Before the goldrush: British panning is thriving

A A A

Vince Thurkettle shakes his head sadly when he recalls the dark days when Britain's gold reserves were sold off. "We should all be crying in our beer over that one," he sighs.

This year, the price of gold reached $1,500 an ounce. A large chunk of the UK's reserves was sold off between 1999 and 2002 with dealers paying between $256 and $296 an ounce. The decision to sell almost 400 tons of bullion was made by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown when the price was at a 20-year low. Thurkettle, the country's only professional gold prospector, laments the lack of foresight.

"The world has become more unstable," he explains. "There are currency problems with the dollar and the euro, central banks have stopped selling gold, Eastern markets love it more than the West, and so as long as economies in China and India are thriving, then demand will remain huge."

The projection is that gold prices will rise even further as it becomes harder to find and extract. In times of turmoil, gold has always been the safe investment option and the world is in the grip of a new gold rush with modern-day prospectors heading to the gold-rich areas of Yukon, in Canada, and Alaska to seek their fortunes.

Most are men drawn by the thrill of adventure, although it is difficult to turn a profit. In Alaska, the fortunes of the prospectors are followed by the Discovery Channel documentary Gold Rush which shows the lengths prospectors go to, dredging for gold in the unforgiving Bering Sea.

A new gold mine may also be about to open in Britain. Although Scotgold Resources was last year refused permission to mine at Cononish in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, it plans to submit a new application taking into account environmental concerns. If successful, the facility is expected to process 72,000 tons of rock and extract an estimated 20,000 ounces of gold a year.

The last UK gold rush occurred in Helmsdale, Scotland, in 1868 when Robert Gilchrist returned from Australia after working in the gold fields there for 17 years and began to pan in his local stream. He found gold and after his find was reported, between 400 and 600 prospectors descended on the area. Thurkettle, 55, from Norfolk, claims the number of modern-day hobbyists taking up gold prospecting has tripled since the recession.

"I've noticed an increase, I see more people out on rivers panning," he says. In 2004, he gave up a well-paid, secure job as a Forestry Commission deputy director to pursue his passion for gold. An expert in geology, he can spend days at a time in a wet suit, snorkelling along river beds, teasing flakes of gold from rocks with a butter knife – a method known as "sniping".

"It is a secretive business," he says. "Prospectors research thoroughly but they keep locations private for obvious reasons. You have to do your homework. I visit old town museums and look at their geological samples. But you can also get information listening to old men in pubs talking about where they've seen people panning. It is about research and old books."

Naturally occurring gold is mainly found in old rocks such as granite and carbon-rich shale. The UK's best gold-bearing rocks are in Scotland and North Wales, although deposits have also been uncovered in Devon limestone.

The modern-day gold rush is fuelled as much by interest in outdoor pursuits as it is by rising prices. "It is the same as going mountain-biking or fishing: it's harmless, delightful and ancient," explains Thurkettle. "For most, it is not about money. It's rare to find anything commercially viable on a hobbyist level. My biggest find in a day was worth about £1,500, but my worst is nothing. I've had lots of days like that."

"Gold Rush", 9pm, Tuesdays, Discovery

Suggested Topics
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk