What an experience that was!

Anne Hirst (Annie) is the owner and operator of Garn Isaf. When two NAS/MADU members came to visit her in 2017, little did she know what she was in for!

I first met Lynn Jones and Ian Cundy (MADU/NAS members) about two and a half years ago when they came down to Pembrokeshire and stayed in Garn Isaf Guesthouse. They talked about running a diving field study in the area and I thought that would be fantastic, even though when I had dived the SS Leysian I never thought there was much really to see. This is probably because the visibility was never that good when I dived it many years ago.

Some time passed, and then out of the blue, Ian contacted me again to look at the possibility of running the NAS Diving Fieldschool from here at Garn Isaf! 

After several visits by Ian and fellow MADU member Bill Turner, the logistics of running the diving fieldschool at Garn Isaf was discussed and dates agreed. There was some concern from some of the Abercastle Boat Association. But over a couple of meetings, Ian and Bill listened to the concerns of two men in particular and reassured them that the fieldschool would not cause them any trouble. What lovely people they are- Ian and Bill.

Bill Turner on the left and Ian Cundy on the right

So the time of the fieldschool approached and Ian and Bill arrived on the Thursday, staying in our Guesthouse, so that all would be ready. On the Friday they were here to start welcoming people attending the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) U-Boat Project 1914-18 (Commemorating the War at Sea) fieldschool at Abercastle from 7th -17th June 2019. I loved seeing all the dive boats arrive on site.

Line up of dive boats at Garn Isaf ready for launching the next day

It was great to see Lynn again, who came up with the main fieldschool idea, and to meet the many lovely people that helped run the fieldschool. There were also members of NAS and the ladies Deanna, Helen and Rita from the Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments of Wales who ran the information table at the weekends down by Abercastle bay for any locals and visitors to the area. Also attending were divers from many different dive clubs both from Wales and as far away as the Netherlands. One of my oldest friends from nursery and her family came on one of their regular visits to Garn Isaf and they ended up involved with the fieldschool!

Childhood friends! Sally Spencer on the left and Anne Hirst on the right.

The daily dive briefings and debriefing were overseen by Ian and were informative and interesting. It was so great to see the whole of Garn Isaf being used by divers again.

Every morning starts off with a dive briefing

I came to Garn Isaf, Abercastle through diving and due to various circumstances have become a lapsed diver (not an ex diver!). Ian had said he would get me back in the water after a dry spell of 14 years! Despite trying on two drysuits (thank you NAS Education Officer Peta and local dive shop owner Ceri for offering me your suits but neither fitted properly 😦 ). Although I would have loved to get a dive in, I decided that it wasn’t the time and I would want a bubble rather than being helpful to the dive fieldschool. 

Peta Knott assisting Anne with her drysuit

I did paddle out to the site on my sit-on kayak and could not believe how great the visibility it was. I could see the marker milk bottles that had been positioned on and around the wreck of the SS Leysian and I could still see them when I later walked along the cliffs above the wreck.

Beautiful Abercastle Bay

Each day, divers came back with the data, drawings and photographic images that the NAS crew then logged and collated. The whole running of the dive fieldschool was so well organised within a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. 

Diving was stopped for three and a half days due to northerly winds that come straight into Abercastle bay. All boats, including the local fishing boats, came out of the water. But that didn’t stop archaeological activities back at Garn Isaf base camp. Peta and Ian, as well as other tutors, supervised eLearning courses and ran practical courses – turning lawns and the barn into practical surveying areas.

In the back of our self-catering cottage Y Garn, or what was known as the Headquarters of the Fieldschool, a large paddling pool was set up so that the newly assemebled ROVs could make their test dives. The dining room of the Garn Isaf Guesthouse was often used as a classroom and we even had a really interesting talk and presentation by Richard Hughes from Red Dragon Divers on the Pocket Watch he had found on a dive many years previously when diving with Peter Davies, both of whom were involved in the fieldschool. 

Ian teaching ROV theory during non-diving time

On the Monday night Ian talked at a packed Mathry community hall, it was great to see so many locals take the time to come and hear about their local history. The comments and feedback that I heard about what NAS was doing out of Abercastle were fabulous. Although, unfortunately we still did not achieve our aim of finding a photo of SS Leysian during the eight months before she was salvaged. We were hoping a local might have had one, inherited from an ancestor.

At Ian’s talk, I loved hearing about all the findings that had been unearthed, the history of the boat and of mutiny aboard, the previous failing of the captain on his navigation certificate. It was also interesting to realise that the SS Leysian was almost half the size of the Titanic! As a horse owner, I found it sad that this ship had been used to take horses and mules, mainly to the front line, and most of them would die there. Although the last cargo of horses and mules was transported from the States to replenish the horses needed to work on farms in Ireland. I like to think they were the lucky horses of the SS Leysian, and hopefully they had long happy lives in Ireland. 

I also understood why a wreck half the size of the Titanic didn’t have more wreckage under the water. There were teams of men salvaging it whilst it stood upright for the eight months, and even when it had sunk there were teams of divers salvaging the wreck. The eldest resident in Abercastle, although not alive anymore, relayed how his father had been involved when the wreck finally sunk and had helped pump air to the hard hat divers below. How fantastic is that?!

Back to the present and diving again resumed. The boats were back in the water and the divers still had great visibility – they were unbelievably lucky! So many people were helping each other, it was truly great to see. The bottles were picked up, filled and returned by Ceri of Haven Diving Services who also buoyed the wreck and on occasion coxed a dive boat – helping anyway he could.

And then the day came when everyone left and Garn Isaf was made ready for holiday makers in the self catering, Guesthouse and Campsite. 

Like the NAS group, I also had a great team who helped make this run smoothly, thank you Darren, Lisa, Alex and Ibi.

I don’t believe this is the end, just a beginning. There is already talk of a reunion next May / June where the findings will be fed back at another meeting in Mathry so all the locals can see the results. And several dive clubs have expressed a desire to come back with more club members. I feel truly honoured that NAS used Garn Isaf as their base to run this – their biggest fieldschool in decades! I have thoroughly enjoyed it all and hope to see divers and dive clubs here as a regular thing. Anything we can do to help further dive trips – please just say.

It has also made me see an activity I loved to do up close and personal, so by the time of the reunion next year I will be back diving! And I will also have made a mosaic out of the bits of crockery that have been found in the bay and left here.

Thank you again to Lynn for your fieldschool idea, Ian and Bill for running it here and all the NAS members and divers. Thanks also to Nev our harbour master and Viv for providing his tractor to launch and recover many of the dive boats.

Abercastle boat launching facilities!

 Massive thanks to my team. And finally – let’s not forget the skipper than ran the SS Leysian into the rocks of Abercastle!! 

2 thoughts on “What an experience that was!

  1. You are truely a fabulous host Annie and I’m sure Garn Isaf will now become a popular place for many more divers and clubs to use as base camp ..
    Love you Boss xx


  2. Annie, it was an absolute pleasure to get back down to Abercastle after 12 years. It was from a diving perspective , a great 10 days, from putting the buoys in to taking them out at the end of the field school.
    To All your Staff and Locals involved intentionally and unintentionally a massive thanks. I hope this will be the start of a great resurgence within the diving community to dive back into Pembrokeshire
    Well Done All.


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