IT ALL STARTED – as most good ideas tend to – with an entirely random event. More specifically, the Great British Diving Expedition was born the moment I had to winch a stranded delivery truck out of a ditch near my Devon home. I’m aware that this is a moderately random statement, so perhaps I should elaborate.
I had recently returned from the filming of the Dive Mysteries television series, which had been a global venture encompassing Japan, Egypt, Namibia and the Great Lakes. This series was the culmination of a lifetime’s ambitions and dreams – to travel the world seeking out legends and myths with a group of mates epitomised all the reasons that I had started to dive in the first place.
But I was home now, the Boys’ Own adventure over, and as I contemplated the festering mound of dive-kit in my garage, I wondered what on earth I could do next.
I had responded to this lull in my nomadic life in traditional form, by retail therapy. Nowadays, this merely requires the click of a mouse, and as such all manner of boxes and bags were winging their way towards me.
Unbeknownst to the deliverymen involved, the last mile to my house resembles one of the more precipitous tracks in the Camel Trophy, and as such I was ready to be called out to a series of puce drivers standing next to white vans at interesting angles.
Sure enough, the phone had rung that very morning, and I had gleefully swung into action.
The van-driver and I had rigged ropes, shouting things like: “To me, to me, to me, whoa!”, and generally had an excellent time. The van was now rattling its way back up the hill, and I had returned to my house reeling with the heady manly musk of having finally used the winch on the Land Rover to rescue someone.
And then it dawned on me. Why not share this wondrous feeling with all and sundry Why not head out with vehicles packed to the creaking gunwales, and seek out the wild spots in our own Sceptred Isle
Surely there must still be places in Britain that have yet to see a diver Surely there were deep mountain pools, silent drop-offs, lone islands and mysterious coves Several excited phone-calls later (ah, Fourth Element, DIVER Magazine and Suunto, where would I be without you), and the Great British Diving Expedition was born.
Several months and a great deal of emotion later, we were ready to rumble. I had recruited the inimitable Andy Torbet and the ludicrously capable Rich Stevenson as my co-conspirators and, armed with nothing more than a sense of optimism, some dodgy research, and an Ordnance Survey map, we were off on the first project.
The Land Rover thundered up that self-same lane, hilariously overloaded, heading towards the wilds of Snowdonia and three mysterious lakes, shrouded in legend and keeping their counsel, their secrets held in the crystal twilight of glacial depths.
LLyn (Welsh for “lake”) Barfog was our first destination. According to local myth, it was from here that a magical white cow had emerged, bringing blessings to all the local farmers, until it became upset at some perceived slight.
How you upset a cow has been lost in the annals of time, but it was plainly pretty miffed, because it led all the other cows from the hills and back into the lake to their deaths.
Oh, and just to add to the Barfog legend, this was also where King Arthur had fought and subdued a dragon, before binding it in chains and dragging it to another lake far away. Sacred cows, evicted dragons and swashbuckling kings – sounded worth a dive to me.
The GBDE was to consist of several expeditions in total throughout the year, but this was the first gathering, so was a significant event in itself.
The team met in the rather lovely Tal y Llyn Hotel (all good expeditions start with a cappuccino, a little tradition of mine) and introduced themselves before setting out in a fleet of vehicles of varying suitability to the site next to the lake.
The drive proved terrifically hairy-bottomed, requiring the use of my winch once again to tow out a vehicle of Japanese origin (to say I was pleased is a colossal understatement, at one point getting very carried away and likening the whine of the winch to the roar of a Spitfire engine over Kent).
On arrival at the site we pitched camp, a gigantic siege-style affair that would have graced a 1921 Himalyan assault, and prepped our gear for the next day.
It was at this point that it dawned on me that these expeditions were all about the diving, and yet had absolutely nothing to do with the diving.
This baffling contradiction was bought home to me as we eyed the lake in the gloom of dusk. It was the reason we had driven many a mile over rutted tracks, and now talked of epic adventures around a spitting camp-fire.
We might have been only a few miles from wi-fi and warmth, from bed, beer and bar-food, but we were in a base camp sitting next to a site that no-one in the history of mankind had ever dived.
It was heady stuff. We went to bed dreaming of Mallory and Irvine, of Shackleton and Scott.
The next morning, it became rapidly apparent just why no one had ever dived it. Even a Neanderthal goat-herder would have glanced into it and thought: “Blimey, the vis is rubbish and it’s only 4ft deep – I’m not diving that!”
All I can say is that the eight impressive giant strides of the team saw a series of giggling divers standing up to their waists in the middle of the lake.
If there was a sacred cow, it must have been a fairly small one. And the mythical dragon was plainly the size of a gecko. And King Arthur was a liar.
The team took it in good form, the general body language being a shrug and a rueful smile. This was of course the essence of the project – not having the first idea of what you’d find as you stepped into the water was all part of the intoxicating mix.
There might have been a deep inner canyon in the lake with a lost Lancaster bomber in it. But there wasn’t.
I did see a baffled stickleback at a depth of 1.4m (the bottom), however, which is almost as good.
UNDAUNTED, WE TURNED OUR attention to the great, glowering monster of Llyn Brenig. This was very much the elephant in the room, the feature nearby that we had all quietly ignored because of the maroon massing of contour lines that surrounded it on the map.
Even on the map it looked knackering, but we had three days to go, a willing group of stout-thighed divers, lots of kit, and a grim determination to do something special.
Our local contact was a hill farmer called Gwyn who, when questioned about Llyn Brenig, smiled and – in that gentle, bewitching Welsh lilt – said:
“Ah yes, Llyn Brenig is as wild as the hills and as deep as the mountain.”
Oh, I say. Right then, let’s crack it. How easy is the route, Gwyn
Another slow smile. “Oh, not too bad. Just walk up that ridge over there” – an expansive wave of the hand took in a steepling green colossus nearby – “and you’ve cracked it, really.”
Now, a word to the wise. When a Welsh hill farmer tells you a walk isn’t too bad, be very, very afraid.
AFTER A PLANNING SESSION that evening, where plans were made in terms of the caching of gear and load allocation, we set out the next morning carrying our dive-kit. Our jaws were set firmly, our shoulders squared, our steps springing and our morale high.
Fast-forward four hours to see a rudderless rabble spread along the side of the hill, several of them now lying spread-eagled in the heather, awaiting death as optimistic crows circled like vultures in a spaghetti western.
We finally staggered over the ridge that led down into Llyn Brenig, and disgorged dive-kit out of rucksacks and shoulder-bags. This created an impressive pile, which was duly sorted and shifted until we had something close to four sets of gear.
Without further ado, the first dive-team slipped beneath the crystal-clear glacial waters of the lake.
The result was a beautiful dive. This was partly due to the heroics of getting there, but also the clarity of the water and the grandiose setting.
Drifting through the Llyn was akin to gliding through a glacial cauldron filled with Evian, and to roll over and look through the surface at the magnificent amphitheatre of the surrounding hills was an unforgettable experience.
The return journey down the hill was almost as emotional as the trip up, mainly due to the fact that your femur was being driven enthusiastically through your pelvis on the steeper downwards bits by the combination of gravity and the immense weight of wet dive-kit on your back.
But make it we did, standing triumphant together in the car park, all aching thighs, wide smiles and warm memories.
THE SLATE ISLANDS
THERE ARE CERTAIN SITES THAT, when you’re told about them, seem too good to be true. Such was the case with the Slate Islands, a beautiful set of islands, made of slate (do you see what they did there, with the name and all, fiendishly clever…) with centuries-old flooded quarries of unknown depth dotted throughout.
Slate-mining began here off Scotland’s west coast in the 17th century, and was carried out with such enthusiasm that one of the islands – Eilean-a-beithich – was actually mined completely out of existence, devoured by pick and by shovel until the sea claimed the skeleton.
Several fascinating sites remained, and these were our target.
We were kindly given permission to camp on the tiny island of Belnahua by the owners Paul & Jane Carling. Though the island is small, it has two quarries on it, and an eerie ruined village, once home to those who worked the slate.
The island basically ceased to be a working concern after the men went to fight in World War One, with the houses standing as tombstones to a lost generation who left to serve – home by Christmas – and never returned.
The quarries on the island were said to be 90m deep, so we had equipped ourselves accordingly. This was the only phase of the Great British Diving Expedition that involved a technical set-up, resulting in a mind-boggling array of gear that required transporting from our launch-point on Easdale via RIB to Belnahua.
There were rebreathers galore, stage cylinders, compressors, twin-sets – in essence all the whistling, bungee’d, D-ringed, P-valved splendour of a good technical-diving expedition.
This then had to be carried up the beach – made largely, and unsurprisingly, of bits of slate – to the line of ruined houses that constituted base-camp.
By the time we settled in, we were knackered (by now a familiar feeling).
It would all be worth it, however, and we spent the evening discussing deco-trapezes and handing-off techniques (look it up, it’s not as rude as it sounds).
IMAGINE THEN OUR DELIGHT the next morning when we discovered that the first quarry was about 6m deep, and the other about 10m. The one bonus was that we could guarantee massive duration, with several members of the team still down there as far as I’m aware.
Once again, initial disappointment at what can charitably be described as a lack of depth was neatly offset by the array of old kit we found in the quarries – a frozen image of another time, when the islands bustled with industry and echoed to the shouts of the men who worked the slate.
A swift emergency meeting in the nearby Puffer Pub (go there at once, this might just be the best pub on Planet Earth) resulted in the unanimous decision to move lock, stock, and bail-out cylinders to Easdale, and dive every quarry on that island.
There were six of these, so this was a formidable mission, but it’s amazing how ambitious you feel when you’ve had three pints and a huge slab of cheesecake.
The next four days were intense. Our mission was accomplished mainly due
to the efforts of the folk on the island, who helped us ferry kit, supplied us with information and spoilt us rotten.
The maximum depth achieved was 35m, and that was by one of the divers burying an arm up to the shoulder in the silt. Nonetheless we had a splendid time, chasing the dives with fanatical intensity.
There is marked stratification in the quarries, with a distinct line where light ends and impenetrable blackness begins.
Imagine being inside a cow. Wearing sunglasses. With your eyes screwed shut. Well, it’s like that, but a fair bit darker.
We ventured into this gloom a few times but always popped back out again, to drift along at a sedate 20m or so, admiring the chipped stonework and the rusting pipes of centuries old quarry workings, surrounding us with the memories of when the very essence of these islands, their dark geology, roofed the world.
I PARTICULARLY WANTED TO GO TO CAPE WRATH, because it had the word “Wrath” in it, and the word “Cape” for that matter. Both of these evoked mental images of towering breakers, and of people in baggy white shirts clinging to rocks as swarthy mutton-chopped locals rowed out to save them.
I had plenty of time to idly reflect on these thoughts, as the drive from my home in Dartmouth to Cape Wrath is pretty much the entire length of Britain.
Fourteen hours of expectation was, I’m pleased to say, more than matched by the reality. Cape Wrath is stunning.
We set our base camp at the head of a tiny cove a mile or so from Durness. If I’d ever had a mental image of what a base camp on the Great British Diving Expedition would look like, it was encapsulated by this site. A hidden bay, a long sweep of white sand, all overlooked by a raised grassy mound next to an ancient stone bridge.
We set up the camp in good order, and – sipping a cold beer as the sun set – surveyed our options.
These were many, varied, and of the highest standard in diving terms. The chart showed a dazzling array of sites, the names themselves speaking of just how far off the beaten track we were. There was An Cruachan, A’Ghoil-sgeir, and An Dubh-sgier, the latter sounding like the noise I make when I’m doing a press-up.
It’s important to note at this juncture that these sites have been dived before – for this leg of the project we were following in the wake of previous teams – so our rationale was that, given such a wide choice of rugged islands, lochs and tide-swept pinnacles, there had to be a new dive or two in there somewhere.
THE FOUR DAYS’ DIVING that followed were spectacular. We dived next to an extraordinary island in Loch Eriboll, drifting next to dark rock walls, a tenement block for huge edible crabs and lobsters. We pushed out to the tip of the headland that jutted into the wild waters of the Atlantic like an arthritic, crooked finger, and dived an echoing cavern big enough that the RIB could sit overhead as we crawled through the green twilight beneath.
And finally – and most memorably – we moved the whole expedition 30 miles overland to Kinlochbervie, and dived Loch Inchard.
Fittingly for the last dive of the project, the team encountered a massive skate, a wannabe manta lying on the seabed like a mottled barn door.
Magic, pure magic.
A huge thanks to the local people who helped us out at every stage of this project. Thanks to all the organisations that backed us – Suunto, Fourth Element, DIVER and Land Rover. And thanks to all the team-members – it was a genuine pleasure to travel with you.
The project was a resounding success – we live on a battered lump of rock in the Atlantic, one that still holds secrets in its convoluted coastline and glacial mountains.
I like to think we made several forays along these roads less travelled.
The memories of the dive-sites will linger, but perhaps the real joy was each night spent around the camp-fire, talking about the day before and the diving tomorrow, with every morning offering the potential for a new discovery.
This is a rare beast indeed in the modern world, and is the lasting impression of the Great British Diving Expedition 2014. Roll on 2015!