The Lizard Peninsula, in Cornwall, is the biggest trap for shipping in British waters, jutting into the Channel to welcome mariners home to England, and to sink them by the thousand on its reefs and cliffs. Our two-part guide by Kendall McDonald starts with a look at the western Lizard (with additional diving information from Kevin Heath)

First choice for divers on their annual south-westerly pilgrimage. Last stop for hundreds of ships. Clear water. Great deeps. Shallow rummages. A reef named the Manacles. All things to all divers. Welcome to the Lizard! The Lizard is not named after some legendary beast - although it is a land where such stories abound. The name actually comes from the Cornish lezou, or headland. The Lizard is, in fact, a peninsula, whose cliffs support the moorland plateau of Goonhilly Downs, some 300ft above sea level.

The Lizard sticks out into the Channel so far that it is the biggest ship trap in British waters. In fact, so many ships have fallen victim to the Lizard's cliffs and underwater reefs that the Admiralty advises navigators to keep three or more miles off in any kind of rough weather. Those who failed to take that advice have made the Lizard a Mecca for today's wreck divers. The wrecks of the Lizard are of all ages. Some contain real treasure. Not just book talk of silver and gold, but real, hands on, in-the-diver's-palm, silver coins and ingots. Much has been recovered. More is still there to be found by the lucky Lizard diver.

But even those few divers whose hearts fail to beat faster at the thought of such treasure, and who profess to find wreck diving boring, will thrill to the marine life and spectacular undersea topography which the Lizard seabed provides, and all in constantly clear water.

The geography of the Lizard concentrates divers into a few good launching places. This is the land where diver overcrowding first began, and those diving the Lizard today must take care not to repeat the early upsets of the local residents and fishermen. The beach at Porthallow is still banned to divers, but if divers obey the signs erected by the BSAC at sore points on the peninsula, further friction can be avoided.

In this two-part report, the Lizard has been taken as starting at Porthleven in the west. Selected wrecks are dealt with in the closest section to a launch site - though many of course can be visited by big dive boats from ports much further away.

Wreck sites on the Western Lizard.

The first part of this report runs north-west to south-east from Porthleven to Lizard Point and round to Hot Point. This is the big sailing-ship graveyard, where there are cannons on almost every 500m of seabed, and where many treasure finds have been made.

Porthleven , 2 miles to the south-west of Helston, is approached along the B3304. The big harbour at Porthleven is out of proportion to the size of the little town, with an inner and outer harbour faced with huge granite blocks. Some of the early 18th century buildings survive below a topping of modern bungalows higher up the hillsides. The inner harbour has a big slipway down which you can launch very easily 3 hours either side of high water, but only with the permission of the Harbourmaster, Mr Dennis Swire, whose office is at The Old Customs House on the edge of the harbour (01326-561141). There is a charge, and harbour dues are payable.

There is a speed limit of 3 knots in the inner harbour and 5 knots in the outer. The inner harbour dries completely at Spring lows. The outer harbour has deep-water jetties - no diving without the harbourmaster's permission - and when built in 1811 was intended to import mining machinery and export tin. Today, the largest boats are fishing craft. All the rest of the moorings are for pleasure boats.

There is good diving on the reefs directly offshore in about 20m, where there are iron cannon marking early shipwrecks. However, there are also cannon even closer in at Tye Rocks, which stick out from the beach just to the south of the harbour. These very corroded cannon cover and uncover with sand in just 6m. It is Loe Bar, a mile along the beach to the south-east from Porthleven harbour, that tends to concentrate most divers' thoughts. More than 50 ships have been recorded lost along this stretch of the Lizard coast, and there is wreckage almost everywhere underwater off Porthleven Sands.

Two of the most important wreckings took place close to Loe Bar - those of HMS Anson , on 29 December, 1807, and the Portuguese San Antonio , ( St Anthony ) on 19 January, 1527. HMS Anson, a great wallower of a ship, even though she had been cut down from a 64-gun frigate to one of 44 guns to improve her sailing qualities, left Falmouth on Christmas Eve, 1807, to join the patrols blockading the French Channel ports. By the time Captain Charles Lydiard reached the French coast close to Roscoff on 27 December she was running into a full gale and finally had to turn before it to seek shelter in Falmouth again.

Anson was leaking badly when those aboard realised that the land ahead was the Lizard and not the entrance to Falmouth. Captain Lydiard tried to sail her out of the trap, but she was dipping her head into the huge seas and slowly but surely she was being blown onto the lee shore between Gunwalloe and Porthleven. He anchored, but at 4am on 29 December, the anchor rope snapped. He put down the smaller anchor and that held, but it was clear it would not last for long.

Captain Lydiard told his crew that when the last anchor snapped he intended to sail his ship into the shore, at the centre of Loe Bar.

At 7am the cable snapped and Lydiard sailed his ship at the shore. But, unfortunately, there was an uncharted reef of rock just 100m from the steep beach of fine shingle on to which the great waves were thundering. Anson ground to a mast-snapping halt broadside to the shore. The mainmast toppled on to the beach and made a bridge, and some men escaped across it. Lydiard, however, died in the surf on the beach - as did 190 out of the 330 men aboard. On the beach was Henry Trengrouse of Helston. He was so shocked by seeing sailors die only feet from safety that he determined that people watching from the shore should be able to offer more help. Later that year, he invented the musket-fired rocket lifeline, the forerunner of the rocket apparatus of today.

Cannon and carronades, from the Anson are still there for divers to see today - just 100m off the beach and slightly west of the central point of Loe Bar, level with the Pool, at 50 04 10; 05 17 45W. Loe Bar itself is a 180m-wide pile of flint shingle, which runs for 400m between cliffs. Behind this shingle barrier, water piles up on the landward side to form the lake of Loe Pool, which is one of the many places in Cornwall alleged to be where the dying King Arthur flung his magic sword, Excalibur.

But don't waste time looking for the sword - the lake wasn't there in Arthur's time. The shingle bank was piled up by storms in the 13th century, and only then blocked ships going up the River Cober to the port of Helston.

Diving the Anson is dependent on sea conditions off the bar. If you visit the shore there during the kind of gale which brought Anson to her doom, you will have no doubt about the power of the sea. Giant walls of water thunder on the beach, which literally shakes beneath your feet as the waves tear out tons of shingle. This wave action has made a shelf 8m offshore, just below low tide mark, where the seabed drops suddenly from less than a metre to 6m.

Diving from the whole length of Porthleven beach is dangerous except in complete calm. Getting in is easy: getting out is another matter.

The Anson cannon, even in calm waters, may not be uncovered. But, because each tide alters what you can see, keep your eyes open. Gold coins are occasionally found, probably from the pockets of the officers of Anson. The white Anson memorial cross at the Eastern end of the Bar is close to the spot where the dead from the ship were buried. It was not put up until 1949. Best launch for the Anson site is Porthleven Harbour, but it is possible to get a boat and trailer closer to the bar by taking the A3083 from Helston towards Culdrose Naval Air Station and, before going under the bridge which links the two sides of the airfield, turning right along an unmade road. This will bring you to the bar, where you can leave the trailer and carry your boat across the beach. Be warned, though: it will be hard work.

Only a short distance from the Anson wreck lies the remains of the 300-ton Portuguese carrack, San Antonio (St Anthony ).

She was wrecked on the way from Lisbon to Antwerp with a cargo which included copper and silver ingots. We know where she was wrecked because her commander did exactly the same as Captain Lydiard was to do centuries later with the Anson. When his anchors snapped in the early morning of Saturday, 19 January, 1527, the Portuguese captain, Antonio Pacheco, sailed at the lee shore, hoping to beach in the shingle. He aimed for the eastern end of Loe Bar. He struck the same reef of rock unseen a 100m off the beach and his ship broached to and was smashed to pieces. Forty-five of the crew survived. There was much salvage at the time, but no record of the recovery of the ingots. The wreck was believed for many years to be at Gunwalloe, because some survivors were reported to have landed there.

The real wreck site was pinpointed after a copper ingot was found on the beach in 1981. Then local diver Tony Randall, found a solid silver "melon" weighing 8.6kg in the open on the reef! The wreck is now protected: diving is not allowed within an area of 75m around 50 03 04; 05 17 01W.

About 150m to the south of the Anson memorial are the very, broken remains of the 1661-ton steamer Brankelow, which was carrying coal from Cardiff to Russia. She ran aground there on 21 April, 1890, and was soon broken to pieces by gales.

Gunwalloe Fishing Cove , with its Halzephron Inn, allows access to the southern end of Porthleven Sands, whose many wrecks throw up coins of all nations to the metal detectors. The beach slopes steeply here and is again undercut by waves to give a steep wall underwater only a short way out. Just to the south of the cove, under Halzephron cliff, are more cannon. This can be a shore dive. The cannon are likely to be the last remains of the Army transport James and Rebecca, homeward bound with a squadron of the 9th Light Dragoons, which was wrecked here with 41 dead on 6 November, 1807.

Gunwalloe Church Cove , the southern of the two little coves, is a quite extraordinary place. Not just because of the little 15th century church of St Winwaloe, with its tower completely detached from the main building and usually half-buried in blown sand; and not because the church contains woodwork said to have come from the San Antonio; but because this is the site of yet another treasure wreck - in "Dollar Cove".

This shipwreck, often confusingly called the San Salvador , (see Poldhu Cove), was reputed to be carrying two tons of Spanish coins. Despite the fact that documentation of such a ship is very poor, treasure-hunting has gone on for centuries. Efforts were made in the early 1800s to dam the gully into which the tons of coins were thought to have spilled from the wreck. This failed and in 1847 a group of tin miners was employed to sink a metre-wide shaft under the wreck so that the coins would drop into the tunnel. More than 12m they tunnelled until the sea broke in.

Later methods used explosives. Each time, tantalisingly, just one or two silver coins would be found. Visiting divers have tried for the jackpot many times in recent years, but no great discovery has been reported. You can see evidence of the miners' tunnelling to this day. Just to the north of the top of the miners' shaft at 50 02 33; 05 16 04W is the protected site of the wreck of the Schiedam, a Dutch ship of 400 tons which sank in 1684. No diving is allowed on her. She appears to have been transporting cannon for the English army from Tangier to Portsmouth.

Treasure tales abound in the neighbourhood. One that persists is that the pirate John Avery, alias Long Ben, buried a fabulous treasure in the sand near Gunwalloe. Why he should have done that when he retired to Bideford, Devon, and died a pauper in 1697, is never made clear! Inflatables can be launched across the sand of Church Cove , but parking for cars and trailers nearby is very limited.

It was from the cliffs to the south of Poldhu Cove : that Marconi sent his first Morse message across the Atlantic in 1901, and a memorial marks the spot. The cove itself - though a popular holiday spot - has no road link with Gunwalloe, and approach must be made by a side-road from the A3083. Launching is possible across the beach except when south-westerlies are blowing.

The documented wreck of the San Salvador , driven into the cliffs half-way along the north side of Poldhu Cove in 1669, has been found by divers. The site is marked by small iron cannon. Many Spanish silver pieces-of-one real have been found around the shallow rock ledges. Only a mile and a half from Gunwalloe as the crow flies, but four times as far by road, the approach to Mullion with its tiny harbour can be made by several routes off the A3083. Mullion in the summer is a hive of visitors. There is no launching down the steep slipway without the harbourmaster's permission. Cars with trailers are allowed down the winding road to the actual cove to launch and recover boats, but not to park. There is a charge.

Mullion Cove is owned by the National Trust, who at one time wanted to ban non-BSAC divers after trouble with groups taking over the small beach and spreading themselves and their equipment in all directions. However, the BSAC insisted that the diving should be open to all - and to ensure that it is kept that way, please consult with harbourmaster before bringing yourself and your gear into the immediate harbour area.

There are iron cannon on the south-west tip of nearby Mullion Island , and there are at least two more iron cannon sites under the cliffs between Mullion Cove and Polurrian Cove to the north. Further south, the boiler and other bits of the Denise, a French steamer of 1596 tons, carrying coal, which ran ashore in fog on 6 June, 1918, can be found under Predannack Head .

Kynance Cove is hemmed in by 60m cliffs. The cliff to the north is called The Rill. Kynance Cove can be approached by a toll road, owned by the National Trust, but don't try to take a boat and trailer down, because access to the beach from the large car park at the end of the road is by steep flights of steps. Supermen do occasionally carry their gear down and get a pleasant dive there, but lesser mortals approach by boat from elsewhere.

A boat in calm weather will bring you to Asparagus Island and Gull Rock in Kynance Cove. These rocky outcrops not far offshore provide some interesting diving. There is a tunnel right through Asparagus Island - but it is not to be tried in any kind of swell! There is evidence of a shipwreck of the early 1700s - coins and buckles, possibly Dutch - at the entrance to the tunnel on the island's south-west side.

On the southern side of The Rill in Rill Cove is another treasure wreck - possibly the "great silver ship" of 1616. More than 700 Spanish silver coins have been raised from the site, plus a banded breech-loading gun. However, this wreck is now a protected site, with no diving within 100m of 49 58 31; 05 14 26W. Isn't it amazing how treasure wrecks attract archaeologists! Lizard Point is the most southerly spot in England. It is considered the gateway to the English Channel, and is the first English landfall for shipping after long voyages. But this landfall has not always been the kind intended. In 1619, Sir John Killigrew of Falmouth, who was first to build a lighthouse on the Lizard, wrote that most of the houses nearby were "built with the ruins of ships". Various other lighthouses followed. Today, the one perched on the 50m high cliff is the most powerful in the British Isles. Its light has a range of 21 miles, but its reflection can be seen 70 miles out.

Launching in the area is possible - but not worth the hassle. The wrecks of the Lizard are best visited by boat from Cadgwith or Kennack Sands (See Part Two of this guide). The Stags is the general name for rocks extending for half a mile south of the Lizard. Each rock has its own name - Ennach, Maenheere (furthest south) and Carligga, Carnvel, Man o' War and Mulvin (furthest west). Watch out for the tide, which on springs, will reach 3 knots just off the rocks. To the south of the Stags is a race which can produce very rough water. And there is another powerful race south-east of the Lizard which dive boats should avoid in any sort of wind.

The wreck of the Royal Anne - the last fighting ship with oars built for the Royal Navy - is at 49 57 27; 05 12 56W, but she is now a protected wreck and there is no diving allowed in a 100m radius of that position.

Further round the point is Housel Bay , said to have been the site of the wreck of yet another "Spanish treasure galleon" - and then we come to Bass Point . Some 800m south-east of the Point is Vrogue Rock , which lurks some 2m underwater, though surface disturbance in the strong tides gives its position away. The Vrogue , listed by the Admiralty as "very dangerous", has claimed more than its fair share of wrecks from vessels trying to cut the corner. One of the best dives in the area is provided by a ship which did just that - the Czar.

Built in Hull in 1858, at 1100 tons gross the Czar was not a big ship. Her single screw was driven by 180hp engines, and she carried a crew of 28 under Captain Robert Jackson. On 16 January, 1859, she left London on her first long voyage - on charter to the Government to carry munitions from Woolwich Arsenal to the garrison on Malta. Her cargo kept her low in the water as she moved down Channel.

In her holds were fifty-one 68-pounder muzzle-loading Lancaster guns, the shot and shell to go with the guns, uniforms and other military equipment, plus spirits, oil, sugar, hides and cinnamon.

On 22 January, it was clear that something was wrong with the Czar's boilers, and Captain Jackson turned back for Falmouth. But the route he took - creeping across the face of Lizard Point and cutting the corner by Bass Point - was not a good one. There was a grinding crunch as the vessel ran hard on the Vrogue - so hard that most of her bow went right over and she pivoted on the highest point of the rock.

One boat got away with ten aboard but was swamped immediately. Another with four men in her tried picking up men from the water. Moments later, the ship tore in half behind her funnel. Bow and stern sank separately. Despite huge seas, Cadgwith fishermen and Lizard coastguards launched boats to help. They picked up 6 men from the wreckage; but 13 people died - including Captain Jackson, his wife and 5-year-old son.

In June 1990, some salvage divers working on the nearby wreck of the three-masted steel sailing ship Wansbeck (very broken in just 10m close inshore of Maenheere Rock) were asked to have a look for the Czar. They found her collapsed, with a clean break between her two parts.

You can see some of the cargo of the Czar today at 49 57 07; 05 10 04W. The seabed in 12- 18m just to the north-east of the Vrogue Rock is carpeted with massive 68-pounder shot - nearly 18cm in diameter. Some of the huge guns for which they were intended are there too. When diving her, it is worth searching carefully in cracks and gullies in the rocks, where military buttons from the uniforms in her cargo are often found. Many of those gullies are full of musket shot.

Diving on the many wrecks around Lizard Point and Bass Point needs care, particularly on those close in. The whole area is subject to heavy ground swell, and the tide races sometimes reach 5-6 knots. Great care, for example, should be taken when diving the 300ft long schooner-rigged Suffolk, an iron steamer of 1924 tons. Homeward-bound from Baltimore, USA, she hit Old Lizard Head on 28 September, 1886, in fog. All her crew of 38 and the 2 passengers were saved.

At the time of her wrecking, she was carrying a cargo of tobacco, wheat and flour. Her decks were stacked with walnut logs, and 161 steers were penned on the foredeck. Only 26 of the cattle survived. Today her very broken remains lie just to the north of the head at 49 57 41; 05 12 50W in the sand-floored rock gullies at 10m.

Two great sailing ships are not far away. One, the four-masted steel barque Queen Margaret , laden with 4500 tons of wheat from Australia hit the Maenheere Rock while waiting for a tug on 5 May, 1913. Her remains - mostly ribs and plating - lie on the seaward side of the rock in 12m at 49 56 06; 05 12 20W. Another big sailing ship, the Cromdale, ran straight into the Lizard right under the coastguard lookout in thick fog on 23 May that same year. She was carrying a load of nitrates from Chile. Her ribs and steel masts lie in in rocky gullies in 10m at 49 57 42; 05 11 06.

Closer to Bass Point (sometimes called The Beast in old documents) - at 49 57 47; 05 11 05W - is the Mosel, a barquentine-rigged German steamer of 3200 tons, which ran straight into the cliffs in the morning fog of 9 August, 1882, at nearly her top speed of 13 knots. She was carrying 620 passengers - mostly emigrants - from Bremen to New York via Southampton. All were saved. Local divers call her the Junk Shop, because although much of her cargo was saved, there are masses of small items buried in the sand at 11m amid the plating. Divers have brought up penknives, scissors, buttons, combs, tooth and shoe brushes, spectacles, and even mouth organs. Part of the wreckage is in the area of a tide race. Dive on low water slack and leave before the flood.

Inside Bass Point are the remains of a Boulogne steam trawler, Le Vieux Tigre , of 261 tons, victim of fog on 27 March, 1935. Her position is 49 57 48; 05 11 00W, but she is scattered so widely that some parts of her are mixed with those of the Mosel. Her boiler is jammed in a gully just to the west of the point.

In between Bass Point and Hot Point (nothing to do with washing machines!) are two more fairly modern wrecks. Furthest out is the Clan Malcolm , a 5743-ton Glasgow steamer, yet another victim of fog on 26 September, 1935. She was coming from London for the Clyde when she hit the Tregwin Rocks. Tugs tried to get her off, but two days later the wind rose and so did the sea. Her crew of 75 were landed safely, but the ship became a complete wreck. She is now at 49 57 50; 05 10 50W, very broken and heavily salvaged. Her three boilers are central to the spread of wreckage in 14m. Her bows point inshore towards Hot Point. Great care should be taken when diving her as she lies in an area of very strong tides and overfalls. Dive at slack only.

The last of the big sailing ships to be wrecked in the Lizard Point area - the five-master Adolf Vinnen - was only three months out of her launching cradles and on her maiden voyage from Kiel to Barry for coal when, on 9 February, 1923, she was driven by a full southerly gale into Green Lane Cove , just under the now disused Lloyds Signal Station and between Bass and Hot Points. The crew of 24 were rescued by breeches buoy to the cliffs above.

The 1840-ton 262ft long Adolf Vinnen was unusual in that she was also powered by two massive diesel engines, but this didn't save her. Her wreckage is right out of the tide, but subject to ground swell in south or south-east winds. She is in two main parts, with her frames and some of the hull standing clear of the rock-and-sand bottom in 12m, and the diesels and shafts still there at 49 57 54; 05 11 01W.

Next door to Hot Point is Church Cove, where the lifeboat is kept. The ramp is for the lifeboat only. Don't try launching there.
In part 2: Cadgwith to Helford, including Porthkerris, Porthoustock, Coverack and the Manacles; plus essential information for divers.

Appeared in DIVER January 1996.

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