Join Two Real-Life Treasure Hunters to Find Out Why People Love Metal Detecting as a Hobby | Books | Entertainment
Nigel Richardson with Kat Hopps
“I’m a natural,” I think, with unbearable smugness. “A bona fide detective!” I watch the floor eagerly as my companion, metal detecting guru Andy Sampson, cuts a square hole with a sturdy shovel and pulls out a coin-sized disk. Wiping mud from its surface, it asks, “Do you know what it is?” “A gold coin, a bronze brooch… even a piece of jewelry, perhaps? No. It’s a shotgun cap. “Oh.”
I just experienced what could be described as pride in front of a hole – something my fellow Detective Nigel Richardson understands all too well if his wry smile is anything to say.
The travel writer became addicted to “happy beeps”, as he describes metal detecting, during the pandemic when he got stuck on the floor of his house.
Now that he’s written an entertaining book, The Accidental Detectorist, he’s promised to show me the addictive quality and bucolic charms of the hobby.
“I realized that metal detecting was another way to travel,” he explains. “It’s actually time travel. When you find the objects, you’re transported back to when they came from and to the people who last touched them.”
Nigel Richardson and Andy Sampson explain the ‘curvy line’ technique to Kat Hopps
Today his friend Andy secured permission for us to rake the rolling farmland near the Anglo-Saxon town of Framlingham, Suffolk. Britain’s most easterly county is just behind
Norfolk as a repository of uncovered treasures, with a staggering 581 finds officially recorded here between 2012 and 2019.
Practically, Framlingham is also the setting of the cult BBC comedy series Detectorists, starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as Andy and Lance.
The charming series about a small-town metal detecting club has won over legions of fans for its sweet humor. Written and directed by Crook – better known as Gormless Gareth from The Office – it aired on BBC 4 from 2014 to 2017. And it’s set to return for a Christmas special this year after a five-year hiatus.
In the meantime, this has given us an excuse to recreate a pose of Andy and Lance’s famous lunch tree, one of dozens of gnarled oaks that stand in the fields of Framlington.
Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook)
Nigel, 64, a kind and caring man, particularly likes Crook’s witty dialogue. “It was one of my inspirations to write my book,” he says. “I thought it captured something about the English character – the soft humor and the scenery.”
Andy, who is jovial with sandy hair and a ruddy complexion, has been exploring these sites since 2014. His biggest find was a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age ax head on a Welsh farmhouse, but he made the headlines in 2018 when he and his friend unearthed a treasure trove of 54 “golden” coins that turned out to be props from the Detectorists.
“I’m still in therapy on this,” he smiles. We’re about to head into what he calls “the field of Roman dreams,” so I put the headphones back on for another attempt.
Andy demonstrates low, fast swings that turn into smaller circular motions when the beeps become urgent. The numbers flash on the screen and fluctuate wildly when metal is detected.
“It could be foil or gold, which is fun,” he explains.
Buttons are common, as are nails, coins, rings, bits of iron, and “shotties”, the aforementioned shotgun carriages. Worthless items are discarded as “hedge fodder”.
Most metal detecting beginners want to find a “hammered” – a handcrafted piece produced until the 17th century by striking a disc of blank metal wedged between two dies.
“I kept running into people who started after me but found them and it really pissed me off,” Nigel says. There is no doubt that metal detecting can be competitive.
“Every new field is a hope, every old one is a reality,” says Nigel.
“You learn a lot about yourself. In the beginning, I was quite childish, tapping my feet and was jealous of what other people found. It helped me grow in a way.”
After six months, he finally found half an Elizabeth I silver gruel, explaining, “It didn’t matter to most sleuths but it was important to me.”
Indeed, many finders insist that the thrill of a find is not about its monetary value.
“It’s a moment when you touch this object that hasn’t seen daylight for hundreds of years, thousands in some cases, and it’s a dopamine rush,” Nigel continues.
“It’s extraordinary. It puts you in touch with when it came from and who it belonged to – whether it’s a coin in someone’s pocket or a a brooch on someone’s tunic. These items tell stories and encourage you to spin some yourself.”
I can’t wait to find out what the ultimate find is. “The holy grail of metal detecting is the holy grail,” Nigel and Andy sing in unison, spades slung over their shoulders, as they move on to the next field.
It was recently plowed, leaving wheat stalks and loose soil. A flock of birds passes overhead as the sun rises. Only the whistling wind interrupts the peace.
A copse of tall trees stands on the crest of the hill to our right, where Andy thinks a Roman settlement once stood. He shows us in the distance the place where we have just arrived, where he thinks there is an old cemetery.
He found a belt hanger there – an iron pendant symbolizing a house key traditionally buried with women in Anglo-Saxon times – and believes the settlement would have faced it. My instinct is to crisscross the earth in straight lines like a tractor, but Nigel and Andy encourage the “wavy line” approach. The secret is intuition, they say.
I watch them go in opposite directions and observe their process. Andy frequently stops to dig a hole, crouching down to use a Pointer, a mini wand-like metal detector.
A former policeman, he knows friends with depression and PTSD who benefit from the hobby. “It’s soothing and you’re on your own,” he explains.
Nigel adds: “It’s a gregarious hobby – you’re with people at the start and end of the day, and out in the field – but it’s also lonely. And being in nature is healthy and therapeutic. “
Finders are encouraged to register finds of historical or cultural value with the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a database recording 1.6 million objects for posterity. Discoveries classified as “treasure” must be reported to local coroners within 14 days.
Nigel’s first encounter with a detector took place ten years ago near his 500-year-old cottage in Hampshire. “He must have been one of those boring fools who roam the fields in earphones and rubber boots, looking for something they never find,” he wrote. Today, he reflects: “I felt rather superior to him. I thought he was a bit of a nerd.”
But during the first lockdown, when he took longer walks, he began to wonder who had taken these same paths in previous ages. His curiosity turned into an obsession after a trip to Kent with detectorist Kris Rogers, who once found a hoard of Bronze Age ax heads now in the British Museum.
The duo unearthed a Tudor buckle made of copper alloy and camouflaged by a layer of green patina. “No one had touched it for 500 years,” recalls Nigel. Andy joins us to press another nugget of history into my hand, a fragment of a Roman coin made from a bronze and copper alloy. There is a profile of a face on the back and the tiny figures of Romulus and Remus under a she-wolf on the front.
As we passed to our final field, Nigel dug up what may be a dog tag belonging to a WWII American serviceman. He can just make out “ALIF” – for “CALIFORNIA” maybe – and the letters “3182”.
He keeps his finds in Tupperware boxes in his office. Each object is placed in a small resealable plastic bag, labeled with black marker. “Do you show them,” I ask? “Yeah, I annoy people.” “No, you educate them,” adds Andy.
Before ending the day, I ask about so-called nightjars, illegal scouts that raid fields without permission, often during hours of darkness, and sell their catch to the highest bidder.
Earlier this week a rogue metal detectorist jailed for stealing Viking treasure worth up to £5.2million told a court he bet the money he won with the treasure. Warehouseman George Powell, 40, did not declare rare coins and jewelry that had been buried for more than 1,100 years.
“Nobody knows how many of them are out there,” Nigel says. But a report by Historic England found almost a fifth of farms had been hit by peddling.
Andy is more open-minded. “Part of the problem with night owls is that archaeologists look down on metal detectors,” he says. He knows detectives who believe they have been wronged over reported discoveries, leaving them missing by hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds.
The sun is going down in the sky so we reluctantly call it a day.
I can say that both men are a bit disappointed that we haven’t found something bigger. It is difficult to pull them out. “Just one last signal?” they ask. And, in all honesty, that’s fine with me.
- Nigel Richardson’s The Accidental Detectorist (Cassell, £20) is out now. For free UK postage and delivery go to expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832