Can I set the scene? It’s a beautiful English summer’s day. We’re on a sandy beach in North Yorkshire. It’s one of those rare, ultra-calm, windless days when sound travels with exceptional clarity and everything feels close, and yet distant, at the same time.
There are several families on the beach, climbing on the rocks, building sandcastles, skimming pebbles into the sea. The air is perforated with the shrill cries of children on the beach and those of the circling seabirds overhead.
A group of canoeists paddles into the bay and beach their canoes. About 10 of them sit down on the beach and produce a lavish and unlikely picnic, cracking open bottles of beer and reclining in wet-suited splendour, looking, from a distance, half-human, half-seal.
On the cliffs we can see nesting gulls. There are bird-watchers toting binoculars and draped in bits of kit. There to spot anything with feathers. Crowds of twitchers along the clifftop, angling their necks and pointing their bins to capture the plummet of the gannet; the serene arc of the curlew; the rock-hopping of the oyster-catcher; the busy aeronautics of distant puffins.
The tide is at its lowest, so you can clamber all the way through some of the caves and reach the open see the other side. The rock pools are populated with anemones and seaweed. There are barnacles aplenty on the craggy rocks. With a firm stab of a booted foot, you can dislodge a stubborn little arthropod, inspect its inner workings, emit a noise of fascinated disgust, and carefully reinstate them on the rock. You can look for crabs in the rock pools.
Then, a new couple comes down the steep steps carrying two metal contraptions. Those of us already established on the beach are giving them the once over. Gently sizing up the new arrivals, as they rattle their way onto the strand. We reckon that they are mother – probably in her 60s – and grown-up son – around about 40. We surmise that he’s single, quite possibly still living in the maternal home. Something about his clothing suggests that: the saggy luminous orange kagool zipped up despite the clement weather. Beige trousers that are just a bit too short in the leg. And, the footwear: a frightful public union of sandals and socks, so often the preserve of the unattached.
Saying very little to one another, each puts on a pair of chunky red head-phones. They plug the lead into their devices. And off they go. Pacing – slowly, methodically – up the beach. Sweeping their instruments before them. Immediately engaged in their work. Immersed. Listening intently for a ping – a ping that would signal the confirmation of metal. Occasionally they stop; put the metal detector to one side; and dig with a small trowel in the sand. And turn up something, nothing. Something and nothing.
They do this for an hour and a half. Gradually, the pair becomes the object of most people’s attention. As we all keep a casual eye on them, questions gently mount in the mind, like sand passing through an hourglass.
Eventually, idle curiosity grows into something more urgent and we have to break the silence. Someone goes over to address the pair. “Have you found anything yet?”. The man, to whom the question was directed, jumps in surprise. “Sorry!”, we say. “Didn’t mean to shock you…. Have you found anything?”. Probably an annoying question to poke into this unwelcome break in his focus. “Not yet”. It’s clear that conversation is not high on his agenda for the day. “What’s the best thing you’ve found?”, we persist. “Found a Roman coin once. Gave that in. Mostly it’s ring pulls ‘n shot gun cartridges”.
So, let’s get this straight. You spend all that time looking and you only get to keep the things that aren’t worth anything. “Yes, that’s about it”.
All pass-times can seem a bit clubby, a bit geeky to the uninitiated. But it’s fair to say that metal detecting would probably come in quite low on a league table of activities that command instant respect. Adrenalin sports would top that table: base-jumping; parkour; free-climbing. These are high impact activities where adventure, movement and risk are the chief gods.
Your deities are different. The gods of metal detecting are method, patience and luck. It is a ritual of hope.
An archaeologist will likely bristle at the sight of you. Others might disparage you as funny, slightly deluded individuals grubbing about in largely fruitless isolation. I’ve never done any metal detecting but there’s something rather wonderful about the sight of you. The undiluted focus, the obsessive fascination, the hermetic zeal of the activity. Something meditative about the gentle hovering of the detector disc above the ground, its faithful attention fixed on the floor, as you guide its slow, sweeping motion.
You and your metal detector are bound in a mutual and private search. You seem so focused on the detecting work, so insulated from other events, that I could easily imagine you walking with steady confidence off a cliff – still listening for the jubilant beep.
Why do you do it? Is it because you’re looking to find that special find? Or because you are part of a citizen scientist movement, democratising knowledge and encouraging a love of heritage. Or, do you do it because the process of looking is, in itself, a pleasant, addictive, even life-enhancing state? Metal detecting, like fishing, is about waiting.
So, I’m putting aside any sniggering assumption that people who use metal detectors should be pitied or even derided for their dodgy clothing and apparent lack of social skills. I’m going to park the idea that your type are acquisitive Golums, addicted to antique shiny things; or rural bounty hunters methodically stripping the land of its precious little secrets. Maybe you detectorists are ok. Oddly cool. Maybe even role models.
As an activity, metal detecting requires patience and method. It encourages the constant readiness for discovery; the acceptance of simple labour in the pursuit of some ecstatic moment, a chance unearthing of something really interesting, really valuable. Like all the best hobbies, metal detecting stands on a central foundation of futility. And the infinite resurgence of hope over experience.
If I’m feeling poetic, I could see your metal detectors as instruments of hope. Ok, they may not be style magnets but, viewed in this way, they are images of the human being’s desire and determination, to search out truth and beauty, and to continue to hope that truth and beauty do indeed lie out there. Truth and beauty are often to be found buried, obscured by the accumulated silt of other, less remarkable things.
All the great thinkers and spiritual leaders have emphasised the need for hope. We know that human beings are capable of acts of ugliness, cowardice and falsehood. These thinkers hold us firm to the belief that, as individuals and as communities, human beings are capable of great beauty, courage and truth. And that these great universals can be unearthed in all kinds of places; in all kinds of interactions with others.
Presumably, detectorists are afflicted by finite disappointment on a routine basis. It’s part of the process. But you seem to be powered by infinite hope. Maybe you detectorists aren’t that odd after all.
Maybe I’ll follow you up the beach and see what I might find. Or not find.