UK’s oldest diving school up for sale as Swanage couple retire

The well-known diving school, Divers Down on Swanage Pier is looking for a buyer after its owners decided to retire.

The leasehold to operate the diving school from the pier, along with the commercial premises is on the market for £400,000 and advertised on Rightmove.

Pete Williams and his partner Pat Collins took over the lease on the shop and diving business back in 2004. Dating back to 1958, it’s the oldest diving school in the UK.

They’re selling up but not hanging up their diving boots just yet and are actually looking forward to a busy retirement.

And though they want to step back from the frantic life of running such a busy enterprise, they will carry on diving.

Pete Williams and Pat Collins

Pete and Pat on Swanage Pier

“What a way to earn a living”

Pete Williams said:

“What a way to earn a living – doing what you love! Leaving the shop will be absolutely heartbreaking for us. It’s sad and good at the same time.

“We’re both getting older and there’s things to do. Covid has been a wakeup call to us all – time’s flying.

“I will carry on diving because I love it. I do a lot of coin diving – that’s my passion – it’s a history thing for me. I’ve found everything from ration tokens through to pieces of eight.”

Some of the many artefacts from the wreck of the Kyarra

Retirement plans

The couple are renovating an old survey vessel in Portland and plan to live on it as they go diving around the country.

Pete explained:

“We want to see more of the UK. We live in such a beautiful place. We’ve got everything we need here.”

Swanage Pier

Divers Down, situated on Swanage Pier, is the oldest diving school in the country

“Made so many amazing friends”

Pat said:

“We have made so many amazing friends over the years and got to meet so many nice people.

“I’m in the shop all the time so I don’t get the time to dive in the nice bit of the summer. It will be good to have time to do some of the things that we’ve been unable to do when running a business.”

Wreck sites in Swanage bay

There are an enormous number of wreck sites in and around Swanage Bay

“Fascination with the sea”

The shop and diving business are on the market for £400,000. Pete, a former carpenter from London, learnt to sea dive in Swanage and the couple first started running boats out of the bay in 1995.

He said:

“I just had a fascination with the sea and the sea creatures. The water is not as clear here as Cornwall but a lot clearer than Dover.”

Launch of the Spike
Divers Down

Naming of their boat Spike with the local lifeboat crew

“Not as much sea life”

As a diver, Pete has noticed considerable changes in the sea over the years.

He explained:

“There’s not as much sea life as there used to be. There are species that we don’t see now. We don’t see the massive shoals of mackerel that you used to, or the big cod or ling, there are not as many cuttlefish as there used to be. And you also don’t see crab or lobsters of any size.”

Other species have come into the gap – particularly octopus on the Peveril Ledges and squid.

He added:

“A lot of that is down to overfishing, not local vessels but beyond that, causing a decline in fish stocks. It’s upsetting but there is an abundance of juvenile life where there are fish, so stocks would recover if they would just ease off caning every aspect of the sea.”

Some of the fish found off Swanage – dragonet, cuttlefish, black-faced blenny

Water getting warmer

The water is also getting slightly warmer. He says that when they started out it was 17 Celsius in the summer and now it is just over 18C. He said the tides are also ‘more brutal’ these days. Local fishermen he talks to agree. He is reluctant to say why this might be – ‘we simply don’t know enough about it’.

One of the exciting things for divers out of Swanage is there are plenty of wrecks to explore. It was the hunting ground for German U-Boats in the First and Second World Wars, and ships from earlier years fell victim to the unpredictable seas and dangerous rocks.

The luxury cargo vessel Kyarra is a time capsule of treasures

“Hundred-year-old time capsule”

One of the most famous wrecks is the Kyarra, a luxury passenger cargo vessel that went down in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It was torpedoed by an ace U-Boat captain who sank two other vessels in the area in quick succession.

Pete joked:

“He did quite a lot for diving and the tourism industry, though I don’t think he knew it at the time.

“It’s like a hundred-year-old time capsule – all sorts have been recovered from it – like coins from nations that no longer exist, for instance Indo-China and Prussia. It was used for Australian troops taking their stuff home, so it had a lot of personal items.

“We found a little ‘trench art factory’ – he was making Turkish sabres because of course the Australians were in Gallipoli and around there – that’s a really nice little collection. Then there are just the common items like perfume that no longer exists or a marmite jar with a lead lid.”

Divers Down

Once a buyer is found Pete and Pat plan to sail round the UK on a restored survey ship

“Beds were empty”

Remarkably, the loss of life on the Kyarra was low – just six – because the troops were not on board – ‘it was full of cargo but the beds were empty’.

A much older wreck is the Campen off the Isle of Wight which was a ship with the Dutch East India Company which went down in 1627, when it was the unlucky one of three trying to ‘thread the Needles’ – going through the rocks off the tip of the island.

Other wrecks range from the Halsewell which sank in the early 1700s just past Dancing Ledge with a heavy loss of life, right up to a modern trawler that sank this century in the bay.

Swanage Bay

Swanage is where Pete first learnt to sea dive and it is an ideal place to learn

D-Day tanks

An unusual diving location are the Valentine Tanks – D-Day landing tanks which had skirting around them to help them float into the beaches. Several went down during an exercise ‘that should have been called off’ because of weather conditions.

The couple are currently only running one boat – Spike – but had three pre-Covid.

Pete said:

“We were starting to wind down anyway but we are hoping to go back to two boats.”

At weekends in season they run 3-4 trips a day, weekdays it’s between one and three depending on demand and weather conditions.

Pete Williams and Pat Collins

“It’s been a funny year” says Pete as he plans his retirement

Film work

The couple also do commercial work, like safety coordinating for the Bournemouth Air Show, surveying work on the Winfrith pipeline and film work on productions like Coast, Springwatch and the feature film Peter Pan. Most recently they helped on the TV series The Beast Must Die. And they were on hand to supervise when an unexploded German mine was detonated in the bay.

Pete said:

“It’s been a funny year. We are seeing a lot of people who couldn’t go abroad, so we are doing a lot of refresher courses to get people used to the UK waters again. It’s absolutely the busiest year we’ve ever seen. We can’t keep up with the number of people who want to dive.”

Others are returning after many years. Pete said:

“We’re even seeing people we taught to dive bringing their kids to learn, which is nice.”

Share this story

Contact us

Do you have anything to add to this story?

We like to keep everything up-to-date, so if you know more, please help us by getting in touch.

Community comments

Most recent

Singing in Swanage making a comeback after months of silence The director of music at St Mary’s Church in Swanage, is urging everyone to ‘Come and Sing’ again after Covid stopped everyone singing in public. 21 hours ago Swanage theatre director brings extraordinary show to the Lighthouse 2 days ago Million pound investment in Swanage Hospital unveiled to residents 3 days ago Purbeck Art Weeks’ Rollington Barn exhibition is back! 4 days ago Teenage boy allegedly robbed and threatened with knife in Swanage 4 days ago