How to prospect for gold in England

By Bethan Bell
BBC News

  • Published
Gold in a panImage source, Getty Images

The price of gold has rarely been higher, so jacking in the day job and heading for the hills with a pickaxe and pan might seem a tempting way to strike it rich.

The best places to rush for gold are in the Americas and the Antipodes, but if you need to stay a little closer to home, take heart - because gold has also been found across the UK for centuries.

So what's the best way to get your mitts on the king of precious metals?

Image source, Geoff Robinson Photography
Image caption,
Vince Thurkettle holding a nugget of gold - the largest ever found in Britain

Firstly - manage your expectations. If you're searching for natural gold in England it's unlikely you'll cover your costs, let alone make your fortune.

Although some lucky metal detectorists have struck it rich by digging up buried treasure in England, gold nuggets and tiny fragments of the metal found in the UK tend to be in Scotland and Wales.

In fact, experts say that English gold is among the rarest in the world. But there is a dedicated band of enthusiasts who grab their sieves and spend their weekends sifting through chilly streams in England, hoping to unearth a few tiny elusive grains or minute shiny flakes.

Image source, Punch
Image caption,
A Punch cartoon from 1852 tempts Englishmen to Australia with depictions of gold

To have any chance of finding natural gold in England you have to go west.

Young rocks, such as chalk, crag, clay, mudstone and the sand and gravel "glacial drift" washed out from under the Scandinavian ice sheet, cover much of the east and south. But in Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District the rocks are much older and more likely to have the quartz and calcite veins from which grains of gold could be eroded.

There are also reports of gold being found in the iron-rich rocks around the Forest of Dean and along the mineral-rich Pennines.

Vincent Thurkettle, a former president of the World Goldpanning Association, full-time gold prospector and finder of Britain's biggest ever nugget, equates it with a love of being out in the countryside.

"There are a hundred good reasons to take up gold panning as a hobby, but to get rich is not one of them," according to Mr Thurkettle, who says he had "the most extraordinary piece of good luck while studying woodland management and forestry in the Lake District".

"I developed a passion for rocks and minerals and would spend much of my free time out in the Cumbrian Fells hunting for them around old mines.

"While looking for specimens at a mine near Penrith, I met another collector who turned out to also prospect for gold. It was a life-changing moment; I became fascinated by the thrill of gold hunting and have never looked back.

"I have always treated gold prospecting as a family outing; it has always pleased me to see them really excited at every piece, even the tiniest speck shining like a minute star in the gold pan."

Image source, Universal History Archive
Image caption,
The Latrobe nugget is the largest cluster of cubic gold crystals currently known and was found in Australia in 1853

Mr Thurkettle points out that deposits are likely to be on a granular level: "Nuggets, by which I mean any piece of gold you can pick up easily, are seriously rare.

"In 1808 a beautiful piece, said to be like a lady's finger, was found in the Carnon Valley and is now in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

"Although it's now trusted as a genuine local find there was once some question over this nugget's provenance. 'Is it really local, or was it seeded [placed deliberately] by a miner seeking to improve the value of his claim?'

"More recently another splendid gold nugget was found on the beach at Westward Ho! by a metal detectorist."

Even though Mr Thurkettle has found enough gold samples to make into wedding rings for his friends and family, as well as giving some to museums, he says the attraction of his hobby is that it's like "being on a treasure hunt with nature",

"Patience is needed to both find the gold and to deal with it. I am still waiting for the authorities to decide what will happen to a huge lump of gold I found on a shipwreck six years ago."

Admittedly, for most people it's a treasure hunt without a financial jackpot but Mr Thurkettle believes that does not matter.

"I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but I value the memories far more than the gold.

"Thinking back to time spent by the river with giggling, splashing, laughing children - or with dear friends, now dead - my hours with them cannot be repeated."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Men wearing sandwich boards on the streets of London in 1932 tout for gold, its value boosted by a high exchange rate

The UK's biggest gold finds

Mr Thurkettle found the biggest and most valuable nugget in the UK off the coast of Anglesey. Worth an estimated £50,000, it was found near a shipwreck and is about the size of a chicken's egg.

The man who found the Douglas Nugget on a Scots riverbed - also estimated to be worth £50,000 - wishes to remain anonymous. The exact location of the river where the nugget was situated is also being kept under wraps.

In England, a metal detectorist called Merlin Cadogan dug up a nugget worth about £4,000 in Westward Ho!, Devon. Mr Cadogan's metal detector is named Excalibur.

Image source, Joe Amon
Image caption,
Panning for gold along Clear Creek in Whitewater Park, Golden, Colorado

By far the best way to find gold in England is by panning - essentially washing sediment through a sieve so the gold settles at the bottom.

Liam Jones from Exeter went on a gold-panning course in Dumfriesshire when he was in his early 20s, which he describes as "a day spent in thigh-high waders with ice-cold hands" and "like fishing but without the prospect of catching a big one".

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But 10 years later, Mr Jones is still hooked on the hobby, although he has accepted his earlier expectation - of finding enough precious metal to pay off his mortgage - is unlikely to be realised.

He puts some of his fascination down to the fact that he did indeed find gold on that first trip - as the instructor had added a few gold flakes to the sediment for the learners to find. This is called "salting" or "seeding".

"There's something special about striking gold," he says. "Even when we found out the deposit had been salted, there was a real thrill in seeing that sparkle.

"That's why we keep going - it's not about what we hope to find in the future, it's about being in the moment and being satisfied with just a glimpse."

How to pan for gold

Image source, Getty Images
  • Research where to go

The Lake District: Mungrisdale, Dunmail Raise and Blencathra Mountain are reputed to be good spots and traces have also been found in Troutbeck and Sedbergh.

The Northern Pennines: A wealth of minerals, including gold, has been found here. Nenthead and the River Swale have both had reports of gold finds.

The Forest of Dean: In 1906 there were reports of gold being found near a nature reserve. Apparently there is still gold in the ground to be found.

You must have the landowner's permission and avoid sites with an environmental designation.

  • Learn how to use a gold pan accurately

Gold has a high specific gravity. That means it's denser and therefore heavier than lots of other sediment. In running water, gold will sink and stay put, while other objects float or roll along downstream.

To get the heavy gold particles to settle to the bottom of the pan, vigorously shake the sediment-water mixture.

Keep reducing the amount of sediment in the pan by gently washing off the top layer of material.

It might be useful to sign up for a gold-panning course and join the British Gold Panning Association.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A prospector pans for gold in northern California in about 1890

Mr Jones's six-year-old daughter Elinor has also picked up the gold bug - and to encourage her, he has joined an increasing number of people buying "pay dirt".

This is waste soil from mineral-rich places like Alaska that is likely to contain ore, although it is also available from places closer to home, such as Scotland or the northern Pennines.

It can be bought seeded, which means the seller has added gold to the pay dirt to guarantee there is some in it - and therefore charges more.

"I am aware I could be teaching my daughter the wrong lesson about enjoying the journey rather than the destination - but hey - she's a kid. I want her to keep the enthusiasm.

"We went to a place in Cornwall [Cornwall Gold] and she loved panning."

One of the benefits of using pay dirt is that people don't have to travel long distances to pan in rivers - but negatives can include unscrupulous vendors.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The International Gold Panning Championships are held annually

One seller of pay dirt, who goes by the name of Harley Davidson, says there are a lot of scammers and even the honest agents are making a good profit.

"The gold in pay dirt is placer. There are two types of gold - placer and lode. Lodes are the veins of ore that need to be blasted or mined. Placer happens when a lode deposit is eroded by weather and the heavier minerals - including gold - are transported down a stream.

"Now placer is impure and you'll never get full spot [bullion] price if you try to sell it. Gold pay dirt bags are priced to make the seller about 10-20% on the price of a bag. When you're starting out, pay dirt might be good for practice. Just to understand what gold does in the pan.

"You seldom get what you pay for and you never get what you ain't paid for. You won't get rich - they do. You buy it for the enjoyment of finding the gold yourself and you will always pay more than spot price.

"Beyond that, you'd be better off taking a road trip to help with the fever."

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