Looking back, there are many things in life one might regret. Right up there for me is my reluctance to join a dive club. I’ve all the excuses – too far away from the sea, young family, don’t want to dive in all but optimal conditions, blah-blah. I freely admit I’m a bit of an opportunist. A dive tart, if you will. It’s OK. I’m comfortable with that. To be honest, my diving needs to be on my terms or, rather, the terms dictated by my circumstance. I’ve managed to tag along with others on organised trips for most of my diving life and, shamed as I am to fess-up, I’ve contributed not one iota to the organisations I’ve taken advantage of. Hey ho. I’m getting over it…
There are lots of dives on my bucket list but one, true to the ethos outlined above, was unexpectedly realised last month. As soon as I saw the words “Lundy. Spare. Spaces” I jumped at the chance to correspond with the poster and hopefully secure a space on this most special of club trips. Having cajoled at short notice an old diving/drinking buddy, my long-standing ambition would soon be made a reality.
Travelling to the Westcountry is always an occasion for me – being Plymothian by birth I seem to have inherited an irrational fear/loathing of all things north/east of Weston-Super-Mare – and leaving a dank, grey north London was rewarded, as it often is, with an absolutely stunning late afternoon drive along the north coast of Somerset and Devon. The wilds of Exmoor to the south neatly juxtaposed with dramatic cliffs plunging northwards into the Bristol Channel below. Excellent visibility afforded clear views across flat seas all the way over to Wales.
Arriving in Ilfracombe, we quickly checked in at our digs for the weekend. The Avalon guest house can only be described as “idiosyncratic”. Our hosts, Ann and Dudley were, we decided, the very epitome of holiday town B&B owners. Let’s just say we very quickly found out who was wearing the trousers in that household. Being the first of our party to arrive, we unloaded our bags and went to park up the car and grab a beer. Ilfracombe (harbour) isn’t quite into holiday mode at this time of year, and there’s not a lot on offer beyond a couple of chippys and a handful of pubs, some of which are clearly under new ownership for this season. The first of this new breed was so clearly not cut out for the first sunny afternoon of the year, it managed simultaneously to run out of all six of its cask ales at 5pm. Undaunted, we headed for the supremely kitsch “Smugglers” restaurant, where we enjoyed a square meal and a bottle of Proper Job before meeting up with our diving group at the Britannia Hotel.
To say Swanley Sub-Aqua Club were welcoming is an understatement. Martin, the club DO, greeted us enthusiastically as we entered the bar and, after the customary introductions, we all were soon swapping stories and sharing the anticipation of what was to be the first trip for all but one of our number to Lundy. Acquaintances made, and several pints of cheer later, we crept back to our digs for the snore-fest ahead of breakfast.
Ah, Breakfast. I’d long forgotten the sacred code of B&B dining service. To be fair, this is clearly Dudley’s domain; though I doubt he’s allowed to actually go into the kitchen. Still, a hearty start to the day was served up and, with views from the dining room of the millpond sea we made our leave for the quay, Ann’s generous packed lunches safely in hand. A word of warning: woe betide anyone who should dare to leave anything on their plate, for they shall incur the Wrath of Dud.
Diving was from Obsession II, a stout catamaran, coded for 12 divers and with easily enough space on the dive deck for even the most festooned diver. Skipper/owner Andrew is a genial character and, after the customary boat brief, we were out of Ilfracombe harbour and away to Lundy. Travel time to the island, about 20nm west, is around 70 minutes. Along the way, we were greeted by a large pod of dolphins – it seems UK skippers are just as keen as their Red Sea counterparts to engage with the pod and, it seems UK dolphins are as happy to ride the bow wave of UK boats as their warm-water cousins. Dolphins ticked, we steamed for the north-west coast of Lundy to our first dive site, just off a land-feature known as Devil’s Slide. Andrew’s dive brief was just that – West is Best, East is least (referring to the depth expectations of the dive), 60 minutes max. We were dropped onto a 14m seabed comprising deep granite gullies roughly oriented East-West. Loads of life here: nudibranch, dogfish (catsharks, these days), crab, urchins – all the usual stuff – and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. Where were the seals?
Dive 2 was on the east side of the island. MV Robert, a small coaster which went down in 1975. After her cargo shifted in heavy seas she was listing badly, and eventually succumbed, settling on her starboard side on the seabed 20m below. I have never seen so many plumose anemones on a single structure. The vis is noticeably poorer on this side of Lundy, and there was plenty of snot around, but this didn’t take anything away from the dive, and a few circumnavigations of this little gem of an intact wreck is a great way to while away an hour.
We headed back to Ilfracombe, the boat buzzing with tales of everyone’s experiences of the day, and the conversation continued into the evening, via a short sojourn at Ilfracombe BSAC’s clubhouse, while our cylinders were filled for the next day’s Lundy sequel. I should say: that clubhouse is outstanding. If Carlsberg made clubhouses…
Seals. We’ve been promised seals. The moderate seas and grey skies soon give way to the shelter and sunshine of Lundy Island. Diving off Brazen Ward, we’re briefed to head into shallow water, 3-4m and wait. And the waiting paid off, as we’re soon accompanied by the curious pinniped proprietors of Lundy. The best way to experience this is to forget about your perfect buoyancy, lay yourself, face-up, in the kelp, and just wait and watch. They will come. Words are not important here. Go do it yourself. Glorious.
After lunch we dropped in at slack just to the north of Gannet Rock, and were briefed to head NE, where we would eventually be carried on the ebbing tide round toward the northern end of the island. The viz was particularly poor, but we eventually found a granite wall at around 18m, which we presumed would lead us with the current to the collection point. We obviously found ourselves in an eddy which spat us in a SW direction, and being too lazy to fight the current, we allowed ourselves a relaxing drift away from the rest of our group. Knowing the conditions were benign, and we wouldn’t be too far away, this wasn’t an issue. In any case, as fortune favours the brave, so laziness favours the seal-hunter. We had stumbled on a small kelp-covered lump in about 15m where a seal had decided to have its tea. And a splendid thing it was to observe, too. This individual was happily tucking into what looked like a skate or ray, which it dropped onto the rock when we approached. After it surfaced and came back for more, we had kind of lost track of where we were, and simply allowed the current to take us along a barren seabed, until we started to shallow up. As we headed toward the shore, large granite boulders loomed into view, and the rest of the dive was conducted in about 10-12m, where we saw lobsters, crabs (sadly, we were in the no take zone) and beautifully iridescent Cuckoo Wrasse – colourful enough to rival anything in tropical waters.
In summary – We had a fantastic weekend in Ilfracombe, and Lundy Island. It truly offers some world-class diving and I would very much recommend you add it to your bucket list too.
Thanks to Karlos (FrogTec), of this parish, for posting this trip in the spare spaces forum, and to all the guys and girls from Swanley SAC for their hospitality.