PORRIDGE AND VIOLINS
WHEN EAGER YOUNG DUCKLINGS KNEEL AT MY FEET, their eyes shining in the firelight, here in the Members' Library of the Royal Society for Aquanautics and General Valvery, they're surprised that I should so heartily endorse diving in British waters.
"Think of our nation," I explain, "as a tricky little reef in the middle of the Atlantic shipping lanesÉ" Since men first took to the sea, statistical probability has dictated that a certain number of them, the victims of myopia, alcoholic befuddlement or simple incompetence, would fail to notice this rocky obstruction, and founder upon it.
Thus the reef is littered with the hulks of quinquiremes, battle-cruisers, barquantines and container ships - all beckoning to the inquisitive and adventurous diver.
Many of these wrecks are still uncharted, or their positions known only to a few. Like myself. Take the notorious "Porridge Wreck" that went down in the Sound of Mull in 1932 with a cargo of rolled oats. The story became the subject of an Ealing comedy, Porridge Galore, but for the fishermen the reality was far from funny.
Many square miles of ocean were reduced to the consistency of Ready brek. Mariners were hopelessly becalmed, sometimes for months, with no sustenance save the glutinous medium in which they were trapped. In this respect, natives of Scotland were at an advantage, as they were accustomed to taking their porridge with salt.
One well-read survivor compared the experience to Coleridge's account of The Ancient Mariner, who was famously marooned in the Sago Sea - a triangular expanse of rice pudding near Bermuda.
Among my best-kept secrets is the exact location of the hospital ship mv Holby City. She was unique among hospital ships in that she was a hospital before she was a ship. A freak storm blew the three-storey building from a studio lot in Bristol, where it was used as the set for a BBC drama series. It drifted down the Avon Gorge into the Severn estuary, finally sinking within finning distance of Lundy Island.
The wreck is now a wonderful artificial environment for nurse sharks, surgeonfish, spotted amputees, Grimaldi's ulcer and the common colon. Not to mention the crabs.
Then there's the wreck of the Sir Thomas Tallis, bound from Naples to Middlesbrough with 200 tons of Stradivarius violins. A sound, plucky little freighter, she was gamely weathering a north-easterly gale when the note struck by the wind in the storm-rigging rose to the pitch of A flat. By a bizarre coincidence, this resonated with the third strings of the violins, which had been slackened off for the journey.
The resulting sound vibrated the planks of the ship's hull until they sprang apart and she plummeted to the bottom.
As a result, the value of Stradivarius violins soared. This instigated the demise of Colin Deggs Violins of Penge, its instruments technically superior but suddenly 50% cheaper. Deggs went into a steep decline and died horribly when, under the influence of laudanum, he mistook a cello for his viola and tried to fit it under his chin.
The strange case of HMS Hopeless, the Royal Navy's first submarine, deserves more detailed treatment than this space allows. Based on the botanic principle that plants "exhale" oxygen during daylight hours, the sub's equipment included a 4 acre field of rhubarb, making it the largest sea-going vessel ever launched.
Sadly, to fertilise the rhubarb sufficiently required several tons of horse manure, and the entire crew perished from methane poisoning.
Frankly, with such an untapped wealth of history piled up around our shores, why would you want to dive anywhere else?
Deeper with Blackford
by Andy Blackford
£7.95 plus P&P, A5 format, 156 pages, paperback
Special offer - buy online at £8.95 inc. UK surface p&p
From Swanage Bay to the Redcar sewage treatment plant; from Bovisand Harbour to the wreck of the Wigan Shopping Trolley - Andy Blackford has been there, dived it, and recalls the experiences in this new collection of 36 of his best stories. Illustrated by Rico.
P&P UK £2, overseas surface £3.