Diving into History with the English Heritage Dive Trails

Alison James is a maritime archaeologist based in the Designation Department of English Heritage. Part of her role includes the licensing and management of sites designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

As a maritime archaeologist who dives I am lucky enough to get the opportunity to access some of the 47 Protected Wreck Sites that are currently designated off England. Maritime archaeology is often by its very nature inaccessible, lying deep beneath the waves and out of sight of the majority of the population. This means that is it vital to engage audiences with maritime archaeology through specific education and outreach programmes designed to raise the profile of our shared submerged cultural heritage.

By making the results of research widely available it is possible to increase knowledge and understanding, attract new visitors, and prompt new questions to ensure that the historic environment is placed high in the consciousness of future generations. In order to achieve this for offshore sites, English Heritage has supported the creation of a number of dive trails on wreck sites designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. Trails are currently running on three sunken wooden warships (HMS Colossus, Coronation and Norman’s Bay) although plans are in place for another to open later this year on the submarine HMS/m A1.

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Divers explore the Coronation protected wreck site. Copyright The Coronation Wreck Project

By encouraging responsible access to the sites, these diver trails provide interpretation material and enhanced access by licensed visiting divers and we have plans to implement additional trails over the coming years. English Heritage also benefits from increased visitors to these sites as divers are encouraged to share with us photos taken on their visits which can enable site monitoring (for Heritage at Risk purposes) while the additional presence of licensed divers on site can act as a deterrent to anyone thinking of illegally accessing the wrecks.

The trail on HMS Colossus is a good example. Colossus was a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line built at Gravesend, and launched in 1787. Her last naval engagement was at the Battle of Cape St Vincent (1797), during the course of which she was badly damaged. The Colossus was stripped of her stores to repair the serving ships, and ordered to return to England, carrying wounded from the battle, along with prize items and part of a collection of Greek antiquities amassed by Sir William Hamilton.

The Colossus approached the Channel in December 1798 but came aground on Southward Well Rocks in the Isles of Scilly. The stern section of the Colossus was designated in 2001 and the site includes a large section of ship structure, cannon, and among other items, muskets, mizzen chains and a rudder gudgeon. There is still large amount to see on the seabed and it was realised that this would be of great interest to visiting divers.

Funding from English Heritage enabled the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society to plan and to install a dive trail on Colossus. Divers visiting the site are given a briefing about the site and what they can expect to see by a local boat skipper before they enter the water. They are also given an underwater guide book which guides them around a trail of numbered seabed stations that highlight interesting features.

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A visiting diver explores the Colossus using an underwater guide book. Copyright: CISMAS
dive trail booklet
Example pages from the Colossus underwater guide. Copyright: CISMAS

The feedback from all of the trails has been fantastic, with divers really benefiting from the enhanced visitor experience. It can sometimes be difficult to orientate oneself underwater and to understand what one is seeing, so the trail booklets really do help. There are additional secondary benefits too; it has long been established that the heritage values of wreck sites can also provide social and economic benefits through being utilised as a learning or recreational resource, or as a generator of tourism.

Recent research commissioned by English Heritage, and undertaken by the Nautical Archaeology Society, has also demonstrated that that diver trails have local economic benefits too (over and above heritage values) which demonstrates the importance of underwater heritage and tourism as a contribution to the growth agenda – a fact recognised by the UK Government. For example, the diver trail on the Protected Wreck Coronation (in the Plymouth area) was worth £42,557 to the local economy last year alone.

We do appreciate not everyone can dive and indeed not all of the protected wreck sites are underwater. The Amsterdam, Anne and the wreck at Seaton Carew can all be accessed by non-divers at low tide. To enable interpreted access at these sites a series of installation panels have been installed and, who knows; the future may even see smart phone apps being developed to provide further interpretative tours!

See one dive group’s experience of diving on the Coronation dive trail.

To find out more about the dive trails and how to take part please get in touch or see our website to find out more about individual sites.

For more information on specific trails please visit; Colossus, Coronation and Norman’s Bay.

Alison James – Designation Department

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