Wellington-booted feet planted deep into the riverbed, the current strong, and the nasty wind whipping around her ears, Daisy Thurkettle-Roper looks up and smiles. Oddly, the smile seems genuine, because despite the cold – and it is bloody freezing today – the woman appears to be enjoying herself. "Oh, but I am," she merrily insists. "It really is one of the most exciting things you can do, you know."
Precisely what she is doing is this: panning for gold. Yes, panning for it. Not buying it from her nearest jewellers, but rather sifting through mud and rocks with a plunger and spade, and an awful lot of effort to boot, in the hope of finding a precious few flakes of one of the most valuable minerals on earth. On a good day, she says, she can hope to find somewhere between £60 and £70 worth of the stuff. On a bad day, less. But then, for the perennially hardy British gold-panner, there are no bad days. You are out in the elements alongside kith and kin, breathing in God's own air, and scouring away for potential fortune. What's not to love?
"Actually, nobody really does it for the money," she says, as we take a break and sit – but with due care and attention, for the area is strewn liberally with sheep shit – on the riverbank. "Most of the gold found, people make into their own jewellery. But you do it largely for the social aspect, for being out in this beautiful scenery, and you do it also because it gives you a terrific workout. It is very physical."
Underlying it all, however, is the thrill of the hunt. "Well, it is true that gold is very, very beautiful, and it is incredibly exciting to find," Daisy explains. "OK, so today the conditions are against us [gold panning is far more popular in the spring and summer than it is during the coldest winter we have had for years], but when you do it on a warm day, the birds singing all around you and the sun beating down upon your back, it feels so very wonderful. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. And it's not just me. There are hundreds of us, thousands worldwide."
in pursuit of full disclosure, we should perhaps make it clear here that what Daisy is doing today, several inches into the River Colne at the foot of the Pennines in Last of the Summer Wine territory, is little more than giving us an example of how one pans for gold, should one feel the inclination to do so. For on this icy day in late February, the low clouds threatening to break at any minute, we are actually several hundred miles away from fertile panning country. Consequently, we are really no more likely to find golden flakes here than we are in our toilet bowls at home. Pity.
"Scotland and Wales are the best places in this country," she says, "but only a fool would visit them in February."
We are here because the Colne is a mere 40 minutes from Leeds city centre, where Daisy currently lives with her husband, Martyn, himself a recent convert – if only, you feel, because Daisy would accept nothing less from a prospective suitor, so pronounced is her passion.
And she demonstrates her passion with gusto. A delicate, finely featured and rather EM Forster type of woman (think a young Helena Bonham Carter), she is dressed more for tea and scones at Claridge's than she is for panning, in a flighty blue dress, red cashmere cardigan and fake fur jacket. (Her high heels, mercifully, she has left in the car, in favour of regulation green wellies.) As we walk through mud to another stretch of the river, she strides on ahead, dwarfed by her backpack, out of which pokes heavy equipment that would make a lesser human stoop, or at the very least complain about it. Not Daisy. If Daisy had been alive during the Second World War, she'd have been one of those tireless dynamos types we read about in fiction, the kind who run the local soup kitchen, put in shifts at the nearby hospital, give shelter to orphans, and read out announcements on the radio in an exquisite cut-glass accent (which, in her case, may have its roots in Norfolk, but may as well emanate from Buck House itself).
Half an hour later, and Daisy has been faux-gold-panning in a river that offers only sediment for enough time to have turned her fingers blue and her cheeks bright red. In the summer months, she says, the cold is replaced by what many consider an even greater irritation: mosquitoes and midges, by the thousand. The task can also play havoc on your lower back, given that the position you have to maintain while dredging out the mud is roughly 45 degrees. All the plunging, meanwhile, plays hell on the bicep. I ask her why she doesn't seek out something less strenuous instead.
"Because it's so very invigorating! Also, it's a charmingly old-fashioned way of meeting people, and I like that." Gold-panners, she says, are a tenacious type. Even if you trek out to a stretch of river in the middle of nowhere on your hunt, you are still likely to run into a bunch of them who, like the anecdotal Germans on European beaches, got there long before you and bagged all the prime locations. But this, she insists, is wonderful, "because it means the collective picnic lunches are so much more lively".
They also become objects of fascination in themselves. So comparatively rare is the British gold panner that he or she cannot help but draw curious looks from passers-by. People come over and introduce themselves all the time, Daisy says. And that's precisely what happens today. An elderly rambler, who had spent several minutes watching us from a safe distance, eventually gives in to curiosity and approaches. He asks us what we are up to.
"Gold-panning?" he repeats, amused. "Well I never! And which newspaper are you from?"
I tell him.
"I take the Telegraph myself," he says. "But good luck to you."
it is probably safe to say that Daisy Thurkettle-Roper is not your average gold-panner, but then who is, these days? The gold rush, after all, is, like, so over. In fact, it is more of a trickle than anything else these days . People no longer make their money from striking gold as they did in the 19th century. But nevertheless, as pastimes go, it is hardly more odd than, say, birdwatching or fell-walking or metal-detecting. Many of the more vocal exponents are, admittedly, much older than Daisy, and far likely hairier. I speak to one of them a couple of days later, Alf Henderson, aged 78, a proud co-founder of the British Gold Panners Association (BGPA). Alf, a former schoolteacher, first came to gold three decades ago, and has been all over the world in pursuit of his hobby ever since. His favourite location, he tells me, is New Zealand, "but my biggest single haul was in Canada. Sixteen and a half ounces back in 1992. £3,000 it fetched me. Now that was a good day."
The BGPA is an association that takes itself seriously enough to help organise both national and international competitions. The former takes place annually in Scotland, the latter this year in the Czech Republic – next year in Poland. Daisy, a regular competitor, always was the youngest. Today, at 26, she still is.
"I suppose it's true that there is a stereotype of your typical panner," she concedes, "and I'm not it."
The stereotype, then, is male and in late middle age, but robust with it, a man with a touch of the wild about him, an untamed beard and a thick lumberjack shirt, massive boots, and a leather hat to keep the rain off – a hat he very probably fashioned himself with the same knife that was used to glean the material in the first place (the carcass turning ripe out back).
"But I've travelled the world doing this, and you'd be surprised how many women I've met," Daisy says. "I'm not the only one, you know."
she succumbed to her passion early in life, caught in its spell courtesy of her father, a former Forestry Commission employee who ditched the day job 30 years ago to pursue gold full time – and who is currently in Lanzarote doing just that. Over the years, Daisy ferreted away every last scrap she found, and when she married Martyn last year, she had enough to turn it into a pair of wedding bands. And it was these rings that transformed her into a 21st-century poster girl for the BGPA. How? Well, convinced that it would make for a heartwarming human-interest story, she sent out a press release about them, of course.
"I just thought it was romantic," she says now. "Most people buy their rings. We panned for them. It's unusual."
A couple of local newspapers agreed, and picked up on it as a news item last summer. Then, in January this year, she was the subject of a Radio 4 programme. This time, the response was considerable, with listeners writing in, full of admiration for the way in which she conveyed her infectious enthusiasm, whether they were drawn to the idea of gold-panning themselves or not. As a result, she now has a literary agent and is hoping to write a book about the history of gold-panning, and her role in it.
Meantime, she is also studying for a PhD in Greek literature at Leeds University, and though she'd ostensibly like to become a lecturer in Classics, Daisy clearly loves the limelight. In addition to her public attempts to raise the profile of gold-panning, she plays in two local bands, The Lovesick Cowboys and a jazz and blues duo called The Old Time String Band that plays at local functions. "Life has suddenly become very full," she admits. "I'm having to learn to juggle."
Two years ago, Daisy fulfilled her lifetime's ambition when she travelled to the Yukon Territory in Canada, once a mecca for gold obsessives. "The most enormous gold rushes in the world happened there," she says. "But because it was so inconveniently located, so perilously high up in the mountains, thousands of people died just trying to reach it. It was a tragedy on a scale you could hardly imagine. But the journey was worth it for those who made it, because there lay a fortune beyond their imaginings. Isn't that the most incredible story? I felt so privileged to visit."
Back in the goldless River Colne, she wants to leave me with a lasting impression of what it would be like if we really had struck lucky. From her bag, she retrieves a test-tube that contains four tiny and, in this light, fairly lifeless-looking flakes that she'd found on a previous expedition. These she tosses confidently into her pan full of sediment, and then begins the methodical process of shaking it gently beneath the water until all the earth and pebbles are washed away, leaving only the heaviest component, the gold itself. Within moments, in a sea of diminishing sludge, four pinpricks now blaze away, sparkling like micro particles of the sun itself. Daisy, so cold that she can no longer feel her fingers, is beaming.
"Have you ever seen anything more beautiful? You know, when you do find gold for yourself, you come across something that nobody before has ever either seen or touched. Isn't that amazing? And that's why I do this. Really, how could anyone resist?"
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