Panning for gold in Britain’s rivers
Bright flakes of gold lie waiting to be discovered beneath the surface of Britain’s waters
In the afternoon langour of a quiet river in late summer, a timid moorhen mews from the shadow of dense willow. A regular susurration drifts across the slow-moving waters, the tinny scraping of flinty gravel being swirled in an old steel dish. A prospector is panning for gold in the shallows. Many people have heard of Welsh gold through its association with Royal wedding rings, but the precious metal can be found in many places in Britain. Nuggets may be rare, but tiny flecks can still be eased from their riverbed hiding places. Britain has even had its own gold rushes. In 1578, German miners extracted £100,000 worth of gold, the equivalent of £1 billion today, from Crawfordmoor in Scotland. In some places, nuggets weighing more than 30oz (850g) were found. The precious Welsh gold was mined in the mountains north of Dolgellau from Roman times, peaking in the 1860s. The Romans also mined gold at Dolaucothi in mid Wales. In Cornwall, the 17th century ‘tin streamers’ surreptitiously used goose quills to store any tiny gold flakes and grains they found, to be traded later with the goldsmiths of Truro. Undoubtedly, these early British prospectors found the richest spots and will have almost cleaned them out. But some gold was missed and taking up the challenge to find it today is an increasingly popular pastime.
Valued for millennia
Gold has been a source of fascination for a very long time. Nuggets have been found in prehistoric caves, probably not panned, but discovered along a river bank after a flood. These nuggets had not been fashioned or altered, but simply gathered for the sheer luminous beauty of the gold itself. Formed in deep space when stars collided, this metal is a rare element across the entire universe, not just on Earth. It does not tarnish, is ductile and one single ounce can be beaten into 100sq ft of gold leaf (31g to 9.5sq m). Gold is used in science and industry, but 78 per cent of the world’s production is made into jewellery. Like the early cave-dwellers, people today are still bewitched by this natural treasure. Panning for gold involves sifting sand and gravel from a riverbed in a special pan and washing it in water. This frees any gold particles trapped in dirt or clay. Because gold is heavy, up to eight times heavier than the sand and gravel, it sinks to the bottom of the pan. Here, its unique lustre and rich colour help identify it. In the world of prospecting, gold is simply called colour. Vincent Thurkettle has been panning for four decades, developing uncommon knowledge and experience. In 2012, while diving to a shipwreck off the Welsh coast, he found a huge nugget thought to be worth £50,000. This is now the property of the Crown while negotiations take place with museums. “I had the good luck to meet a gold prospector when I was only 20 years old and studying forest management in the Lake District,” he says. “I was immediately fascinated by the idea of finding natural gold in our countryside. For approximately 40 years now, most of my summer holidays and many weekends have been spent in Britain and abroad prospecting for gold. I just love pottering along the bank of a warm summer river.
“But it is important to understand that gold fever has nothing to do with money. It is all about the gold. There are many excellent reasons to take up gold panning in Britain, but trying to get rich isn’t one of them. Gold prospecting in Britain is more The Wind in the Willows than it is one of the world’s great gold rushes.”
Where to search
There are four stages to successful gold prospecting, with the first being research, says Vincent. Natural primary deposits of gold tend to be associated with older rocks, found mostly in the north and west of Britain. In these areas, there are hundreds of gold-bearing streams and rivers to choose from. However, time spent browsing through old books, magazines and newspapers can pay dividends in confirming whether or not an area has natural gold. “I’m a bit old-fashioned in how I do my research,” he explains. “I like the written word or visiting a local museum to actually see what gold has been found in the area in the past.” Next, it is essential to consider the environment. Gold panning should not take place in an area designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Area or Special Area of Conservation. Permission must be sought from the landowner. Once a particular waterway has been confirmed as a possible source of gold, the prospector needs to develop the ability to read the river itself. Vincent compares this skill to that of a fisherman when choosing the best spot to cast a line. Over the centuries, the gold will have tended to collect in a predictable way. For instance, this may be on the inside of bends, behind large boulders or where chunks of bedrock jut out into the stream. It also tends to be deposited along a fairly narrow path down the river. Earlier prospectors referred to it as the gold line. It takes years of experience to fully understand the gold line, but the basics can be picked up relatively quickly. The third stage is using the gold pan. “There is no point in spending hours of research and then hunting out a good spot on the likely river, if the pan has not been mastered,” he explains. Many people practise at home by hiding flakes of copper or lead in some sand and gravel, then panning this out in a paddling pool. Finally, the prospective gold hunter needs a clear idea on what to do with any metal found. If it is to be kept simply as a memento of a holiday, it can be stored in a small glass vial, clearly labelled with where it was found. Where there is absolute certainty of the location having been correctly recorded, the gold sample can be used by geological students and universities in their research. If the gold found is to be used in jewellery or as a wedding band, then the location is not so important. Particles of gold found in different places can be collected and stored together. “I use a clean empty vial each day,” says Vincent. “That way, if I lose it, the most gold I can have lost was only that day’s work.” Any gold found is verified mainly by the colour, weight and its appearance, but there are ways to ensure its authenticity. “There is a prospector’s saying: ‘If you think that it’s gold, it isn’t’,” he says. “If the prospector is still unsure, a sample is placed in nitric acid. Gold is not affected, while all other common metals are dissolved. “At the time of getting the landowner’s permission, it should
be clarified that any gold found can be kept. Sometimes a good find is shared with the landowner. If it is to be more than a hobby, advice should be sought from the Crown Commissioners.”
The earliest pans were made of wood, a shallow dish chipped from a chunk of a durable variety, such as elm. These were eventually replaced with steel, the risk of developing rust balanced by its toughness. The modern gold pan is a flimsy-looking circular plastic dish, of 14in (35cm) diameter, with sharp gold-trapping ridges moulded into one side. A long-handled shovel and a small pick to loosen packed gravel are essential tools. Some prospectors carry a garden sieve to classify the river gravels in their pan. This technically makes the panning more accurate, but has the disadvantage that the prospector has to then carefully check the sieve for pieces of gold ore or a large nugget, before throwing the bigger material away. There are two modern pieces of equipment which help today’s gold hunters. These are the ‘shufty-scope’, a glass or Perspexbottomed pipe or bucket used to see down under the water, and the Henderson pump. This pump may be no more than a tennis ball skewered onto a long piece of wooden dowel and then slid into a 3in diameter by 3ft 11in (75mm x 1.2m) section of plastic gutter downpipe. It is used to suck up the heaviest gravel and gold particles, especially if they have become trapped in little fractures in the bedrock. The pump was invented approximately 30 years ago by a British prospector, George Alfred Henderson. Before its arrival, prospectors would spend hours with little trowels, spoons and brushes trying to collect gold specks off the river bedrock. A geologist’s hand lens is useful to check whether or not the smallest pieces of yellow material recovered are actually gold. Gold flakes or small nuggets that have become wedged in bedrock cracks can be teased out with a pair of tweezers or a small table knife. When out on the river, Vincent recommends using plastic vials to store finds. This removes any risk of leaving broken glass behind. The metal is later transferred into glass vials for storage.
The immense density of gold allows it to settle out through natural sand and gravel when in water and fluidised. “To do this, the gold pan is half filled with gold-bearing sand and gravel and then the pan is sunk just below the surface of the water,” explains Vincent. “Then the pan is roughly agitated in a circular or zigzag motion. This process will free any gold particles trapped in dirt or clay and bring the larger stones to the surface. Any stones larger than 2.5cm are thrown out, as these are too big to wash out. However, they should be checked for gold before discarding. Next, the material in the pan is set in motion again, but this time more gently. After about 15 seconds, any gold particles should be safely buried under the lighter material. “Now it is time to begin washing the lighter sand and small stones out of the gold pan. The gold pan is tilted to an angle of 10-15 degrees and pushed forward into the water to create a wave that washes across the surface of the material. Creating two or three of these little waves will remove up to 1cm, before stopping and then gently agitating the gold pan again to settle the gold back down deep in the pan. When there is only half a cupful of heavy sand in the pan, it is time to stop and change technique.” The last stage, sometimes called the cleanup, has to be done with great care. “The gold pan is gently shaken to allow the naturally occurring crushed metallic ores and garnet, known as ‘heavies’, to flatten into a half-moon shape. Then, using a cupful of clear water, this material is brushed from one side of the pan to the other with more small waves. “In expert hands, this technique will completely separate the particles of gold from the heavy sand in 10 to 20 seconds,” says
“All that glisters is not gold” William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Vincent. “This does need practice. It may help to carry a small magnet that can be used to quickly remove any natural iron sands from the heavy material. These black sands are called magnetite.”
Mary Russell caught gold fever approximately 12 years ago. “I love the final reveal,” she says, smiling. “After all the hard work, suddenly any specks of gold shine out like little stars. People sometimes ask: ‘What does natural gold look like?’ But gold is gold, and the flakes and grains I find in the river look just like fragments of jewellery or chips off a wedding ring.” “Of course, to find gold is wonderful.” says Hazel Thompson, who only started gold panning last summer. “But I would happily do this even if I didn’t find any. I know it’s a cliché, but it really is the taking part that matters. I am finding that being totally absorbed for a few hours, out in the fresh air hunting for the gold, is totally relaxing and a real pleasure.” The current price of gold, at more than £30 a gram, is high by historical standards. But many recreational panners struggle to find 0.2g in a day. “Occasionally, a nugget of a few grams is found. Too rare to have melted down, the fortunate prospector will usually have it made into a piece of jewellery,” says Vincent. “I remember many years ago, an excellent gold panner, Eddie Bell, went up to northern Scotland with his son,” he recalls. “They found a rich pocket of gold dust in their secret burn, which Eddie had made into an outrageous stag’s head ring. It had full antlers and bright red garnet eyes. To make something this personal and wonderful really is a British gold prospector’s dream.”
“Sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Panners dig up sediment from the river bed. Pure gold has a specific gravity of 19.3 compared to the 2-3 of most of the sand and gravel which is collected.
Mary Russell (left) and Hazel Thompson agitate pans in the water. This allows the denser gold to sink to the bottom, or the lighter material to rise above it. ›
Unlike the chunks of gravel scooped up, alluvial gold most commonly occurs as dust and thin flakes. The pan should only be half to two-thirds full of potential gold-bearing material, as an overfull one can be difficult to work with. Larger stones are removed, checking any pieces of ore for possible gold inclusions. Moving the pan in a swirling or sideways motion will free gold particles trapped in the dirt. The remaining material is agitated gently underwater so that any gold will sink. The pan is then tilted approximately 15 degrees from horizontal and pushed forward in the water to wash away the lighter unwanted particles. A good nugget will stand out in any residue.
Panning for gold in a still river on a summer day whiles away the hours. Thin pieces of gold can have such relatively high surface areas to their weight that they will actually float on water. In the gold panning community, a carefully washed pan that has no gold is called a skunk, and gold is mostly referred to as colour.