‘There’s a romanticism about nighthawking, but it’s theft’: when metal detectorists go rogue

Anyone who digs up valuable treasure is supposed to report the find, not hang on to it or sell it to the highest bidder. But even under lockdown, crime continues

‘In England and Wales, you need permission from the landowner to go metal-detecting, unless the site is historically protected, in which case all metal-detecting is illegal.’ Photograph: Jack Sullivan/Alamy

If you had seen them, you might have thought they were ramblers or dog walkers – locals snatching some fresh air as the nation hunkered indoors during lockdown. Only their equipment would have given them away: metal detectors, a shovel and a spade, that they humped uncomfortably up a vertiginous path.

They turned off the main road and drove a quarter of a mile down a single track dark with trees, past the occasional house and fields of rolling countryside. It was probably early morning when the car pulled up at a wooden fence, on which were carved the words “GRAY HILL, COMPTON”. From here, it is a stiff, scrambling climb up Gray Hill, towards a cluster of ancient standing stones that loom out of scrubland like broken teeth. Here, if the weather is clear, you can look out towards the Severn estuary.

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