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Tales of trash and treasure on the never-ending quest of Kent metal detectorist

It's AD 43 and two days before the Battle of Medway, a Roman officer under the command Aulus Plautius hurriedly buries a hoard of 34 gold aurei for safekeeping on a patch of land about five miles to the east of the river.

The Roman forces would emerge from this first major battle of the Claudian invasion of Britain with a partial victory after two days of fighting, as the Britons retreated to The Thames - the first backward step on a long slow road to defeat - but for the officer it was all over.

The Ancient Britons and Romans clash at the White Cliffs Experience
The Ancient Britons and Romans clash at the White Cliffs Experience

In the midst of the carnage, he had gone to meet his favourite Roman deity, leaving his earthly treasures to lie hidden until the 34 coins were unearthed by a Mr Bryan Hollands of Bredgar as he dug the foundations for his bungalow in the summer of 1957.

It's an amazing tale - and some of it might even be true! Unfortunately we can only be reasonably sure of a few aspects, in that Mr Hollands did indeed unearth a horde of Roman coins, which were buried around the time of the Battle of Medway and is therefore probably connected with the invading Roman forces of that time.

For the rest of the story, we're dependent on the educated guesses of historians and our imaginations to fill in the gaps. But that's the allure and mystery of treasure and history.

The Bredgar hoard is just one such example of its kind in Kent - a region which has stood at the junction between Britain and Europe at critical turning points throughout history, and has consequently become a burial site for untold treasures from thousands of years, from the Canterbury-St Martin's hoard of 6th-7th Century jewellery, to the The Appledore Hoard of Anglo-Saxon silver coins found in August 2007, and the The Ripple Hoard of bronze age axe heads unearthed in 1994.

Some of the 5,200 coins discovered in the village of Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, the largest Anglo Saxon coin hoard found since the Treasure Act of 1996. Photo credit Yui Mok/PA Wire
Some of the 5,200 coins discovered in the village of Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, the largest Anglo Saxon coin hoard found since the Treasure Act of 1996. Photo credit Yui Mok/PA Wire

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining why, a few miles north of Bredgar, Chris Papworth finds himself surrounded at home in Iwade by what his wife refers to as "buckets of crap."

Those buckets might appear a long way removed from a long sought-after hoard of coins, but their contents is the result of a 15 year treasure hunt that Chris has no intention of giving up on any time soon.

As a member of the Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Group, Chris is part of a small team of enthusiasts which themselves are part of a UK army of amateur sleuths who stalk the country's fields and woods armed with their modern-day divining rods, in the never-ending quest to uncover a glimmer and glint of times gone by.

"It's been over 10 years now, nearer 15 - quite a while," says Chris, 48. "We're struggling like everyone else to get permission to go on people's land.

"People don't tend to want you on their land, which is the the most frustrating side of metal detecting. I think it's because they're worried about nighthawkers (illegally metal-detecting).

"You often see people on a field and you don't know whether they've got permission, so farmers tend to tar everyone with the same brush.

"I've got a couple of permissions and I always say we'll go 50/50 on anything I find."

Chris Papworth (left) and Pete Wood from the Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Group
Chris Papworth (left) and Pete Wood from the Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Group

Chris and his colleagues' tale is a typical one in the world of metal detecting - a long story of hours spent in fields and woods driven by the dream of a big find, but with often only modest reward.

"For me it's not just for the value, it's more about the hobby," he adds. "I'm not interested in making financial gain - hence why I've got a lot of stuff.

"My wife calls it buckets of crap.I've got coin books from different eras - it's a little booklet with a little sleeve so you can keep them without them getting scratched.

"I've got a silver hammered coin from Edward the First's time, which I found near Canterbury where I've got a permission on a farm near Lydden Hill. It's from 1272 - it's the time of the Knights Templar. It's not actually that valuable but it's something to keep.

"Mainly it's coins I keep. I've got a Roman coin from the time of Augustus. I've got a coin that dates to BC, from King Azes (an Indo-Scythian ruler from Central Asia) from about 45BC, which was found in a random wood I was metal detecting in, in Ashford.

"This little silver coin came up and I spent months researching it but I couldn't come up with anything, so I took it to a dealer and he said leave it with me. He came up with that. Perhaps some collector dropped it."

That's just one theory though, and who's to say a coin from a Central Asian empire might not have ended up as a warrior's or pirate's loot before being buried in a Kentish field at some more ancient point in history?

For Chris, part of the appeal of finding coins lies not just in their value but in their direct link to unknown lives of the past.

"You can't explain the feeling," he added. "You're the first person to hold that coin for possibly thousands of years.

"The Roman one was from 300AD - you've found that 1,700 years after someone lost it. It's quite big buzz, especially if you think it might not be long until they build over it.

"I've never found a hoard, although it would be nice."

Members of the Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Groups
Members of the Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Groups

But not everything the teams pulls out of the ground is worth keeping - and some of it is better off left where it is.

"I've got lots of World War Two stuff," adds Chris, who works as an engineer in port industries.

"Mortars, bullets, even live bullets - which we tend to bury again. You don't want to carry a live bullet around.

"Especially not a 50 calibre - it would do you some damage. It's probably 7 inches long and the size of a 10 pence piece around, so you can imagine the strength of it.

"I found a grenade pin once. I pulled it out and I legged it. I came back later and luckily there wasn't a grenade there.

"I've found plenty of ring pulls - they're everywhere. They give a good signal, which can fool people. After a while you tend to have an inkling so I don't get too excited any more. It can still catch you out."

When he's not either being caught out by live ammunition and ring pulls, or recouping the ancients' lost cash, Chris and his colleagues often turn their skills to help out the people of the present.

"We get a lot of calls about lost rings," he adds. "It's a side track but it's a good excuse to out looking.

"Last year we searched for more than seven rings, and the last one wasn't that long ago. We were at a beach and the lady said it's somewhere between here and the buoy, which was a long way.

"We were out there for hours, and we were about to give up. I said I'll search on the way back in and I found it on the way back. "That was Herne Bay. It made her cry."

The Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Group are often called on to hunt for lost rings
The Kent and Medway Metal Detecting Group are often called on to hunt for lost rings

On another occasion the team were contacted by a lady from Scotland.

"She had been at a festival in Wrotham," Chris recalled. "She lost her wedding ring and her eternity ring on the same day, and she was back in Scotland.

"She sent a picture of where it might be and it was a vast area. It was a 200 acre field. We found the wedding ring and thought the eternity ring might be nearby but it was about 200 metres away.

"She was in tears as well. We've only had one we couldn't find - I was going to say we've been pretty lucky but to be honest we've been pretty determined."

Chris himself is less likely to be found in tears - even if he doesn't even uncover a stash of buried ancient gold.

Ever since he started, he's recognised the real treasure is the intangible allure of a lost world.

"A friend was doing it at first," said Chris. "They said do you fancy going metal detecting so I went along and I was instantly hooked. It's mystery of it - the not knowing.

"I'm more interested in Kent because of the history here. We go to Scotland and Wales as well but I'm still drawn back to Kent.

"I like Roman stuff personally. Anything Roman is interesting."

Deal artist David Hopkins gives his idea of the Roman invasion in 55BC
Deal artist David Hopkins gives his idea of the Roman invasion in 55BC

It's hard to disagree, but it would be even more interesting if that Roman stuff is made of gold.

Chris and the team will just have to hope the Roman officer, who may or may not have buried his bank account before meeting his fate in the Battle of Medway, had a few colleagues who may or may not have copied him.

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