When I look back on this period of lockdown I think the 'highlight' will probably be the fortnight or so we spent as a family watching Detectorists on the BBC iPlayer. What my sons say they most appreciated was the gentle humour and escapism of it, but I suspect too there was something comforting in the idea that historical imagination and curiosity can transform a small stretch of landscape. Despite some sunny weather, this has been another weekend of staying indoors except for the short permitted exercise along familiar streets, and yet each time we walk them we see some new detail in the design of a house or the contents of a garden. Every day I pass a house with a blue plaque to the poet Louis MacNeice but I have long since taken as much interest in the houses surrounding it, wondering about the lives they have contained. The terminus of my regular walk is Canonbury Tower, an old Tudor building once owned by Thomas Cromwell which reminds you of the layers of history anywhere in London.
Last year Colin Sackett's Uniformbooks brought out a book on Detectorists in which four geographers analyse the series in terms of different ways of reading landscape, aspects of verticality, gender roles and the resonance of lost, everyday objects. It is a pleasure to read, although if you have just binge-watched the series you'll find it covering familiar ground. In some ways I was more interested in what writer Mackenzie Crook and producer Adam Tandy had to say about the making of the programmes and the ways in which they made metal detecting more televisual. I didn't realise, for example, that it is best done in autumn or winter on muddy, unattractive ploughed fields - very different from the sunny Constable-like landscapes we see in the series. Crook took up the hobby when he started writing the script and actually managed to find a piece of gold Roman jewellery, which is now in the British Museum. And it was wonderful to learn that one of the more poetic moments in Detectorists had happened to him in real life. One day, while he was out detecting on a farm in Suffolk, he 'dug down four inches to find an exquisite bronze hawking whistle.'
'I took a few minutes to unclog the mud with a piece of straw, then held it up to my lips and blew. The note that issued from the whistle was a ghost, a sound unheard for centuries, and the last person to hear that sound, that exact sound, was the person who dropped it just yards from where I was standing. And it wasn't a faint, feeble ghost either: it was an urgent, piercing shrill that echoed across the field and back through time.'
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