About ten years ago my brother bought a metal detector. Like me, he was interested in history and learning about our past. We read a few books and all suggested that the best places to start looking were ploughed fields. The logic behind this was that the fields had been turned over year after year throughout the centuries and consequently old artefacts and coins would still be close to the surface. Sadly our hometown of Southport is only 200 years old and the soil is extremely fine and sandy. There are one or two villages dating back to the Middle Ages nearby but our oldest finds were only Georgian.
Whilst staying with our parents at an Ingleton caravan site, my brother Peter called on a couple of farms and asked if he could use his metal detector. Although steeped in history, the majority of the land in the vicinity is pasture and the theory of finds remaining near to the surface through constant ploughing proved correct. Many pastures were tried but even Victorian coins had sunk down ten or twelve inches (the maximum range of the detector). By a simple stroke of luck, Peter stumbled across a footpath in one of the fields that he had been allowed to search. Walking along the path he had a strong signal. Just a couple of inches belong the surface lay a lovely coin from the realm of Charles I. Why had this not sunk deep into history? The answer was quite simple, the path ran along a ridge of limestone and constant erosion by walkers over hundreds of years meant that the topsoil was still only 10"-12" deep at the most and sometimes considerably less.
Spurred on by Peter's first ancient find, we contacted the farmers along the length of the path, which runs between these two Craven villages, and we were delighted to be granted permission to search it all. The path had clearly been used in Carolean times but what other secrets did it hold? Initially we found modern coins and ring pulls left by the hordes of ramblers. These littered the space just below the surface of the path and made detecting quite hectic as one after another was dug up. As we cleared the modern junk (and occasionally found the odd few pounds which bought us a sandwich on the way home), the signals became further apart and it was easier for us to concentrate. The path started to become something of a walk back through time.
After the first Charles I coin, we had initially found little of any age but there were so many signals, detecting was always interesting. However, once the dross was cleared, we would start to find a little piece of history on every visit. Coins from all eras turned up and we were each delighted to find our first (and to date only) gold coins. Mine, a Victorian sovereign, was found as a group of hikers ambled by. "Found any gold?" quipped the leader, and for once I was able to respond positively to this oft-made remark.
As we covered the path about once a month for a few years, we noticed that there were certain "hot spots" where there would be a greater concentration of finds. One such spot was close to a small disused quarry. Here we found an old brooch and we were sure that it dated to the Romano British period of the second or third century AD. This led us to walk away from the path and onto the surrounding land. Over a period of months we recovered no less than eight brooches from this period. In addition we made our most important finds from the same area. These were a small Roman ring, an enamelled button with a Celtic design and, the wonderful Celtic bronze spear butt which was one of the major pieces in the Skipton Museum's Celtic Craven exhibition during 2001.
We now had finds spanning almost 2000 years and with a great deal of concentration (finds became ever scarcer as we gradually retrieved them), we filled in the gaps. We were thrilled to find two items dating back to Viking times. These are a wonderful Viking key and an important weight which is engraved with Islamic type motifs. Both were examined by the Scunthorpe museum and confirmed as dating to the Viking period. We went on to find tiny medieval coins minted in York together with an array of buckles from the same period. Moving closer to the present, we found Tudor coins and clothing fasteners followed by more coins from the realm of Charles I. Fitting into this period was an important large silver coin, which turned out to be a Spanish ducatoon, minted in the low countries at the start of the 17th century and probably lost by a Royalist around the time of the Civil War.
All in all, a simple chance find had led to several years of pleasant walks through beautiful countryside whilst tracing the past through the losses of those who walked that same path many years before. We had found clothes fasteners, coins, keys, toys and much more from about 14 of the last 20 centuries and had proved beyond doubt that the footpath had been trodden for two thousand years. Or could it be more? On one of my very last visits to the path, I found what looked like a bronze tooth. This has been identified as the casting sprue from an axe. It possibly dates from the Bronze Age, which puts the path in place a few hundred years earlier.
Editor's Note — We recognise that the use of metal detectors can be controversial! and those who are particularly interested in archaeology will have reservations about some of the activities of those using them. However, John Brassey was given permission to carry out his surveys and all finds have been recorded, together with the relevant grid reference.
A fine and rare Celtic Bronze spear butt
Coins spanning the centuries
Celtic, Medieval, Tudor Stuart and Victorian Fasteners
Romano British key, engraved Viking key and Georgian and Victorian fob watch keys
Romano British objects