The vast sands of Cleethorpes beach can stretch into the horizon at low tide, revealing all kinds of interesting things previously hidden by the sea. It’s the perfect spot for metal detectorists to discover artefacts such as musket balls and ancient coins among the marine debris.
Yet the local authority has introduced a ban with the threat of £100 fines for anyone using a metal detector in the area, causing uproar among local people who have combed the beach for decades.
Now the National Council for Metal Detecting says it is considering taking legal action against North East Lincolnshire council to overturn the ban. Residents have launched a petition and a graffiti artist – who some believe may be Banksy – has created a stencil artwork of a detectorist on the promenade wall. In 2021, Banksy released A Great British Spraycation video confirming he was behind several new works at seaside resorts in East Anglia.
The hobby has become increasingly popular since Mackenzie Crook’s BBC series Detectorists first aired in 2014, and the National Council for Metal Detecting now has 30,000 members. Alan Tamblyn, its general secretary, said the council’s actions were “very misguided and very ill-judged and can’t be justified”.
“We are certainly considering challenging this in the high court,” he said. “If they came up with a reason for doing this we’d accept it, but they haven’t.”
The council introduced a public space protection order on 1 April preventing various activities on the beach and coastline because it is a site of special scientific interest – part of the Humber estuary. The saltmarsh north of the beach is essential to about 150,000 migrating birds and the dunes are used for nesting, so the council has forbidden fires, camping, sky lanterns and jet skiing, while dogs are also banned from the beach during the summer months.
The council issued a statement to the Observer justifying its decision but did not explain what harm detectorists might do on the sea flats when the tide was out.
Tamblyn said he had approached council officers but not received a clear response. He believes the objection is that detectorists dig holes, which he said were usually only a few inches deep and should be filled afterwards. “I said to them ‘What about sandcastles, kids burying their dad in the sand – have you banned that as well?’ And they said ‘No no no, that’s fine’. So I could go to the beach tomorrow and dig a six foot hole and they wouldn’t care. But if I take a metal detector and dig a six inch hole, I could be fined. Where’s the logic?
“Detectorists on a beach are doing a public service, because for every item of interest they find there will be 10, 20, 30 ring pulls and cans and barbecues and bottle tops that they will pick up and take with them,” he said. The main stretch of the beach is already raked by council litter pickers during the summer.
Detectorists are more often associated with searching farmland, where ploughing can bring long-buried objects to the surface. Many important Angle and Saxon artefacts have been discovered in fields that had been farmed for generations. But some detectorists find beaches more interesting to search repeatedly, since objects can be washed ashore. In 2015, seven lead musket balls were discovered on Cleethorpes beach, which may have been from a barrel of shot lost from a ship, or evidence that the beach was used as a practice firing range.
Paul Cee has been detecting on Cleethorpes beach for 23 years. “When the tide’s out, you’ve got a mile and a half of beach to look at,” he said. “You detect, you clean up and you go home. There’s the people that go through the summer for a few pounds of pocket money and the others that go for the interesting stuff.”
His most memorable find was a second world war cap badge. “It was from Manchester Regiment – they were bombed and some of the guys were killed. They have a reunion every year and I’ve given them the cap badge back.”
Cee is distressed by the council’s stance: “It was a shock. I found out from a friend who runs a gym on the seafront. He does a lot of open water swimming and I’d found a ring he lost. He said ‘They’re bringing in a ban on metal detecting and barbecues on the beach’.”
There was talk of a permit scheme, he said, but he had “hit a brick wall” every time he asked the council. “People are very annoyed,” he said.
The council said in a statement that the order allowed it to enforce existing bylaws more easily. “Metal detecting has not been allowed in the area’s parks and open spaces for decades and has never been permitted on Cleethorpes beach and coastline as it’s part of the SSSI,” it said.
However, the council advertised metal detector permits at least a decade after the beach was designated part of a site of special scientific interest in 1998. A council webpage, uploaded to the internet archive in 2011, listed permits for adults for £15, and £7.50 for concessions. Cee said that permits were sold until fairly recently.