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Rob Hunt

The Silt and the Chlorine: A History of Inland Diving

The myths and fiction surrounding the birth of inland diving are legion. What we do know is that, in Britain at least, it began against a backdrop of economic recession, public service strikes, and disaffection with the Labour government.

The dive industry at this point was a behemoth, populated by ageing clubs regularly performing 60+ minute dives with stale profiles and a tedious focus on individual technical ability. The seafronts of Blighty were clogged with flared wetsuits, platform fins, and divers breathing a hypoxic gas mix that left them wittering incoherently about mysterious, colourful fish for hours on end. The glamour of the ocean had become a dirge.

In 1976 a group of West London divers, brought together by the outrageous neoprene fashions stocked in a dive store on the Kings Road, began a revolution. Whether subsequent events happened by accident or by design is a question that will never be answered, because no one can be bothered to ask it. Revolted by a sea filled, as Dive Leader Johnny Bottom-Time put it, with "dirty, smelly fishies", the Pee Valves Sub-Aqua Club (SAC) took their grievances and threw them into the face of an industry that didn't want them.

So what if their equipment was held together with cable ties? So what if they couldn't perform a regulation fin pivot? So what if they couldn't hold a dive together for more than three minutes? And so what if they didn't even live anywhere near the sea? They were going to dive their own way.

Footage of that first dive at Wraysbury is most notable for the ecstatic reaction of a small minority of bystanders (now known as the Bromley SAC) and the outright dismay of the rest. The fact that many can be seen abandoning egg and lettuce picnic sandwiches is a stark reminder: this was a world before Pee Valves fan and later member Sid Sawtooth invented what was soon to become the staple food of the inland diving world: the Bacon Sarnie.

Further dives in and around the capital followed with myriad SACs spawning in their wake. As Joe Bubble of the Splash SAC later said: "We realised if they could dive in fresh water, then anyone could do it. Even we could." In June that year, the Pee Valves travelled north to Stoney Cove and completed what, in typically hyperbolic fashion, would later be known as "the dive that changed the world", inspiring the formation of SACs such as Dustcaps, Buoyancy Precision, The Drifts and The Wall. Nowadays the dive is more famous for the number of divers who claim to have been there but weren't, than it is for the actual swimming around underwater.

But whilst a few found inland diving an inspiration, a far greater number found it to be a scourge, with the phrase "they can't even fin properly" becoming a common refrain from members of established SACs. Wherever the Pee Valves went, chaos and notoriety followed. In December 1976 they were interviewed by PADI figurehead Barry Monday in a show that went out live to the nation at tea-time. Despite being less than two minutes long, they left a nation in outrage as they were heard to call masks "goggles", fins "flippers", and gas cylinders "oxygen tanks".

Retribution was swift and suddenly the Pee Valves were banned from inland dive sites across the nation. It was, however, a move that would backfire on the sea-diving establishment. The ban served only to increase the infamy of the Pee Valves SAC and other divers drove in droves to their nearest inland site in order to kick up silt around submerged taxis, helicopters, and discarded weight belts.

Like a supernova, the Pee Valves' explosion burned with incredible intensity but was ultimately short-lived. By the end of 1977, everyone wanted a piece of inland diving. The breath-taking originality of equipment design seen in the early days of the movement gave way to a uniform of black neoprene, Scubapro Jet Fins, and "Freshwater divers don't need to wash after doing it" cylinder stickers. Even training dives in swimming pools were marketed as inland dives. The phenomenon had been subsumed back into the mainstream and the revolution was over.

Yet the legacy remains. Nowadays, thousands of divers every weekend enjoy the freedom that inland diving allows. Some deliberately try to mimic the attire and attitude of the Pee Valves, others have little understanding of the debt they owe. The Pee Valves' story ended in tragedy when a narked Sid Sawtooth allegedly power-inflated the BCD of his girlfriend and dive buddy, Nancy Sponge. He would later power-inflate his own BCD before the inquest. But thanks to the Pee Valves, inland diving became a viable proposition and not merely pointless because of no sharks. Also they're quite useful environments for being learned at, but that invalidates the rest of my argument.

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