|The Stupid Brothers Get Lucky
© Mark Gatter, 2005
We didn't have anything particular in mind, simply to drive around until we saw a likely-looking farm, distant tractor, or, if things didn't go according to plan, a nice country pub. Fortunately we found a likely-looking farm first. There was also a likely-looking wide verge right opposite a likely-looking milking parlour, so after parking we set off in search of the owner.
As we approached the gate next to the parlour, a fine example of the Dorset Farmer's Wife (one of those solid-looking 'backbone of the nation' sort of people, I'm sure you know the type) zoomed towards us around the corner on a quad bike. She stopped, obviously surprised to see other living human beings - well, we were quite a few miles from anywhere by then, as we take the 'off the beaten track' stuff fairly seriously. Besides, all the good farms 'on' the beaten track had most likely been taken in this area.
'Can I help you?', she squeaked, the surprise having temporarily removed her normal voice.
'Well, actually, we were hoping to get permission to do some metal detecting',
A mind, I thought to myself, is a terrible thing to waste. I knew that Paul had obviously done this sort of thing before, but it was a pity that he couldn't remember how.
I decided to leap in, as Mrs. Farmer was now looking at Paul with what appeared to be a slightly amazed expression, and I didn't want her to go into shock.
'We're looking for remains of ancient settlements,' I offered, 'and we know there were a few in this area. I wonder if you've noticed any concentrations of broken pottery in your fields, or anything that has made you wonder if people used to live there?'
As she glanced in my direction, the amazed expression on her face was edged aside by a new, determined look, which clearly intended to stay for a while. 'Wait here,' she said. 'I'll just go and ask my husband. He's ploughing at the bottom of the big field.' So saying, she revved her bike, hauled it around, and squealed away from us at high speed. We watched her bobbing and weaving alongside the hedge as she sped away. 'She must be doing 40,' murmured Paul, highly impressed. 'I wonder if she used to be in a biker gang?'
It didn't seem likely, but she was definitely a world-class cross-country quad biker. After a few seconds she disappeared from view over the brow of the hill, and shortly after that we noticed that the sound of the distant tractor had stopped.
It's the waiting that's the worst. We had no idea whether our request had fallen on fertile ground, or on the harder sort of conservative, pro-foxhunting ears that recently got Oliver Letwin re-elected. Suddenly, we heard the sound of the tractor starting up again in the distance, and, shortly thereafter, what sounded like a swarm of hysterical bees heading in our direction. Moments later, Mrs. Farmer hove into view, bucking and wallowing her way over the freshly ploughed earth, finally drawing to a skidding halt in front of us, a wide grin now stretching from ear to ear.
'Oh, goodie', I thought to myself.
'Bob says to show you where all the pottery and oyster shells turn up', she announced. 'He thinks it might be Roman'. She leapt off her bike and set off across the road, towards where we had left the car.
For a few seconds, it was our turn to go into shock. Then, with a faint 'bugger me', Paul lurched into action and began to follow her. I thought I'd better do the same.
On or off the bike, this woman could move. We grabbed our detectors from the car as we passed, and then found ourselves trotting along behind her in our efforts to keep up. She talked the whole time, but I only got about 30% of it, mostly the consonants. 'T ws pld nd sn lst wk, bt ts nly gss', for example, eventually translated into 'It was ploughed and sown last week, but it's only grass'. As far as we were concerned, it sounded better and better. We discovered, while we ran, that although the entire farm was pasture, the fields were ploughed on (mostly) a three-year rotation - just two or three fields a year - and then sown with nice, fresh grass. This year they had only just finished, but as grass isn't exactly a cash crop, neither she nor her husband were at all bothered by the thought of us digging holes all over it.
We crossed two fields and entered a third, at which point Paul turned to look at me with a look of wonder on his face. 'It's flat,' he muttered. 'Perfect'. And so it was. It was just about the flattest, perfect-est field I'd ever walked - or, rather, run - into. But we weren't stopping. Mrs Farmer had continued at a brisk pace, and was halfway across to one corner. We followed, and soon found ourselves on a slightly raised, rounded area which extended into the two adjacent pastures.
'Right about here', announced Mrs. Farmer, beaming at us. 'Bob is always bringing oyster shells home in his pocket. You'd think we lived near the ocean.'
Paul and I explained that oysters had been a staple food of everyday folk from the time of the Romans right up until the early 1800s - and cheap, too! My, how things have changed... and when you think of having to get them from the ocean to out-of-the-way places like this, every day, well, it's a bit like trying to get the first grouse onto a London table on the 'Glorious Twelfth'. Except, of course, that they didn't have helicopters, and yet they still managed it, only losing the occasional village through shellfish poisoning.
While we were chatting, I happened to look down - no doubt hopeful of seeing the remains of some peasant's lunch looking back at me - and, right by my foot, was an odd-looking rusty object. I picked it up. It was definitely a knife. No handle, but that's probably why it ended up discarded, or lost. An old - possibly even medieval, dagger blade. 'Oh boy', I thought. 'I've gone to detecting heaven, and I forgot to die on the way.'
At last, Mrs. Farmer decided to 'leave you boys to it', and hastened away. It was apparent by now that she was unable to do anything slowly, and I found myself feeling sorry for every cow she had ever milked, for whom it must have been a bit like being attacked by crazed vacuum cleaners. Paul and I hoisted our respective machines, switched them on, and began - as usual - to aimlessly wander around. Now, some people would say that we should have measured this, and paced that, and decided exactly how to proceed before proceeding. Quite right too. But sometimes you just want to wander, and this seemed like the perfect place to do it. Along the bottom edge of the field was a small river, and both of us could just imagine a sleepy little village, or farmstead, perched up here minding its own business, centuries before, when life was, well, parhaps just a tad slower than the farmer's wife.
By now we have been back for several visits, and the finds have been fairly diverse. In the adjacent field, not ploughed for several years, there are distinct ridges and mounds indicating the probable remains of buildings just below the surface. Certainly, digging here is very hard and no fun at all (which reminds me, I must put a JCB on my Christmas list) and has so far yielded mostly Georgian coppers, suitably corroded. In the ploughed field, however, it's been a different story. Paul found a nice 'crockard', a foreign coin which looks very similar to an Edward Ist penny. It was the same size and weight, and solid silver, so in terms of monetary value it couldn't be said to be a forgery, and it wasn't trying to actually be an Edward Ist penny. But as nobody back then could read the writing round the edge, it must have seemed like regular English coin-of-the-realm. I sent a scan of it to Dr. Martin Allen at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who told me that it is a sterling, or 'crockard,' of John of Avesnes (1280-1304), count of Hainaut (see 'I COMES HAYONIE' on the obverse), struck in Mons ('MONETA MONTES' on the reverse). Crockards such as this were imported into England in large quantities in the 1290s.
Also found, two otherwise nondescript silver pennies of Edward I. The grass, alas, grew quickly. But before it became too long, I'd returned to unearth a cut half penny of King John, and an extremely frustrating (but then highly welcome) halfpenny of Charles Ist - frustrating because it is sooooo small. I knew I had a good signal right from the start, but it took a good 10 minutes to actually pinpoint it in the soft, muddy earth.
Paul and I both have high hopes of more plentiful finds in the larger area next door, but it isn't due to be ploughed for a year or so yet. No problem - metal detecting is a great way to develop patience. We shall bide our time, and we shall return.