Watching the Matthew McConaughey crime caper, Gold, you would be forgiven for thinking that the practice of gold prospecting is a gateway to adventure.
To some extent it is, but real-life gold panner and prospector Vincent Thurkettle is keen to stress that it also takes time and patience. Gold prospecting isn’t some gateway to a hidden realm of treasures that will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.
It’s about enjoyment and passion. If you don’t have either of those things, it’s probably not for you. Vincent discovered his passion for gold as a youngster and has never looked back since.
President of the World Goldpanning Association, he’s travelled across Europe, Australia, and even Canada in pursuit of the stuff and he’s had some success too – in 2012 he found the biggest gold nugget ever recorded in Britain off the coast of Anglesey.
Valued at a staggering £50,000, it’s fair to say that Vincent knows his stuff when it comes to gold and seemed like the perfect person for loaded to ask about the realities of gold panning and prospecting.
loaded: How did you first get into gold panning and prospecting?
Vincent: Completely by accident. I was studying forestry and geology at University and one day I met a gold prospector and my life changed. I thought that sort of thing had finished in the Victorian period but there I was, suddenly I was talking to someone who was doing it for a living. He told me how to do it, where to go and all of a sudden my interest in other rocks and minerals vanished. I must have been 20 then, but all of a sudden my weekends and holidays became focused around gold prospecting. 12 years ago, I went full-time.
loaded: Weekends and holidays? Does gold panning require fair amount of dedication then?
Vincent: You’ve got to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, it’s not a problem to dedicate time to it. It is a lovely thing to do. There are so many directions you can take it in. You might want to have this crazy adventure like the one in Gold or you might just want to do it at the weekend with the kids.
loaded: Talk us through an average day as a goldpanner then.
Vincent: It really depends on whether you are somewhere remote or not. For example, there’s a great gold field in Arctic Lapland, one of the first wild places I went to. If you are going somewhere like that, you need to be a confident camper and navigator who doesn’t take any equipment they won’t end up using. The average day up there is about normal camp craft and surviving in the wilderness. But if you are panning somewhere like southern Scotland, you might be able to drive there in a car, park by the river and spend a few hours there before going home again.
The key thing is patience – you’ve got to give it as much time as possible to find gold. It’s fairly easy to find a little bit but difficult to find a lot. You have to get up early and get stuck in.
loaded: Do you ever have days where you think about just giving it all up?
Vincent: A few times I’ve been prospecting, I’ve spent a good few hours getting nowhere. You end up almost feeling like you have the devil and an angel on your shoulders, telling you it’s useless while the other part of you convinces you this is a great place.
For my first 20 years, I felt like almost anything worthwhile had already been found but over the last two decades, a few guys with a little more time on their hands have made some significant discoveries in England and Scotland.
loaded: Where are the best places to look for gold around the UK?
Vincent: Gold can occur almost anywhere. When I first started out, I was pleased to just find a spec or two. After that, when I got fairly good I sort of upgraded to things like shipwrecks. It’s there that you find jewellery and coins and all sorts of interesting stuff. It’s just that bit more difficult. You can’t just go diving for a weekend, you have to spend months and months on it. It’s a big step up. That’s why I focus on coasts and shipwrecks – because I have the time. If you put a three month shift in in you tend to find something.
loaded: You made a pretty substantial discovery off the coast of Anglesey – can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Vincent: The wreck of the Royal Charter is well known. I was 11 weeks diving that site before we found the first spec of gold. 11 weeks, diving again and again. At that point it became about belief. I knew there was gold down there. Originally, there was said to be around £120 million on that wreck and while I knew the Victorians had done an excellent job of getting most of it, even if they got 99% of the gold, there was still over a million down there. It still took me 11 weeks to find it. It either says how hard it is or that I’m not good at it after all.
loaded: Does goldpanning and prospecting ever get dangerous?
Vincent: On the Royal Charter we had two or three near misses. People in the past have too. One farmer got the salvage rights many, many years ago and went down there with gunpowder. Anyway, he ended up blowing himself up.
In one instance we were using surface air which was going down to the diver and no one noticed that his airline had gone into the intake of the jet. Fortunately, he had unhooked it otherwise he would have been pulled up to near the surface and slammed into the bottom of the boat and no one would have noticed.
Another guy borrowed equipment and then got advised badly so a valve was left open. He got in the water and just immediately sank. He just about rescued himself but was well shaken up by it. We must have done 400 plus dives though so you are bound to make a mistake along the way. But real life is like that. Helen Keller once wrote “life is one long daring adventure or nothing at all. The aversion of risk is no safer than embracing it.” I think that’s very true.
loaded: Once you’ve found gold, what do you do? Where do you go from there with it?
Vincent: In the film gold he doesn’t find any and makes a fortune. By contrast, I’ve found loads and made nothing. On the sea, you photograph and record everything you’ve found. You submit it to the Department of Records. They technically have a year to find the owner. After that, they determine whether you are given a finder’s fee or they take it off you. That first lot of gold I found on the wreck about 10 years ago – I have yet to receive a farthing for that. I’ve submitted five treasure reports but none of them are closed. Finding something in many ways is not as difficult as keeping it.
loaded: That sounds like a lot of hassle. Is there not a temptation to simply bypass that?
Vincent: Of course. 80% of divers tell me I’m a fool to declare it. I’m not a goody, goody. I want to tell the story. We’ve done a documentary and written a book – we couldn’t do any of that if we didn’t declare it. That said, I wish it hadn’t taken so bloody long. Sarcasm doesn’t work with government departments but I did tell them I don’t plan on submitting any more reports as I won’t live long enough to see them get processed!
loaded: What advice can you give to anyone looking to get into gold prospecting?
Vincent: The main thing is to remind them that it’s nothing to do with money. Every now and then I get people contacting me asking how to make money and where to get started.
The idea that you are doing to go out there and pay off your mortgage with what you find is wrong. Do it for life. For adventure. For travel. For people. There are lots of reasons to do it but making money isn’t one of them.
loaded: Have you noticed any upturn in the number of people you have asking about gold prospecting of late?
Vincent: Definitely. Every time the gold price dips, I get a lot of interest. We’ve got Trump in office and Brexit on the horizonand all that going on. It’s not people are going to get rich, it’s more that it’s just in the news and gets people thinking that they would like to have a crack at it. People are also just starting to get a bit bored with screens. They want to do something real. They want to go hunting without killing anything – that’s basically what it is.
Gold is out on Digital Download now and available on Blu-ray and DVD while Vincent can be contacted for further information and comment here.