The Ingrid Pitt column: buried treasure!

How a Hammer Horror legend ended up with a metal detector, wellies, and some vintage coins...

I think I might have mentioned before that I am a fool to myself when it comes to Boot Sales. Don’t know what it is about them but delving around in the detritus of other peoples lives gives me a kick. I still regret goodies I passed over years ago and warm at the thought of the bargains I have snaffled from under the noses of competing bargain hunters. But I have now found another outlet for my avaricious nature.

Robin, an old friend from Essex, rang me and told me he was heading Richmond-way and would be dropping in. The last time I saw him he was displaying his incredibly life-like miniature, fully mobile model of a tank at a Military Fair in the Steam Museum in Chiswick. Naturally I thought I was in for a rundown on the improvements he had made and where he was exhibiting. I wasn’t ready for the sort of mechanical broom he struggled in with. He soon put me right. It was a metal detector and he was the holder of a special licence to detect metal on the banks and environs of the Thames. As I live next to the Thames he naturally expected me to be madly interested. His special project at the moment was secret. But he was willing to impart the general details to me.

The basis for successful metal detection is research. Research has netted him a iron belt buckle from the 17th century which made him £160 and had only taken him six weeks to find. Other objects of desire were a 16th century groat, a wealth of George V and Vl coins and a number of Victorian pennies. He has also found a highly decorative ring which is being evaluated by the Chelmsford Museum but which he is sure is from Good Queen Bess’s golden era. He  found it near Tilbury and is expecting great things of it. Maybe even the Queen herself might have shed it when she was waving her arms about doing her ‘Stomach’ speech. After filling me in on the background he came over all secretive. We huddled closer.

Robin has found that in bygone days there was a secret entrance to Kew Gardens from the River. For ‘bygone’ read 1840, the year in which Kew Gardens was first opened up to the public. ‘Secret’ means that the gate has become overgrown and people passing are unaware of the profound piece of history they are missing. This was the secret that was going to contribute to the detector beeping and us digging up the treasure lost over the one and a half centuries of Kew Gardens’ existence. I noticed the ‘us’. Evidently he thought I would be up for it. I thought about it and decided to take up the offer. He cautioned me against wearing anything I wouldn’t be happy rolling in the mud with and suggested wellies. I didn’t comment.

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Looking a bit like Scott and Co. heading South we trudged westward along the river bank until we reached the spot marked with the traditional ‘X’ on Robin’s map of the Thames. I could see what Robin meant when he said the gate between the towpath and the park was secret. Even when he pointed it out to me it wasn’t easily definable. I think the embankment has probably been extended at this point. Extended and Tarmaced over. I hoped this might present a bit of a problem. Robin didn’t think so. He painted images of visitors leaping of the boats and coins and valuables flying all over the place. I didn’t argue. I began to think that I should have remembered that I had some spaghetti to plait and was unavailable for the treasure hunt.

Robin threw a 10p piece in the grass, switched on the metal detector and nonchalantly waved it about as if he didn’t know exactly where the coin had fallen. When he got a beep he picked up the 10p and held it up triumphantly. I was ready to call it a cop out. Robin pushed into the bushes and prodded around with the detector. Almost instantly he got a beep. I wondered what metallic object he had salted there without my noticing. I handed him the trowel and he cautiously dug in the mud at the bottom of the shallow ditch and came up with a coin. Suddenly I was interested.

I cleaned it up while Robin threw himself back in the bushes. The coin was a George V sixpence. The beeper went again. Bit of a disappointment. A piece of rusty barbed wire. I told Robin about the sixpence and he claimed it was solid silver and worth a bob or two. That sounded better. Perhaps we would strike lucky.  As the heap of bits of wire and beer can widgets mounted, my interest waned.

Then there was an extra long beep. I passed Robin the trowel and he dug away in the roots of the hedge. Not easy. Brambles have massive roots and lots of whippy thorned branches to defend them. After a lot of swearing and repeated hacking he came up with a heavily corroded piece of metal. I took it down to the river, the tide was out, and washed it off. It looked like a lion rampant – as I think they are called. He had also found a number of nails in the same hole and reckoned it was probably a part of the decoration from a boat and had been knocked off on the small jetty which used to be there.

By the time we gathered together our bits and pieces and trudged back to my place, the treasure extended to another George V sixpence, three pennies of various vintage, a chain from a necklace, sans pendant, which we hope might be silver, half a pickaxe head, a clay pipe which just happened to be under yet more barbed wire and a wealth of obviously Victorian beer can tags which we decided to leave. Not a haul that Long John Silver salivating but enough to give me an idea.

About ten years ago I was contributing programme ideas to John King, the boss of BBC’s Pebble Mill in Birmingham. My husband had told me a story from his boyhood which seemed to have possibilities. He lived in the West Country, close to the coast. Nearby was a holiday camp used mainly by prancing naturists pre-war but which now stood empty. Overnight the camp became full of American GIs. Before long the GIs were well ensconced in the tiny village.

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After three years of war time austerity the appearance of the Yanks was little short of a miracle. They distributed their wealth freely and everyone, especially the kids and the younger women, were very grateful. As suddenly as it started, it ended. Tonio was in the habit of going to the camp and scrounging what he could. When he arrived at the gate he was told that it was sealed off. No one could enter. He hung around the gate, unable to believe that his source of luxuries had been cut off.

As he was about to leave a truck came through the gate. It was driven by a Sergeant called Doss who had been a particular friend. The truck stopped and Doss asked Tonio if he wanted a lift. As they drove off he realised that they were leading a convoy of half a dozen trucks. They drove along the road for a couple of miles and then went off the road and ploughed through the bracken and heather for a couple of hundred yards.

Tonio was amazed at what he saw. Heaps of rubbish from the camp was being thrown into a small quarry by a gang of GIs. Books, comics, furniture, cooking equipment and the contents of thousands of parcels from America. Doss told him that they were moving out and they had been told they could only take military equipment with them. When the lorries had all been emptied and the quarry back-filled the level came nearly to the top. I passed on what I had heard to John King and he liked the idea of going back to the scene and excavating it. With the amount of gear that had been buried the outer layers would have been ruined but hopefully would have formed a cocoon for what was lower down.

We fixed a date to go to the location with a couple of BBC Researchers. Just to make sure everything went according to plan Tonio and I went down a couple of days earlier. By the time the people from the BBC arrived we had scoured the moors unsuccessfully. Another days’ searching was just as unsuccessful and the project was abandoned.

That was then. Now I had the solution. Metal detectors! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? John King, sadly, is long gone but I have managed to speak to someone who sounds reasonably interested. Well, interested enough to say that if I can pinpoint the quarry where the treasure is buried they might be interested. Hope springs eternal.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

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