With all the talk of pirates (both kinds) recently my mind has been running amok with thoughts of hidden treasure. So I was thrilled when a couple of weeks ago the opportunity came up to actually search for some.
I'd asked some public relations students for any ideas they may have to promote a small museum I have recently become a trustee of, the Ragged School Museum in London's Mile End. The museum, which is a small gem on the canalside in a warehouse bought by Dr Barnardo to use as a school for the Victorian poor, is well known by schools who take classes there for mock Victorian lessons, but less well known by adults and tourists.
The students and I started by listing the groups the museum might want to attract, from parents of young children wishing to use the café as a meeting point to lovers of Victoriana and ghosthunters who, believing the museum to be one of London's most haunted buildings, stay the night to see if they can catch a ghoul. That's when one of the students came up with "geocaching".
Geocaching is a modern-day treasure hunt where, using longitude and latitude, and with the help of a hand-held GPS device or a map if you prefer, you are taken to within a metre or two of a hiding place and then have to find the treasure, or cache as it is known, which can be anything from a film canister attached to the back of a bench to a bigger container hidden in a tree stump.
Once found, you sign your name and, providing you leave something in return, you can take some of the "treasure" – usually a small toy or souvenir.
I found one the other day hidden in the supports at one end of one of the bridges over the Thames. Once I located it I did worry about being stopped for a terrorist if I were seen detaching and attaching a strange package to the underside of a bridge, not least because a police community support officer (PCSO) was watching.
Then I remembered the story a friend of mine had told me about how in the wake of the Tube bombings in 2005 he saw in Westminster a suspect package and a passing PCSO. "There's a suspect package over there," my friend said. "Oh," said the PCSO, "have you reported it?" True to form, the PCSO did nothing as I retrieved the haul, signed my name and replaced it.
I spent an hour near the Museum of London the other day looking for a cache. I didn't find it but did discover the wonderful herb garden of the Barber-Surgeons' Hall, a treasure in its own right.
If we could plant a geocache near the Ragged School Museum, said my student, then soon geocachers from all over the world, when visiting London, would come to find it. It's an ingenious idea, not only for the museum but for the Government. I wonder if it could be used to entice people to do what the Government wants them to. Child obesity, for example, could be tackled by letting people collect their child benefit from a geocache at the end of a country walk. It's a great idea for paternalistic politics. I just wonder which party will suggest it first.