Pan­ning for gold in Bri­tain’s rivers

Bright flakes of gold lie wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered be­neath the sur­face of Bri­tain’s wa­ters

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy: Richard Faulks CON­TACT­ Sev­eral times British gold pan­ning cham­pion and a world cham­pion in 2007, Vin­cent Thur­ket­tle was also the World Gold pan­ning As­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent for seven years. He is cur­rently writ­ing a boo

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.”

Es­sen­tial tools

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.

Pan­ning tech­nique

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.”

Gold fever

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.

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