Riverbed treasure-hunt
You may not find chestfuls of doubloons or pieces of eight in a British river, but thousands of years worth of unexpected treasures and curiosities await the dedicated diver there, says Len Kerr. Are you up for an unusual wintertime project

A FEW YEARS AGO, THE HILT OF A BROKEN SWORD studded with jewels was found by a diver in the River Stour at Sandwich, near Deal in Kent. I read about it in a newspaper, and believe it once belonged to Admiral Nelson. A very nice find for a local club, and a good example of what it is possible to come across when diving rivers.
     Diving the seas and oceans is a great pastime, but there must be many who have never had the pleasure of diving a riverbed - and believe me, it can be a pleasure.
     You wont be able to see your buddy 10m away, and coral reefs and unusual fish will be hard to come by. But if you love diving and are blessed with a bit of luck, you will have a certain amount of viz, find a surprising amount to look at and possibly make some interesting discoveries into the bargain. Remember to take your goody bag with you.
     As well as the seas, I have been diving rivers for many years, and most of my dives yield a treasure of some sort. People drop possessions into rivers accidentally, they may hurl things into the water in anger or hide objects that are never retrieved. This has been going on since we set foot on the planet, and there are hundreds of rivers in the UK, each with its share of goodies. All you have to do is find them.
     Kents Medway is part-tidal and part non-tidal, the changeover taking place at Allington Locks, near Maidstone. The tidal section has quite a history, various battles having taken place on its banks over the years, with the possibility of related finds arising as a result.
     The village of Upnor is where the ancient London Stone stands. This dates back 800 years and marks the imaginary line across the Medway where salvage can be claimed if you are downriver from it. Upnor Castle is also here, one of the homes of Queen Elizabeth I, and it was here that the Dutch came upriver and gave the English a good hiding.
     The battle took place in the 1660s, and what a battle it was! Cannon, armour and swords are thought to be buried under the mud, but the odd artefact, clay pipes, old keys and coins can still be found on the riverbed - as well as small cannonballs.
     Moving forward in time, and further downriver, at Stoke Marshes there are two interesting wrecks - World War One German submarines. They are uncovered at low water and were captured by the Royal Navy and interred there. For their age, and the fact that they get wet and dry alternately, the subs are in reasonable condition. Its possible to have a shallow dive around them with a metre or two of viz, seeing fish if youre lucky and even, occasionally, an inquisitive seal.
     The non-tidal stretch of the river is fresh water, and just as interesting. It, too, produces treasures and is easier to explore as it is less wide. In summer, pleasure-boats pass up and down here, but not in winter.
     And here bridges span the water, always a good sign for divers. For hundreds of years people have been throwing items into the water from these bridges, as well as losing or discarding things from passing boats. They are waiting there for divers.
     I was once asked to look for an outboard engine here. It had not been secured properly, and had jumped off the transom of a small pleasure-boat. The young couple who had hired the boat lost their deposit and I was approached by the owner, to whom I owed a favour.
     Viz was just over 2m when I dropped in at the point that had been indicated by the couple, and I settled on the riverbed to allow the small cloud of silt to move away.
     To my surprise, as it cleared, there in front of me was the outboard engine. I tied my line to it and it was soon up in the boat. But as I was already down there, I decided to have a look around. The viz had cleared again, so I slowly explored the riverbed. And there, sticking out of the mud, was what looked like a curly piece of metal.
     I worked it free of the silt and saw that I was holding a large silver cup. It turned out to be a Champion Hunter Cup, won and presented to a member of the Hornchurch Conservative Association in 1948. It had formed part of the contents of a silver cabinet that had been burgled and, after cleaning, it was duly returned to the owners. But I wonder where the rest of the silver is - probably still down there.
     With some goodies, its a mystery how they ended up in the river. Not long ago I took a friend, a qualified diver, on her first river dive. The viz was only about half a metre, but at least we could see what was on the riverbed.
     On the bottom we started criss-crossing the river, which is about 50m wide at that point, making our way slowly against the slight flow. I always welcome a small current, as it carries any silt away behind me.
     What looked like 5-7cm pebbles littered the bottom, partly covered in sediment. They reminded me of an old glass paperweight I had found once, which had looked just like a stone.
     I was about to examine one of them more closely when Ann tugged the line excitedly. She had found a very old bottle.
     I had a closer look and saw that it still had the marble in the neck, and that the glass had a greenish hue to it. It was a good find, and I was pleased for her. I watched as the bottle disappeared into her goody bag.
     We continued our exploration for a while without any further excitement. Then I picked up another stone. This one was not like those I had seen earlier. It had a grey look about it and, through my glove, felt as if it had a soft covering. It was also heavier than the others. It was worth keeping to look at after the dive, once we were out of the gloom, so I dropped it into my bag just as I got a low-air signal from Ann.
     We made our way back to our entry point, removed our equipment and took a look at what we had found. The softish stone turned out to be a ball of cloth, inside which 14 George V 1914 silver half-crowns were wrapped. Ann examined the rotting material and told me it was a type used long ago for making tapestries. The Victorian bottle was in fine condition, but how the coins ended up in the river we will never know.
     Always plan well, and work out the most promising places in which to dive. You need the time and air to search methodically, as it can be a slow business. A search isnt a search unless its carried out properly - its just a look!
     If you stand on a bridge and throw a stone as far as you can, the point at which it hits the water is where you should start looking for treasures, moving over the riverbed towards the bridge. Your search could end an equal distance away from the other side of the bridge.
     Castles overlooking rivers make good dive-sites, and slow-moving rivers are the best. Start say 500m from the castle going against any flow, and end 500m past it. Covering 1000 metres of riverbed does mean putting in a number of dives, taking up a lot of time and air.
     The search techniques I use vary depending on whether the river is tidal, non-tidal, straight, meandering, wide, narrow or shallow both sides, but they all involve laying ropes, some weighted. A trained diver will be able to work out which search will suit the situation, but bear in mind that it may be necessary to use two different types of search for a single site.
     And what happens if you do find something If the item or items are found in a tidal river, the law is the same as for the sea - you notify the Receiver of Wreck. If it is a non-tidal river, it should be handed into a police station.
     If the find is not valuable, the police will not usually be interested. If it is a treasure and of any value, a receipt will be issued and it will be kept for four to six weeks (it used to be six months). If unclaimed in that time, you get it back on production of the receipt. Good hunting.

Cheers! A diver surfaces with a trophy
Upnor Castle on the Medway.
Remains of the rivers German WW1 submarines
Victorian bottle and fourteen George V half-crowns from one Medway dive
River finds include a large spoon, clay pipes, small cannon ball, an old key, a bronze rowlock, a Victorian bottle, and a brass boathook
The London Stone dates from the year 1204 and marks the point at which the Medway becomes non-tidal

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