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ISSUE 22 ARCHIVE - WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND

Charlotte Wilson

Arranging to dive in mid February off of the far reaches of the south coast of England didn't exactly fill me with the utmost joy upon being given my assignment for the UK issue of Tanked Up, especially as I'd been gunning for a Canary Islands feature, but anyway, here I am, inspiring our readers to make the most of what our blustery shores have to offer the British diver.

The main thing to note about organising a trip to Portland is this: It is far, really far. Well for me anyway, happily living in middle earth with a north Oxfordshire postcode, I noted several times that I could have flown to many a European city in less time, and with a travel size red wine in my hand. The additional factor of having to begin my journey at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon was also dampening my mood, but I packed my car full of snacks and off I set to my seaside town winter retreat.

Arriving in the dark to the Castletown area of Portland, and nearly driving straight onto a ferry outside the hotel, it is clear that the nearby establishments are all geared toward the hardened UK diver. I had opted to stay at the Royal Breakwater Hotel, which itself overlooks the Aqua Hotel, both are linked to local dive club websites and are clearly a go to for value diving breaks.

Inside the Royal Breakwater hotel they are either casually redecorating at their leisure, or they have opted for the shabby chic look (of the Victorian poorhouse era). Despite the initial shock of this, the room itself was more than amiable, with tea and coffee making facilities and ensuite, plus a surprisingly comfortable bed (a key benefit if you have a day of salt water diving ahead of you). And at just 60, located directly next to the harbour, and with a full English included in the morning, you can't really complain.

Attached to the hotel is also a pub; in another life I may have ventured in there to knock back a sailor jerry with the locals and immerse myself in the native diving community, but as a single white female in dire need of some shiraz and an a la carte menu, I hopped in a taxi in search of some famous Dorset crab.

My destination was a true delight, the Crab House Café, located just 5 minutes drive from the hotel and directly in between Portland and Weymouth, the taxi driver even informed me that people visit the Café from all over the country. My spirits were immediately lifted.

The Café did not disappoint, decorated inside like an actual crab shack, the fresh seafood is on display in the open kitchen and the atmosphere is charming and relaxed. I dined on mussels, naturally, and a whole crab to crack. The meat was beautiful and the place saw a busy stream of guests throughout the evening. I noticed that the owner, who was onsite in the kitchen throughout the night, had written a recipe book that is displayed around the restaurant and contains mouthwatering recipes for all conceivable types of seafood. Maybe there were benefits of visiting the seaside in winter after all!

Portland obviously has a long history as a naval base so it naturally has a good many military wrecks that are easily accessible by RIB or boat. As I'm sure I don't need to tell Tanked Up readers, Weymouth/Portland is possibly one of the most heavily dived parts of Britain so has the tendency to get very crowded on the weekends. Not however, if you are the only crazy fool diving in February, then you literally have it all to yourself. Obviously it is for you to weigh up the pros and cons of leaping into the cold February sea to avoid the masses in the summer, but there you go, it is a plus point.

Early morning I headed out with Old Harbour Dive Centre on their rather cute looking hard boat, and as the sea was particularly choppy and I was finishing off my dry suit qualification, we stuck to the harbor, namely the Ferrybridge, for the duration of the dive. Unsurprisingly visibility was pretty poor due to the weather conditions but this pleasant shore dive, with a max depth of around 8m, follows an underwater trail with plenty of marine life. Spotting some scary looking spider crabs I felt a stirring in my stomach from the edible one I devoured the night before and quickly averted my gaze to catch a fleeting spot of a cuttlefish wobbling past.

As the rain and wind progressively got worse, we dared not attempt a second dive of the day, so it was off to Weymouth for the second part of my wintry weekend away to see what heady delights the town had to offer. Although the dive had been enjoyable, and more fruitful than I first thought, the temperamental nature of the British weather made me think that when looking to book a seaside UK diving break, perhaps sticking to the Spring and Summer months will stand you in better stead.

So by late afternoon I rolled up to Portland's somewhat more vibrant, taller, younger sister, Weymouth. After a wet and windy day I was more than ready to check into the little B&B I'd booked right on the seafront. Harbour Heights B&B was a sight for sore eyes, the owners, a bubbly Scottish couple, were on hand to greet you with just the right amount of professionalism and warmth. The room was spacious, light and airy, with a lovely modern bathroom and an excellent selection of books.

Before dinner I took a stroll around the town, I have to say it is easier to fall in love with a seaside town in the summer, the views, beach front and tea shops all have a majestic glow when bathed in sunlight and bustling with happy families and holiday makers. In the winter however it is mainly dog walkers and teenagers making mischief on the sand, and everything looks a little sad and grey. However, once again seafood was the saviour of the day, and I had another lovely fresh fish dinner at upmarket eatery Crustaceans. Once night fell, the town felt more appealing and many bars and pubs hummed with the sound of laughter and music. However the highlight of my day had to be popping into the arcade on my way back home and feeling like a 12 year old kid again on the penny drop machines!

Upon leaving Weymouth on Sunday I decided to take a departing drive back around Portland and up to the Portland Bill lighthouse. The weather had perked up slightly, typical just as I was leaving, and the views out to sea from the cliff tops were truly breathtaking. This got me thinking; maybe our little blustery isle is quite lovely after all.

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