14th Jul 2012 8:44am | By Graeme Green
I follow the rope down into the murky water. An object appears: a gun turret.
My diving buddy, Sinbad, and I investigate the WW2 tank wreck, one of several that sank accidentally off the coast of Swanage during the British Army’s attempts to make tanks ‘float’ in preparation for the D-Day landings.
A giant conga eel who makes his home here eyes us from a shaded spot.
We use a 100m-long rope along the ocean surface to guide us to another tank, this one exploded into two parts.
We explore the site, moving carefully around crabs clambering on the wreck, so large they wouldn’t fit on a plate. “I love UK diving,” Sinbad exclaims back on the boat.
The sea might be cold (we’re in semi-dry suits) and silty, a very different world for diving from tropical waters, but there are so many wrecks beneath the waves off this part of England’s south coast – mostly ships as well as tanks from WW1 and WW2 – that people like Sinbad prefer UK diving to going abroad.
This is my first day on England’s Jurassic Coast. Stretching 95 miles from Old Harry’s Rocks, just outside Swanage in East Dorset, all the way to Orcombe Point, near Exmouth in East Devon, it was England’s first region to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The rocky landscape is a record of 185 million years of the earth’s history, a hotspot for geologists and fossil hunters, as well as adventurers who come to enjoy rugged cliffs, sea views and peaceful coastal villages.
Swanage, a two-hour drive from London, is a good base. The town has a bit of a reputation for being a sedate place, filled with grey-haired visitors and residents, but, increasingly, young people are swinging by for more adventurous activities.
After a midday dive, I meet Dan on Studland Beach, just outside Swanage, for an afternoon of kayaking.
We paddle out on the sheltered waters of Studland Bay to Old Harry’s Rocks, all-white stacks of chalk that erosion has separated from the cliffs, leaving them isolated out in the water.
There are two versions of how the rocks got their name; either they’re named after an old pirate who lived and ‘worked’ in this area, or it comes from an old slang term for the devil, ‘Old Harry’.
Dan leads me through archways and gaps in the rocks. “A lot of these caves were used for smuggling. Rum, tobacco …” he tells me.
It’s an easy paddle around the peninsula to a few clear-white pinnacles of rock, one particularly pointed one called Parson’s Nose or Witch’s Tit, depending on which you prefer.
As we make our way back to the beach, Dan points out the nudist beach further along the coast. “I’m always surprised that people are out – in all weathers,” he says.
Next day, I meet up with Tommo and spend the morning abseiling and climbing on Dancing Ledge, also a popular spot for coasteering.
Tommo is right behind me as I scramble upwards and he supports me on the rope as I try more difficult climbs.
There are plenty of footholds, cracks and ledges to haul and push myself up, but, still, this craggy rockface is challenging.
“Climbing is a combination of chess and ballet,” Tommo says. “Chess is all about looking at the moves ahead and ballet has that skillfulness and gracefulness.”
Further along the coast, I meet Adam, a local walking guide. We hike to the iconic Durdle Door, an arch eroded by the ocean. “It’s the centrepiece of the Jurassic Coast,” Adam says.