Take the plunge and don't wait for summer

You won't see coral reefs, shoals of colourful fish or glamorous film stars but you will learn to dive at a fraction of the cost. By Rupert Isaacson

WEATHER getting you down? Need something to remind you of the tropics, of beaches and bikinis? Why not learn to scuba dive?

It's not as daft, nor as far-fetched, as it sounds. Nor as expensive. And come next summer you'll have your diving certificate - the coveted bit of paper that says you can swim underwater with heavy metal accessories on your back. More importantly, it tells a dive operator that he can legally rent you equipment and take you down into the reefs. Think of the coral, the darting shoals of iridescent fish, the diving instructors, the hunks, the babes...

Seriously though, learning to scuba dive is a good indoor activity to take you through the winter. You can do it through evening classes with a local club - almost every public swimming pool in Britain has a resident sub-aqua Club (BSAC, Tel: 0500 947202 will tell you the nearest centre to your area). However, it is much more fun to make a holiday of it.

Several places in the UK now offer short but intensive residential dive courses, usually lasting five days, or spread over several weekends. These will get you through either the BSAC Novice Diver standard, or the Professional Association of Diving Instructor's (PADI) Open Water certificate. The PADI qualification is generally regarded as less demanding, while the more intense BSAC course is a better grounding for those who want to go for the more advanced qualifications. But either certificate will let you take a diving holiday abroad with a licensed operator.

Of the various UK dive schools offering residential courses, my first choice would be The Diver Training College, situated (ironically) far from the coast in the village of Appleton Roebuck just south of York. Staying B&B nearby, you attend daily or weekend pool-based classes, then have a lot of time off to explore the city of York, the Moors, the Dales, and the rest of that beautiful county.

If you would prefer to be by the sea, Divers Down, which operates from the pier in the pretty Dorset seaside town of Swanage, offers similar pool-based courses (sea-based ones in the summer) with, again, a lot of time off for clifftop walks and other trips through the surrounding county. Again, you can take an intensive course or break it up over several weekends.

Both schools offer the basic BSAC and PADI courses. But they can also take you to higher levels - if you find that, having attained your initial certificate the winter months are still looming long and cold, you could start climbing the next few rungs of the diving ladder: Novice Diver II, Sport Diver and Dive Leader. There is a specific course for each qualification, covering dive theory, the basic physics of air pressure and the human body and the functioning of equipment - from aqua lungs and air-compressors to the different types of wet and dry suits. The more advanced stages offer training in use of sea-charts, and understanding currents and tides.

However, before taking the plunge (pun intended), you should be aware that sub-aqua diving has certain physiological requirements. Before you can register for a course you will have to pass a medical examination. As a rule, people with epilepsy, diabetes, acute asthma or other respiratory problems may not dive. However, these rules are not hard-and-fast, it depends on the nature of your ailment, If you are unsure, ring the dive school and talk it over with them.

Come next year, when you're diving in the Red Sea, the Great Barrier Reef or even the wrecks off Scotland, you'll pat yourself on the back for having spent the winter doing something so useful. Unless you decide to take off before then, of course. There are many great winter dive spots: Egypt, Kenya, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean... All you need is that piece of paper.

diving fact box

Addresses

The Diver Training College, Ashley House, Malt Kiln Lane, Appleton Roebuck, York, N.Yorks, tel (01904) 744424

Portland Dive Centre, Portland, Dorset, tel: (01305) 820870

Season

Both schools open all year.

Accommodation

Neither school actually provides on-site accommodation, but both will book you in somewhere locally, mindful of your budgetary constraints.

Food

Not provided - you take your meals elsewhere.

Children

Minimum age 14, anyone under 18 needs consent of parent or guardian.

Disabled Facilities

None.

Insurance

BSAC/PADI cover included in course tariff.

Safety

All instructors trained in first aid and sub-aqua rescue.

Affiliations

British Sub Aqua Club; Professional Association of Diving Instructors.

Tariffs

Prices include all tuition and equipment hire. BSAC Novice Diver I & II four-day course costs pounds 280. BSAC Sports Diver five-day course costs between pounds 300 and pounds 400. Advanced courses by arrangement; contact centre for price details.

Booking

Booking normally made in advance, but late bookings accepted if space available. Payment by cash, cheque or credit card.

Access

Diver Training College: if arriving by car, Appleton Roebuck lies about three miles southeast of the main A64 between Tadcaster and York. Those arriving by train or bus should go to York, from where they can arrange for a lift with the centre. A small fee to cover petrol will be charged.

Portland Dive Centre: Portland is located on the island south of Dorchester. There is a railway station at Weymouth, about a 20-minute drive away.

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