower level.
“The van system to take you down is far better than at some dive sites where the car park is at the top and you have to walk the kit down.
“There’s also loads under water here,” Morag says. “They’ve paid a lot of attention to what goes in. For example, the plane means that you can get some penetration training in. And at the moment I’m working on my trimix qualification, so I need the depth.”
Morag probably has a better reason than most for liking the NDAC: “I met my husband here,” she says.
“This place to me is about the depth,” says trimix rebreather diver Mary Sinclair. “Because you have the depth here, I can keep the dives going over the winter and keep up with decompression procedures. For me that’s what makes this place different to any of the others.”
Dave Motterham is at the other end of the scale. He had just come out of the water after his first non-tutored dive.
Dave lives 17 miles away. He had trained at NDAC two weeks before we meet.
Of the training, he says: “When I got here, it surpassed all I could hope for.
“Everyone is so friendly, and they concentrate and focus on getting you trained to get everything done right.
I’d recommend it to anyone.”
IF THE CONCENSUS SEEMS to be that the NDAC is a progressive dive site with an already impressive foundation, I have to agree.
I dive light (a single 12-litre when not going deep), but I can imagine twin-set or side-slung divers feeling the pain if they had a long slog up and down the slope. I jumped on the shuttle-bus to reach the lake-edge very easily.
There was much comment about the water level, and it’s obvious from above that the lake has lost a couple of metres, but with almost 80 to go there’s no need to fret about it just yet. A good wet year will sort it out.
Meanwhile the centre has modified the road down to the floating pontoon and constructed a new walkway.
Say “pontoon”, and most people take you to mean a small floating square of wood. The NDAC’s pontoon is more like an island. The wooden floor is stable and there are plenty of benches for kitting up and waiting for others.
Old-fashioned, I like to get in at the shallow end and make my way down slowly, just in case of kit malfunction.
So I go for a giant stride entry close to the exit ladders at the shallow end, and drop onto the rocks on the 6m-deep shelf. But you can go to the pontoon’s far end and descend straight to 42m if you like.
The Land Rover allows photographers to play around with lighting set-ups without having to worry about depth and therefore time. Unfortunately, you also find quite a bit of fine sediment on the bottom here. A set of fins connected to a careless or new diver tends to ruin the visibility for some time, as I found out.
The Landy is the first underwater attraction most students come across as they head for the first of several training platforms – making it their first “wreck dive”. Training platforms scattered around the shallow shelf are made from old shipping containers, which makes them as good for new divers who stay on top as for divers undergoing overhead environment training in safety.
By the time I made it round to the newer attractions of the Jetstream aircraft and Wessex helicopter there was too much sediment for any decent images – a shame, because it was the first time I’d seen them. I didn’t even bother trying to see the Stalwart amphibious vehicle.
NDAC has turned into something of an underwater museum. On the shallow shelf alone, in addition to those attractions mentioned are an Alvis troop-carrier and a cabin cruiser. And from 16m to just above 30m you find more aircraft, diving bells, another Wessex helicopter,
a motorbike, a Ford Mondeo, swim-through pipes and even a gnome garden.
I made my way along the sunken road down towards one of the two cabin cruisers, but it too appeared in a hazy mist. That’s what I get for going in after everyone else on a busy Sunday, I guess.
But by the time I made it back to the Land Rover, the sediment had dropped out of the water column. By the pontoon, in crystal-clear water, I was surprised to see a shoal of fish.
MY FIRST VISIT almost six years ago had been devoid of aquatic life, except for one baffled newt. This time a shoal of perch was glinting in the sunlight as they hung on the edge of the drop-off.
Perch are voracious predators that feed on just about anything that moves under water, so they do very well.
They are also among the UK’s prettiest fish, including fresh- and saltwater species. So their arrival is most welcome.
The lake’s growing fish population includes rudd, introduced in 2007, brown and rainbow trout (2008 and 2009) and a few pike. The NDAC is not yet known for its fish life, but that will change as the food chain develops.
Chepstow is constantly adding new elements. This year it has plans to put in the UK’s longest and tallest zip slides, running the length of the lake.
It may be an unconventional entry to the far end of the lake, but it will save a long swim. I jest about the entry, of course, but the zip slide is for real and will give stay-over divers a new game to play and another reason to stay.
The mix of good, cheap places to stay, plus the diving, licensed bar and coffee shop, barbecue areas and additional activities should keep the NDAC thriving for several years to come.
|GETTING THERE: The NDAC is just over a mile east of Chepstow, which in turn is off the M48, just the Wales side of the Severn Bridge. Take the A48 out of Chepstow towards Lydney. The centre is signposted to the left about a mile out of Chepstow.|
ENTRY: £15, £10 for members
MEMBERSHIP: First year £30 (renewals £25)
MAX DEPTH: 80m
GASES SOLD: Air, nitrox, oxygen, trimix and heliair
CATERING: New café and licensed bar opening 2012
OPENING TIMES: Seven days a week, weekdays 9.30am-5pm (Winter: 8am-5pm weekends, Summer 8am-8pm Saturdays, 8am-6pm Sundays).
FURTHER INFORMATION INFORMATION www.ndac.co.uk, 01291 630 046