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Review by Julie Barham

If you are interested in the process of finding objects from the past, this book, subtitled “Uncovering an Underground Obsession” will probably draw you in with its adventures of a travel writer discovering the world of metal detecting. Not that this is in any sense a “how to” guide; Richardson’s progress is a bit haphazard as he succumbs to the lure of the equipment, the thrill of the search and the obsession with finding certain items which would guarantee his full (unofficial) qualification as a detectorist. Along the way he not only discovers the problems of “moo tubes” and “hedge fodder”, but also the question of where to search without upsetting landowners. Not that he dreams of untold riches from his new hobby / obsession, though obviously he would not object, but he discovers an addiction to listening for the “happy beeps” which announce that he has found something interesting. The objects themselves, the buzz of digging up something that has not been seen or handled for decades or even centuries, are eagerly collected, and researched. The historical stories that they represent become fascinating and informative, leading to much speculation and conjecture. The small pieces he finds are the source of pride and encourage his efforts to pursue more enticing sites.

The other element of this book that I especially enjoyed is the people Richardson encounters as he develops his skills. They range from a grumpy detectorist who is left minus a sandwich and does not inspire Richardson, to Kris who shows him the basics of detecting and inspires him to begin. It is a result of Covid lockdowns and a shift in the nature of travel writing that meant that Richardson had time on his hands when an eight-hundred-word article became an obsession. He meets all sorts of people, including the semi-professionals who make a living from the hobby by online recordings of digs, and those who organise and attend rallies of like-minded folk when an area of land is intensively searched for a few days by a horde of detectorists. Some people are there in the hopes of life changing discoveries, others to consolidate their collection of finds by discovering specific items or remnants of a particular time. Some are private, proceeding in their own world of headphones, digging equipment and rucksacks of finds, others are keen to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with newcomers like Richardson. There is the camaraderie of camping and enjoying the surroundings which, as Kris advises, means the detectorist looks up as well as down. Mention is also made of the notorious “nighthawks” who detect by night without the landowner’s permission and make no effort to record their finds properly as they are just intent on finding the artifacts that will make money. At the other end of the scale are the landowners, often farmers, who have to be persuaded to allow a search, especially with due regard to crops. Richardson records his own delicate negotiations with local landowners and the whole challenge of securing permission. 

What comes through in this book is Richardson’s joy in discovering the enjoyment of being outside, searching for the perhaps disregarded items that nevertheless reflect a time and place where people stood, lost items, hid others while living very different lives. He enjoys the coins that may well have travelled far from their origin, the buttons, pins and buckles that held everyday clothes together, the remnants of battles or merely well-trod paths. There is the sense of history behind many pieces, the assessing of the chances of finding things, the urge to do just one more sweep. The secrets of fields, the possibilities of ordinary corners of Britain, the evidence of the past are brilliantly described. 

This is a very well written book which has humour, honesty and inspiration on so many pages. I enjoyed the admissions of technical confusion, the feeling of trying to enter a club where everyone else knew what they were doing, the gentle sadness of a day without discoveries. There is the envy of those with superior collections of artifacts, and the admiration of those who overcame specific challenges to being involved. I enjoyed following Richardson’s adventures and highs and lows, as he brings his writing experience to travel on a smaller scale. He also provides in the text and in a “Useful Notes” section information for those who want to become involved in the hobby, with an Index to help find particular details. The writing flows well and it is easy to read with enjoyment. The illustrations also depict his finds in all their glory, alongside notable discoveries which he refers to in his text. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become involved in the detecting of the past, either in the field or from the comfort of an armchair.  

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Nigel Richardson, The Accidental Detectorist (Cassell, 2022). 978-1788403696, 294pp. incl. 8 plates, hardback.

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