National Diving Centre, Stoney Cove, Leicestershire
When I first looked at dipping my toe into UK diving in the early ’noughties, Stoney Cove was at once brought to my attention as the place to start. Green and keen, I turned up with none of my own equipment under the wing of a friend who “sort of knew what they were doing”.
This time, as I had done in the past, I arrived at 7.30am, remembering that cars would be queuing at the gates at that time on a Saturday morning.
Kitting up at Stoney.
To my surprise, however, on this occasion there was no queue. I quizzed a friendly guy at the gate called Rob, who told me that sometimes Stoney has quieter weekends, owing perhaps to a football match or great sea-diving conditions or Strictly Come Dancing etc.
Whatever the reason, fewer people in the lake often means better visibility, so I was happy with that.
Having dived the Stanegarth tugboat wreck and other deeper features on a good few occasions before, this time I was keen to focus on Stoney’s aquatic life – pike in particular.
If you’re not familiar with this predatory fish, imagine a green barracuda and you’re about there. The former granite quarry is famous for pike, along with oodles of perch and roach and, like Vobster, is home to crayfish too.
It’s possible to park pretty close to the water’s edge at Stoney and, having done so, we hopped in. Rob had told me that the pike would usually flank either side of the main water-entry area if they hadn’t disappeared deeper, so we took a punt on heading left, or south-east.
This way we would also eventually take in the remains of the Gresham, a 16th-century ship section relocated from Portsmouth to Stoney Cove in 2012 along with its anchor to create a “museum with a twist” – as Stoney’s old yet informative website puts it (check it out).
Minutes into our pike expedition we passed the Nautilus submarine attraction (no knob drawings to speak of there), and the two concrete blockhouses found just after this make for fun swim-throughs en route.
We peered over the drop-off that leads to the 22m shelf, passing some lively crayfish. Crayfish numbers had certainly increased in the years since my last visit.
The roach and perch population was thriving too, with almost clouds of both species in every direction.
This part of the quarry is also where many of the training dives happen, in a depth of just 7m, and with that often comes some pretty snotty vis.
On this occasion, with very few divers in the water, we were able to enjoy a heady 7m-plus visibility.
We began to approach the bright green Canadian-pondweed beds, which reach in long lengths from the lake-bed to near the surface. Pike were said to lurk there in ambush mode.
These fine fellas can grow to in excess of 20kg and, it’s said, can live for up to 25 years, although 10-15 is more typical.
I had also heard reports of a lone ghost carp living in the lake, so had one eye out for that, although I’m told that you’re more likely to find rocking-horse manure during your dive.
The “rocking horse” adage appeared to be true of the pike situation too – perhaps they were at the other end of the lake, or maybe deeper?
We finned past the Gresham, which took us to the nearest corner of the Cove, and it was cool to think that these remains had been pulled from the Thames after 400 years of burial. I hadn’t realised that the anchor was also part of the vessel until reading about it after our dive. It’s a big one, and certainly worth a look.
Sadly, the pike eluded us this time, but don’t be put off by my pathetic attempt to hunt them down. If you visit Stoney Cove, you have a good chance of seeing at least one. Just remain stealthy and approach them slowly if you do.
The vis stayed good as we headed back towards our starting point, but before we left the lake, I had to go for a quick nose around the cockpit of the Viscount plane, which has sat on the 7m shelf since 1967.
As a swim-through it’s less impressive than its NDAC equivalent, but it makes a great habitat for lots of juvenile fish.
One thing that I did find impressive at Stoney Cove was its dive-shop. If you ever wanted to give someone a hint about gift ideas for your own Christmas stocking, shove them in there!
The Stanegarth is a real highlight at 22m, and you’ll find a helicopter and a bus at that depth too, along with a second tugboat, Defiant.
As far as underwater playgrounds go, Stoney Cove certainly isn’t short of toys.