As an avid full-time diver, I like the opportunity to dive in various locations, especially if it challenges me and gives me the opportunity to expand my passion for exploration and adventure diving. I am an active member of Rhondda BSAC club, as well as running Wales’ only BSAC Technical diving center here in the UK.
As a technical diving instructor, I have had the pleasure of working and supporting the North West region over the past few years. I was invited to their 2018 AGM and Christmas meal in Preston, so thought I’d take the opportunity to do some exploration diving in Hodge Close Quarry, mid-lake district, just an hour north of where the dinner was to be held.
Hodge Close Quarry – Extreme Diving
Hodge close quarry is known as an extreme diving location, not only is it at altitude (186mtr) but its notorious for the fatalities of divers and rock climbers who have gone there, inexperienced and end up losing their lives either in the tunnel system which starts at 23mtr, or through cold water shock and drowning.
Hodge close is an old green slate quarry in the Tilberthwaite Valley, near Langdale. It was first quarried in the 19th century right up until the 1960s. Initially, it was an open pit with levels and chambers coming off of it at various junctures. However, as the quarrying changed and developed, so the levels and chambers were obliterated, leaving just the level and chambers accessible through diving.
Doing some research online in advance of this exploration visit, it appeared that this dive site is somewhat respected amongst divers, partially because of the extreme access issues, and partially because of the seriousness of the diving. Because of the above reasons I felt inspired to go and explore for myself. To clarify, I am also a qualified cavern and cave diver.
I left Wales on the Friday for the five-hour journey northwards. On Saturday a bright and fresh morning welcomed me as I headed from my B&B to meet my dive buddy and fellow explorer, Laura Chisholm, a fellow BSAC Technical diver hailing from Falkirk in Scotland, who was also attending the NW Christmas bash and had eagerly agreed to come exploring with me.
We met at the carpark and quickly headed off to scout out the route to the quarry. Further down the lane from the small National Trust carpark are some quaint ex-quarryman cottages now turned into holiday lets as well as one or two being full-time residential properties for some of the occupants. I had been told that if you exchange pleasantries and a five-pound note, then we would be allowed to access an old quarry trail down to the quarries flooded access tunnel which is gated from outside their cottages, saving us a three hundred meter walk down a scree slope. I guess today was the day that they were out as no one was at home to answer the doors. As such we had to park in the National Trust carpark.
The view from the top of the quarry wall was somewhat intimidating, but at the same time inviting. The water looked like a sheet of Obsidian from the top of the cliffs, and the cliffs seemed to rise like sentinels from the water, guarding the waters and the secrets of its past inside this cauldron of slate. Upon reflection and looking at the photos, it also appears to be guarded by a giant skull made up of the cliff and reflection in the waters…. A little bit freaky to say the least.
Out of the trance-like state, this view put us in, we headed back to the cars, unloaded our kit and proceeded to make our way to the water’s edge. Albeit not as straightforward as it sounds, firstly it took four trips down the steep scree slope to get to the entrance of the 150metre access tunnel, then it took four trips through this half-flooded tunnel to load carry, then four trips down the in-situ ladder and to the water’s edge. All this had to be carried out whilst wearing our dry-suits. Without this, we would have been soaked from water in the thigh-deep waters of the tunnel, instead, we were just soaked from sweat. A short break at the water’s edge where we relaxed, rehydrated and sorted out the kit and we were ready for the off.
As with any type of cave diving single cylinder isn’t a safe option, and since this is more like cavern diving than full-on cave diving, back mounted cylinders would suffice, but the weight of twins made that a non-option for us. So, we had opted for a single cylinder on our backs, and then side slung cylinders as our backup gas. Easier to carry to the site, and essential redundancy if required. In addition to this, spare lights, distance lines, helmet as well as our usual dive kit, were all set up, stowed away streamlined ready for the dive.
Before we got in the water, we had decided that our primary mission was to explore the levels and chambers and to do that we would utilize our primary gas in a rule of thirds and not use the backup gas unless we had a problem with the primary.
We were meticulous with our buddy checks given the serious nature of our planned dive, then entered the water which was a lot cooler than I was expecting at four degrees centigrade. We surface swam across the quarry to the far wall where there are metal staples traversing the wall, once there, we double checked that we were both happy and then ducked down under the water onto the quarry bottom.
The water was crystal clear, but dark. The blackness gave way to an almost emerald green as I looked towards the surface. We headed along the cliffside to the entrance of the mine. On first impressions, it looked an imposing black hole hacked out of the slate, but we were not deterred.
I found a large boulder on the ground a few meters outside of the entrance which had a clear line of to the surface, so decided to utilize that as my anchor for my line. I had been informed that there was a fixed line within the mines, but as per any cave diving, the lines don’t start outside the tunnel, so we had decided to run our own lines into the tunnel, this was for our own safety – not only as we didn’t know the state of any fixed lines in the system, but also because we didn’t know where they started, if at all.
I connected to the anchor and proceeded into the mined level. Laura was just behind me and the comforting acknowledgment of her torchlight circling on the tunnel wall reassured me that she was okay behind me. The level was probably three meters wide and two meters in height, so no risk of getting stuck in a squeeze, just the ambient light we had through the open water of the quarry had diminished and without the safety line I was running, we would have had no idea as to where we were and which way was out. This is the times when you have to have your wits about you and be focused on the task, not letting the mind run away with its random thoughts about what ifs.
After about thirty meters, we came to the first cavern. It was pretty massive in comparison to the tunnel, we had a noisy around it. Nothing spectacular in there apart from a safety warning sign on the wall and some rubble was strewn around the floor.
We re-joined the main line and continued along our journey. I was placing arrows along the route as markers to show us which way was to the exit and in addition, I was leaving a Cyalume stick on the exit side of any junctions that we crossed so that was an additional reference for our route out.
We headed deeper into the system for about another fifty or so meters and came across the second chamber. This was accessed through a side tunnel which opened into the chamber, smaller than the first, again nothing much to see here. We came back out and re-joined the main line. We followed it further still into the last section of the tunnel until it opened up into a final chamber. This chamber was the largest of all. A quick explore of this and an interesting look at the Adult version of a Gnome garden which lived in this chamber, and we then decided to head back out.
Laura headed out first following the lines as I reeled them in, collecting the arrows and Cyalumes as I went. The tunnel did have some permanent exit signs installed which are great as all that helps, but common sense prevails – despite the in-situ signs, if you’re not comfortable and experienced in this sort of diving environment you shouldn’t be there. Upon exiting the main tunnel back into the quarry, we both had built up some deco, so we hung around to work off our deco obligations. Once this was complete, we surfaced and exited the water, mission accomplished!
Overall this expedition dive was physically hard work, but it was also exciting and exhilarating as a dive. Yes, it’s a great dive location for club divers to go and explore, in the safety of the open water quarry, albeit demanding to access and the waters coldness. However, the tunnels and chambers are more serious than the quarry, the risk of getting disorientated and lost is high for the inexperienced diver, so care must be taken and being suitably experienced and qualified is a must before an adventure into the systems is undertaken.
That said, it was amazing being able to see the historical side of these places and to explore our underwater heritage does involve the acceptance of manageable risk, be it entering a wreck or in this case a mine system. Safe diving.