My first ever freshwater dive 27/02/1994 was with a mate from TIDSAC, Mark “Milly” Millward, another REME soldier from Tidworth garrison. I had not long got back from Ireland and I had been hearing about Stoney Cove for as long as I’d been diving. Stoney isn’t far from where my mother and step-father lived in the Midlands and it was, fortunately, on the return journey back to Tidworth……. in a round-about fashion. Anyone who was anyone at the dive-club had a story about “The Cove” and not all of them ended well. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive before I got there and made my way down onto the bottom car-park to meet Milly. I knew it was going to be cold, it was February and Cyprus was behind me now, it would be cold, wet and bloody miserable, typical British weather, I was sure! Still I had a 5mm Neoprene dry-suit now and I was young enough to take the 4′ water temperature I was expecting from all the stories I’d been told beforehand
I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Stoney Stanton, the weather was great, sunny & mild with no wind, no rain and although it was chilly, it was certainly not “Arctic” as I had been expecting! The cove back in those days had limited access, there was the “Bus Shelter”, built back in the days when British Engineering could’ve achieved the impossible…….if the amount of divers crammed onto one Meccano (look it up) “scaffold pole” platform is anything to go by…… I was amazed the thing didn’t just tip over and dump every one of them into the water, if they had actually managed to get down the stairs in one piece to begin with! Then there was the Ski-Hut slip, designed to allow the local Water Ski-Club Rib to be launched, albeit with a slope equivalent to a Black run in the Alps, and a turn your differential wasn’t ever going to enjoy (even the Diff on a military 4×4 Land-Rover 110)….at least that wasn’t going to collapse underneath you, and it had convenient walls to rest your gloves on, or to hold onto to drag yourself out. Then there was the little platform at the bottom of the steps, the only time these weren’t a safety hazzard was in summer….once diving had finished….after an hour or so of 30′ sunshine, dependent of course on no-one spilling their coke……. But there were changing rooms, a toilet block and a cafe, hell there was even a pub for a post dive pint! This might turn out OK after all…….
We kitted up and Mark took me in off the Bus-Shelter and onto the 6m shelf, the viz was great, 10m or so and it was a balmy 10′, we worked our way past the Viscount cock-pit, and along the shelf edge to the drop-off opposite the slip swimming down to the Wessex helicopter at 20m. As I entered the Starboard door I could clearly see the pilot and co-pilot’s feet working the pedals as they clattered the rotors to full pitch and lifted us out of the field on the Fermanagh border…too close for comfort……and then I was back in the room………. and the water was Green and Mark was beckoning me out to swim round the front of the cock-pit and along the tail, past the RAF roundel. I must be one of the last to have been extracted by a Wessex, they were ancient war-horses, legacy equipment even in my time, it was just a very surreal experience to have been ex-filled from patrol so little time ago, and then to find yourself underwater at 20m in the English country-side staring at the business end of such a piece of shared history….. and it had been totally unexpected, I had no idea the Wessex was even in there
Years later I would use the RAF roundel and it’s iconic Blue, White and Red remaining paint to demonstrate the removal of colours by depth, to Open water divers taking their PADI Advanced Open Water Quals. A simple task, shining a torch on the area and panning its beam across the Blue which, at 20m deep, still showed some of its colour, then onto the Red which, at that depth, seemed plain Grey…… until the torch beam revised the spectrum and the Red leapt out, clear and bright. That always stayed with those I showed it to, a living physics demonstration, one that I particularly liked myself, as dry old teachers “telling you” this stuff never really had the same impact as being there and seeing it for yourself…..probably why I was such a poor student myself! By the time I got to the Wessex with Mark, it bore little resemblance to the photo, the windows had gone as had some of the fuselage and, although it was an interesting attraction, it made me wonder at the type of idiot that would take something off such a piece of history, wherever it lay?
No one I know can tell you when Lane’s Hill Quarry (Stoney Cove) was started, although it was known that the Stoney Stanton name came as a result of the surrounding rock outcrops, and goes as far back as the Domesday book of 1086, when the records show a local Bursar (Robert) owned land worked by 7 villagers, 3 smallholders (with 3 ploughs) and 4 freemen, and was meadow-land of 12 acres and woodland of 3 furlongs valued at 20s, presumably shillings rather than shekels (Wikipedia). The quarry became a source of Granite, eventually requiring a rail-head of sorts to get the stone into Stoney Stanton, and on to markets in Birmingham and the surrounding area, using Two steam engines, “Violet” (pictured) and “Billy”. It is still possible to see the remnants of the rails at the edge of the 6m shelf to this day…….
Over a Ten year period between 1996 and 2006 I spent sometimes 50 out of 52 weeks a year taking divers around Stoney Cove, weekends and Wednesday evenings, I must have dived it well over a Thousand times during that time, and I knew it like the back of my hand. I got to know the staff there well, Margaret and Rob, who I still see occasionally when I get a chance to return and dive the cove, Simon, who is still a good mate (and ended up running Poseidon UK for several years), and Fluff and Paul from the shop, all great people I loved talking to, and who were always so supportive and willing to do anything to help. I even got to know the owner Alan, a lovely bloke who allowed me to test the FSAC Rib one Saturday after the diving had wrapped up, although he also knew the then owner Sid, which may have been more the reason if I am honest…. Incidentally, when I eventually sold the RIB to Lance (of Lance Palmer commercial diving) I learned it had been sold on to Bill Murray of Ghost-Busters and Caddy-Shack fame, apparently Bill had seen it on the set of Tomb-Raider when Lance was safety diver for Angelina Jolie and the crew, it’s a hell of a story whatever the truth…….by the way Lance, if you are ever reading this, where’s my Kit Harrington autograph?
So why Stoney Cove and why the reputation? Stoney certainly had a name for incidents through the ’90s and that carried into the early 2000’s too, I would frequently have to assure potential Deep-Blue trainees that they weren’t “going to die” if they went to Stoney Cove……. I consider Stoney to be the best diver training facility in the UK, and have, ever since I took my very first divers there for their Open Water courses. I’d taken BSAC trainees there before-hand too and I knew the safety there was second to none, If you are going to have an “incident” then Stoney Cove is the place to have it! I have seen the Cove staff literally hurl themselves down the steps to the rescue RIB to get to a casualty as fast as they can, I have taken part in searches for casualties at Stoney at their request, and I have seen and listened to them agonize over the “what-if’s“….could they have moved faster, done more, worked harder, been smarter….and I have seen the toll this has taken on them….. and it is one I could not have borne myself…… I consider each and every one of them to be hero’s and I have seen them work on casualties well beyond saving….because they can, and because they care….deeply! Make no mistake, scuba diving is a dangerous activity, not for those brow-beaten into the couch at weekends, not for the timid either, it is for the adventurous and that, like any other risk activity, eventually results in fatalities. Personally I think the undeserved reputation Stoney Cove has with some is a result of the sheer number of dives there, some 50,000 plus per year the last time I looked, how many of those divers have undisclosed health issues, unknown problems, badly, even un-serviced dive-kit and how many were so unfit as to be a hazzard to themselves and others from the outset? Stoney Cove doesn’t kill divers, diver’s die, eventually, and let’s not forget……it’s not a tragedy to die doing that which you love………..