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Image: Steve Beech for Time Out

‘It’s quite grounding’: the strange resurgence of metal detecting

With cult followings and an inclusive ethos, the kitsch hobby is getting a makeover for the modern age

Written by
Amelia Stout

Picture it. A group of eager hobbyists meet at dawn, headphones on, metal detectors at the ready. They’re standing on a piece of average-looking farmland: on top of the foundations of a duke’s palace from centuries past. The search starts and it looks promising, for sure. But hours go by and they haven’t found anything of note, bar a couple of beer cans and ring pulls. Then, just as the hopefuls are about to trudge back to their cars, muddy and defeated, the cry goes up. ‘Gold!’

Nothing, you would think, could appeal more to the human imagination than finding treasure. It’s a fantasy that pops up everywhere from the Holy Grail to modern heist thrillers. And yet, to most people, metal detecting still seems inaccessible and esoteric.

But today’s detectorists — and you must call them detectorists, not detectors (a term saved for the machines they wield) — are on a mission to change that. With advancing tech, social media and better accessibility, their hobby is getting a makeover for the modern age. And people just can’t get enough.

One notable change in metal detecting since it took off in the ’70s is the quality of the detectors themselves.‘Technology-wise, things have really come on leaps and bounds,’ says detecting expert, writer and YouTuber Graeme Rushton, who’ll appear on the upcoming BBC show ‘Lost in the Lakes’. With multi-frequency machines now commonplace, ‘people can use these detectors anywhere — land, beach, wet sand — and they are extremely stable.’

Plus, unlike in the early days of metal detecting, there are numerous GPS-aided apps for tracking routes and marking finds, plus an ever-expanding digital database of items collated by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (run by the British Museum).

Developing tech is all well and good, but anyone who’s ever driven past a group of camo-clad, space-age detector-swinging hobbyists in a field might worry that detectorists are overly obsessed with gadgetry and kit. Newbie detectorists, though, are shunning this stereotype.

There’s no snobbery: if you walk over that special find, you’ll be the one to unearth it

Ellie Verrecchia, 46, started detecting last year near her home in South Devon and records her finds as Miss Detectorist on Instagram. ‘There’s no snobbery about kit in detecting at all,’ she says. ‘You can turn up at a dig in wellies and a fleece [with] an entry-level machine, and if you walk over that special find, you’ll be the one to unearth it. In that respect it’s a very levelling hobby — you can be a 40-year veteran of detecting and find nothing of note, and a complete novice could pick up a detector for the first time and find a hoard.’

Like Ellie, many female detectorists have embraced social media as a way of championing women’s voices in a historically male-dominated hobby. Lucie Gray, 32, and Ellie Bruce, 24, run the popular Instagram page Roman Found, which boasts 85k followers. There, they chronicle their wildest discoveries, from Viking silver to a lead owl that would have been thrown in an 18th-century version of coconut shy. 

Both with backgrounds in art and design, the pair started Roman Found in 2021 ‘as a creative outlet for sharing finds and channelling creativity through photography and videography.’

‘It’s really the story behind the object which gets people hooked,’ they say. ‘Once we started sharing more of these stories in our distinctive style, we found our channel growing.’ 

A girl with a metal detector
Photograph: Alissa Honeywill

These women don’t have decades of detecting experience or historical training (‘up until now, I got all my knowledge from ‘‘Horrible Histories’’ and ‘‘Blackadder’’,’ jokes Verrecchia), but they know as well as the seasoned pros that detecting is largely a game of being in the right place at the right time. ‘One of our favourite finds came when we were relative rookies, with a basic range machine,’ say Gray and Bruce. ‘When the arc of a double rainbow just happened to land in the field we were detecting we immediately laughed and joked about finding “gold at the end of the rainbow.”’ As fate would have it, they found a Henry VII Angel, a rare kind of gold hammered coin.

As the metal-detecting world opens up to a more diverse spread of participants, it knows it must address the challenge of becoming more accessible to people with varying levels of mobility. This is a top priority for the Kendal and District Metal Detecting Club, whose one-hundred-plus members range from 11 to 84 years old.

For one member, Steven Davies – who holds an MSc in Ecology and Conservation and is a fan of the show ‘River Hunters’ metal detecting had always appealed. But, he says, having cerebral palsy: ‘[I was] always told I could not do metal detecting because I used a crutch to get around.’ 

You can feel the centuries of people before you – it’s quite grounding

‘My parents were told I would be unable to walk, be blind and never achieve in life,’ he says. After starting detecting in May last year, Steven now finds himself embedded in a ‘brilliant’ community and with a Georgian bronze tap to his name already. His advice? ‘Dig everything.’ Even if the signal indicates a less valuable material like iron, ‘the history and heritage can still be interesting.’

Today’s detectorists are humorously aware of how bonkers their hobby appears to the rest of the world. The eccentricity of the metal detecting community has been a running joke since the cult BBC comedy ‘Detectorists’, and this certainly holds true. Detectorists, for instance, have a term for absolutely everything. Some coins that might have once fallen from someone’s pocket are known as a ‘pocket spill’. The table on which the day’s discoveries are displayed is ‘The Finds Table’. And just as you’ve got to grips with the lexicon of mainstream detecting, then there are things like mudlarking, magnet fishing and nighthawking to contend with.

For set designer Simon Beresford, 54, the nerdiness of the detecting community is something to be owned and relished. He discovered the hobby as a way of entertaining his kids during the pandemic and now sits on the committee of his local history society.

A man standing with a metal detector
Photograph: Simon Beresford

‘It’s so eccentric,’ he laughs. He once found what he thought was a worthless 1970s brooch, only to be chased across Waterloo Bridge by a woman informing him it was in fact Roman and suggesting he take it to a museum. (He did and it was.)

Another time, Simon took a cab to Greenwich to detect near the remains of the Tudor pier, only to beckon the bemused driver down to the foreshore. ‘He was like, “okay you’re a bit weird” and got in his car and went,’ he says, before unearthing a pristine piece of 16th-century 24-carat gold.

The items found can be just as quirky as the people encountered. Simon tells me he recently dug up the keys to a private safe deposit box in Mayfair. ‘I phoned up the company — they’re still there — and they were like “well, we’re going to have to try and get in touch with the owner but if we can’t, we’ll get back in touch with you’’,’ he says. ‘So I’ve got these keys and hopefully they’ll get back in touch with me and say I can look in it.’

Today’s detectorists are keen to depart from the idea of metal detecting as a money-making enterprise. They’re in it for the history and for the social connection. And they’re in it for the meditative experience that time outdoors, swinging a detector, can bring. As Simon puts it: ‘You can feel the centuries of people before you and you’re just here for your amount of time, then you’re gone. It’s quite grounding.’

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