Northern Diver is the UK’s most comprehensive scuba diving equipment manufacturer and distributor, and – with no pun intended – a company with hidden depths to its operation
Founded by Mike Armitage in 1979, Northern Diver was the first company in the UK to make drysuits, handmade by Armitage himself in the upstairs front bedroom of a terraced house in Standish, Greater Manchester.
‘I’d seen other people in drysuits and thought – I can’t really afford to buy one,’ said Armitage, ‘so I bought the neoprene and a zip … and I made a drysuit. It went well, I wore it that summer; met some people who wanted to buy six more from me, so we started to produce more.’
There is much more to Northern Diver than drysuits, however, something Military and Commercial Sales Director, Neil Tordoff, is keen to point out when DIVE visited its headquarters for a tour of the facilities.
Top kit from Northern Diver
‘A lot of people perceive Northern Diver to be a drysuit manufacturer, because that’s where the company started its life,’ he said. ‘But, we have a much broader product range than that. We sell to commercial customers, the oil and gas industry; we do a contaminated water suit, we have a military product range with over 2000 line items, the fire and rescue and swift water teams that we also deal with. And then, of course, recreational.’
Located on a quiet and inconspicuous Lancashire country lane in Appley Bridge, near Wigan, drysuits are definitely a feature; the workshop is busy with staff constructing individually handcrafted suits. Stepping out of the workshop and taking a walk around the rest of the currently expanding complex, however, feels at times like an expedition through Q’s basement in a James Bond movie.
There might not be any exploding fountain pens, but there is an array of cutting-edge technology on display that Commander Bond is certainly missing out through not having at his disposal. One of the most notable of such items on display being a bespoke RAID case filled with the latest incarnation of Northern Diver’s underwater navigation and sonar system, Nimrod, a tool that – among other things – aids military divers in mine clearing operations and target location; or assists commercial divers in finding buried pipelines and well-heads.
If the use of such gear while underwater might compromise a diver’s ability to swim, they might benefit from being propelled through the water by the hands-free, personal leg-mounted dual thruster system that a technician is assembling in the workshop next door.
Behind Northern Diver’s extensive array of equipment – of which its navigation, communications and propulsion gear barely scratch the surface – is a programme of hands-on research and development, aided by one of its most recent additions to the site, a 23m-deep tank constructed from an offshore wind-turbine transition piece (the base used for the installation of the main shaft), which during DIVE’s visit is being used to test a device which will automatically deploy a surface marker buoy once the equipment to which it is attached to reaches a certain depth.
If there is any measure by which the manufacturing standards a company adheres to can be judged, it is the standards required by the Armed Forces, which regularly audit the work of their suppliers. In an environment where poor build quality may mean the difference between life and death, second-best is not an option.
Not only does NorthernDiver currently supply all three service branches of the UK’s armed forces, it has just had its contracts renewed.
Alongside Northern Diver’s military diving division are its Rescue and Commercial sectors, through which many police forces, fire departments and search and rescue teams across the UK and Europe are provided with kit designed to withstand the most challenging environments in which any diver may need to operate.
It could, therefore, be argued that a drysuit (or torch, bag, dinghy, BCD or regulator) bought from the supplier of equipment to people who rely on its ability to function well beyond just keeping its wearer warm, is probably a manufacturer that those of us who simply prefer not to be cold will appreciate.
There is little that Northern Diver does not offer in the way of dive kit. Not all of it is made in Appley Bridge, but the products that are made overseas are made in
factories that Northern Diver owns, by staff that Northern Diver has trained.
In addition to the huge array of equipment that it offers, the company has also installed a cutting-edge servicing system for the rapid cleaning and hydrostatic testing of dive tanks.
All of the standard gear that a diver could require – even the boats to get to the dive site – is available for purchase. And, if that’s not enough, Mike has an extensive and impressive collection of antique diving equipment available for sale through the company’s website.
Also, as it happens, Northern Diver makes drysuits.