|I learned the real meaning of gold fever when I was 13 – although in my case the fever was silver and came in the shape of 33 Roman coins dug out of the bed of a small stream on a West Lancashire farm.
A chance remark by a friend of my sister’s about a hoard of coins having once been discovered about two miles from where I lived turned me, and my lifelong friend John Rimmer, into obsessive archaeologists and pubescent criminals. Our logic went: if 100 coins had been found there already then surely there must be a few more lying around undiscovered. There were, but getting at them was murder, and the idea of handing them over to some local museum as treasure trove was risible.
The trouble was that the Roman soldier, or whoever had originally owned them, had chosen the side of a stream in which to bury them. (Possibly he had won them gambling, since they were all denarii.) But unfortunately during the next 19 hundred years or so the stream had slightly changed course until the coins were embedded in its bank or buried in the silt at the bottom.
When we first went coining it was Easter holidays. Equipped with huge shovels, which we borrowed from the local farm, we began the spine-bending task of shovelling silt from the bottom of the stream into a riddle, before carefully carrying it to a place where the water flowed more quickly. There we washed out the mud and then stared like gypsies into tea leaves at the remaining collection of tiny pebbles.
By mid-afternoon on the first day we were beginning to wonder whether some cruel joke had been played upon us, and had taken to catching tiddlers in our vacuum flasks, chasing the cows back from our site and hurling chunks of mud after a trespassing water rat. Then, at tea-time when our hearts were by now hardly in it, the boy from the farm paid us a visit. It was he who had originally discovered the treasure.
“How many have you got?” he asked laconically, leaning across the handlebars of his bicycle. “None,” we answered dejectedly, half afraid even to look at him.
He grunted, climbed from his bicycle and clambered down the bank. “You’re digging in the wrong place,” he said. “You should be more over here.” And taking my shovel he quickly filled the riddle full of silt, washed it out and began to sift through the remains. Suddenly his hand shot forward. “There you are,” he said. “That’s one!”
He passed me a dull grey piece of metal about the size of a sixpence. It was a coin, but not much of one. “You have it,” he said, “and dig in the right place next time.” And with that he climbed back on to his bike and pedalled away up the field. Putting the coin carefully into a purse we had brought for our anticipated treasure, we returned to our work with renewed enthusiasm. Before the day was out we had actually found a couple of our own, although none of them would have convinced a doubter. Nineteen hundred years had erased all their markings.
The next day, however, we hit the jackpot. From virtually the first riddle we pulled out three almost perfect coins, probably almost as clearly marked as when they had been originally buried. They were a Nerva, a Hadrian and a Trajan. We had actually found treasure, proper treasure, with heads and names impressed into the silver.
But suddenly the easy camaraderie which we had shared for years became stretched with tension as jealousy crept in. And we would peer together over the riddle, each desperate to spot the next coin before the other. Now we began to make our own separate collections, too, as more Nervas came out, and more Hadrians. There was even an Augustus Caesar. We’d found the coins which had been overlooked, but, like a couple of gold crazy prospectors, mutual distrust and envy had crept into our friendship
For two weeks we worked that stream, turning the whole river bank into something out of the Klondike, as heaps of rubble were tipped upon the grass after examination. We were less than pleased when the farmer’s son came with news that his father would like us to tidy up before we finished. By now, though, we had collected over 20 coins and would pore over reference books in John’s house trying to trace exactly what kind of coins we had.
We went coining again in the summer holidays, but now it was a case of diminishing returns, and only a handful more were added to our collection. At Christmas we tried to work in a stream swollen by heavy snow and, although we found three more on one lucky day, our fingers were so red and swollen we could hardly pluck them out of the riddle.
Then a strange thing happened: I lost one, and with it I lost interest. I know I had it on the bus going to school. But when I got there it had gone. John was livid. He was convinced I’d given it to the bus conductor by mistake for a sixpence.
All the fun of finding the coins was souring our friendship, so one day I just put all of my share into a handkerchief, wrapped it up and gave it to my friend. “You’d better keep them,” I said. “I don’t trust myself not to lose the lot.”
It was true I didn’t. And anyway I had all kinds of new hobbies to be getting on with: there was chicken farming (all 50 died on me), mushroom growing, sword collecting (my mother eventually gave them to a house decorator), and rock and roll. That was the big one for me. The fun had been finding the coins. John was a much better bank than I was.
I went to see him a couple of years ago. He lives in New Zealand now and is married to my sister-in-law, and he keeps them in a safe, all carefully labelled – apart from three very rare ones which apparently even foxed the British Museum. And apparently Paki-Has and Maoris come from miles around to see this grand collection.
With great pride he carefully got them out for me and spread them across the dining table as we reminisced about who found which ones. At last, with some trepidation, I asked whether I might have one.
“One!” he said in astonishment. “You can take half of them. Choose any 15. They’re yours. I’ve only been looking after them for you until you came to your senses.”
I chose one that I remembered finding. I still didn’t trust myself with the rest. Apparently they’re worth thousands of pounds now. It’s a pretty wonderful thing to be 13 years old and find buried treasure.