On the London Underground the unwritten rule is that you don’t talk. A fleeting smile across the aisle might just be in order. And, if you are old, you might get away with asking someone next to you if their interesting-looking book is a good read, if they would recommend it. A transient, non-transgressive book clubbish bonding. If the title is Satanic Paedophilia, avoid. The under-70s should prudently keep the rule of silence.
Walking along the beaches in East Anglia south of Lowestoft – where there are long stretches of firm sand at low tide – is another matter. You can, perhaps should, acknowledge passing people, chat to them, even enquire where they live. Admire their dog, or post-lockdown more frequently dogs, and have a few pro-forma, pro-canine words at the ready. Commenting on an owner’s failure to demonstrate control of their dog, much shouting at the unleashed pet which is ignoring all calls and nearly knocking you over, is not advisable.
This narrow strip where the North Sea meets land is a remarkably social space. You can talk to fellow walkers. It must be something to do with there not being many of us during January. There is mutual recognition, all members of a select minority who, when weather permits, quietly delight in the low Winter sun spreading a glittering triangle on the sea. Even the fishermen, here for quiet and contemplation, will briefly chat.
Apart from walkers, the most likely to stop and talk are the detectorists slowly sweeping the pebbles and sand for hidden treasure. The Detectorists (the comedy series BBC4 2014-2017) introduced Britain to two Essex characters Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and their metal detecting club. Filmed in Suffolk on location at Framlingham, Great Glenham and Orford, the series may have created a small local surge in detectorists. It would be interesting to know if viewers after watching found our real-life, local Suffolk searchers more endearing or more eccentric or both. If you stop them in mid-sweep on the beach, you are rewarded with engaging conversations with self-taught men who are both detectives and proto-archaeologists, who know their local history, and are not odd at all.
Our - truthful - approach to beach detectorists has been to explain first that we are looking for stories to put into emails to young grandchildren in North America who, blessedly, are spared knowing about Boris Johnson and the routinely newsworthy in Britain. Asking “What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever found?” is the prelude to a fascinating dive into the past: a bronze age axe-head and why they were stored underground (because they deteriorate in the air over time); gold coins – I looked up the find of an Henry VIII ‘angel’ and there was a 16th century golden Archangel Michael making short shrift of a dragon; the humble silver groat minted for five centuries until the 1860s; a mysterious gold ring with a Nazi Swastika on the inside – a drowned German sailor or a careless Mosley fascist signalling to a German submarine? One man had taken his kit on holiday to Bermuda and found a bit that had dropped off Apollo 13. All good story material. Though none of the detectorist I have spoken to shared Lance and Andy’s obsession with finding the burial site of King Sexred of the East Saxons.
There is something about the beach at Dunwich which specially attracts real-life detectorists. I’ve never seen them on North Sea beaches elsewhere. It may be because the port town featured in the Doomsday book with a population comparable to London at that time - at least 15 times greater than Dunwich today - but the town shrank as the mouth of its river finally silted up in 1328 and changed its course to Blythburgh and the sea. A number of huge storm surges in the 13th century and the St. Marcellus Flood of 16 January 1362, known as the Great Drowning, left most of what remained of Dunwich completely submerged. Today the sea offshore from Dunwich, ten metres below the waves, is a marine archaeological site. Who wouldn’t wonder whether artefacts from the depths might be washed up?
The detectorists I’ve chatted with enjoy digging and reaching back into the past. They express a certain awe when questioned. They have a historical humility, a sense that the past has something to say to us from which we can learn. There is also the expectation and hope that they will unearth something historically significant. But it is not like the Lottery a venal hope for an unearned fortune of a lifetime. The detectorists I have met are scrupulous about handing over any important finds to authorities and museums. The key word is ‘unearthing’. These men are in the very human business of revealing the hidden. You might even say - after a few pints of Adnams - they are the artisans of our apocalyptic 21st century humbly involved in apokálypsis, uncovering and revealing what has been hidden, lent us from the past. Though I’m not sure Lance and Andy would put it quite like that.
See TheArticle 21/02/2022
Walking along that beach and thinking of what Dunwich must have once been makes me very weepy.
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