One of my favourite discoveries is, surprisingly enough, nothing to do with treasure of the 'dug up' variety, but an altogether rarer and more precious commodity: the English Eccentric. Here in Dorset we seem to have more than our fair share, possibly because areas of land large enough to hide an army have been owned by the same families for centuries, all over the place. I can only assume that their...shall we say 'peculiarities'...arise from extended isolation from all but visiting shootin' and fishin' parties, punctuated by the occasional lost huntsman - or wandering metal detectorist.
There are quite a few of these wonderful oddballs on my list of detecting site owners. I visited one of them, shortly before Christmas, in order to present them with my most recent collection of finds. Up until now, I've only spoken to 'Mrs M' (as everyone calls her) and her son, John, on the doorstep of their huge, rambling 17th Century manor house. Mrs M is now 83 years old, and was highly delighted that one of the finds was a 1922 penny - the year in which she was born.
'Oh', she squealed, 'we must show John. Do come in!' I followed her through a dark passageway, which opened onto the kitchen. At least, I think it was the kitchen. It might have easily been called 'the place where dead birds are kept', as there was a large pile of pheasants on the table, and another next to it on the floor.
Feathers were everywhere. An enormous and ancient cooking range filled one entire wall, and on the floor all around the other walls were elderly couch cushions, on each of which was an elderly dog. There seemed to be dozens of them. I could tell at a glance that the word 'hygiene' was rarely, if ever, heard here, and I remembered with horror the several cups of tea, all of which had originated in this room, that I had consumed on their doorstep over the previous several months. My immunity levels were obviously far better than I thought possible.
'John!' she bellowed, and a muffled and extremely indistinct 'Mmmmff' could be heard emanating from deep in the house, by way of a reply. 'Oh yes', muttered Mrs M, 'he's moving the furniture a bit'.
She leaned heavily on a huge, studded oak door, which, after a moment, began to slowly open, revealing John staggering around under the weight of a large Victorian-looking armchair.
'Oh, hi Mark', he said, dropping the chair sideways onto the floor. I had to admire his style. 'Do come in. We're just getting ready for the Big Dinner. Twenty-four coming this year. Bit of a squeeze, I think...'
A huge table, made up of several smaller tables, was being assembled in the middle of the room. I couldn't help but wonder where the chairs would be placed - there didn't seem to be any room between the 'table' and the adjacent walls. Perhaps, I mused, someone standing in the centre of the table would simply throw food to each attendee? Such a tradition would, at least, account for the appearance of the kitchen.
'I wonder...', smiled Mrs M, 'perhaps you could just give John a hand for a moment, while I make us all a cup of tea?'
Nothing, I assured her mentally, could fill me with quite so much dread. But of course, being British, I tried to maintain a stiff upper lip. Thus, it was with a sort of grimace that I cheerfully spluttered 'Oh, of course! Delighted!'
John and I passed a pleasant enough, though somewhat strenuous, ten minutes or so trying to rearrange the furniture so that people would actually be able to occupy the room at the same time as the 'table'. We had more-or-less succeeded when a distant cry of 'teeeeeeee...' was heard from the kitchen. My, I thought to myself, these old doors are as good as indoor double-glazing. I must get some.
Back in the kitchen, I was invited to sit at the table. John's girlfriend, a local primary school teacher, had arrived and was busy plucking an unfortunate pheasant. At least, I think that's what she was doing. There seemed to be an awful lot of pulling and heaving going on, but despite being long gone, the spirit of the departed bird seemed to be winning.
'Had any luck?' she yelled at me. Vee, which seems to be her name, is incapable of speaking quietly. I doubt if she ever visits her local library, as they surely lock all the doors when they see her coming. I was prevented from replying immediately by Mrs M, who tugged at my arm saying 'come and sit down - no, not there', (as went to sit on the nearest chair) 'that one's broken. Over here.' I sat, as ordered. 'Oh, be careful of the trap,' she added. I looked around in dismay. 'No, silly', she added. 'This one'. Right in front of me, on the table, was a mousetrap. Not only that, it was baited and set, ready to go. Not only that, it had several bloodstained patches on it. 'You don't want to get your fingers caught in that, do you?' beamed Mrs M, moving it about a foot to one side as she spoke. 'Sugar?' She passed me the sugar bowl, complete with a lovely king's pattern George III silver spoon...
For me, that was the icing on the cake. As soon as possible, I left the scene of battle. Muddy fields are, well, so much cleaner.
In mid-January the Dorchester and Weymouth Metal Detecting Club held their annual dinner, this time at a lovely local pub that serves endless platters of fine grub and excellent beer. About 40 of us turned up, and I had the pleasure of sharing a table with a few good friends, some of whom should remain anonymous for reasons that will soon become clear. In order to protect their identity, I shall refer to them only as M*rgar*t H*milt*n and D*ve C*bb.
M*rgar*t and D*ve have been detecting buddies for years, and regularly show up at Club meetings with absolutely awesome finds. Most unfair. So, I couldn't help but take the opportunity, when it arose, to note some details of the stories they told during our dinner together.
M*rgar*t told me of one day they were out detecting with some friends, near Blandford. After a long afternoon wandering around in the fields, they were on their way back to the cars when M*rgar*t decided she needed to make a quick visit behind the nearest hedge. She hopped off the path and through a gap while the others carried on. A minute later she hopped back onto the path... and noticed something gleaming in the sunlight as she did so. She bent to pick it up. It was a small, silver Roman coin - just lying there, right in the middle of the path. Clearly someone had found it, and almost as quickly lost it again. Highly delighted, M*rgar*t headed off towards the cars to show the others.
When she got home, she went to pull it from her pocket... only to find it gone. In its place was a small hole. She, too, had found the coin, only to lose it again almost immediately.
However: the next day, knowing more-or-less where she had been standing when she put it IN her pocket, she drove the 10 miles back out to the farm with her detector...and found it again!
Congratulations, M*rgar*t, and may I welcome you to this column as the first Stupid Sister?
Story number two sees the same pair off detecting again, this time with their brand new C-Scope machines. However, on this occasion they weren't finding very much, so they decided to return to the car for lunch, and then drive to another part of the farm. They placed their detectors carefully down - behind the car - and opened their sandwich boxes. You can probably guess what's coming, but this pair couldn't! Lunch finished, D*ve reversed...and drove over what sounded like crunching branches. 'Eeeek! screamed M*rgar*t, 'go forward, go forward!' and once again there was the sound of crunching branches - at which point D*ve, too, remembered where they had left their detectors.
Both machines were sadly bent, and obviously in need of repair. Undaunted, D*ve put his over his knee and managed to straighten it out, somewhat. Then he did the same with M*rgar*t's. Both machines still seemed to work; so off they went, and finished their day out.
Fellow club members were so impressed that they ALL ordered new C-Scope detectors, and C-Scope were so pleased that they offered to repair M*rgar*t and D*ve's machines, free of charge!
Smiles all round, I should think.
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