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It’s good to know that David Cameron has been reading my blog. Or at least that he has come to appreciate the cultural significance of the British pier since I last blogged about this in March. When he chose to give his vision of a Big Society another push earlier this week, he sent Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, down to Hastings to see how the locals are trying to save their pier.

Hastings pier

You can see ten minutes of Newsnight documentary about Hurd’s seaside visit here; and there are some nice reflections from Max Davidson here on the strange pull of the pier on the British imagination, occasioned by the opening of Weston-super-Mare’s new £51m Grand Pier.

For they were, in their heyday, romantic places. The ingenuity of Victorian engineers, building out into the sea, when it would have been far simpler and cheaper to build the same structures on shore, stirred the imagination. There was a kind of poetry in the conjunction of the lapping waves and those jaunty pavilions, shimmering in the sun. They were places of adventure, glamour, innocent merriment. No Mediterranean beach could match the splendour of an English pier in its pomp.

When I was a child in the 1960s, an outing to Margate Pier was an event of knee-trembling excitement. I laughed myself silly at the Punch and Judy shows. I guzzled huge sticks of rock. I thought the ghost train was the single scariest thing that had ever happened to me. It didn’t matter that paint was peeling off the skeletons, that the spiders were made of shoe-laces or that the driver of the train looked like Albert Steptoe. I let my imagination roam.

Most of all, I loved those old coin-slide machines where if you rolled a penny at the right moment, you could get ten, 15, 20 pennies back, as a gleaming pile of coins toppled over the precipice. It was my first introduction to the thrills and spills of gambling.

Like pantomimes, with which they have much in common, piers bewilder foreigners. “This is your idea of fun?” asks the bemused German or Frenchman, as giggling English families pile on to 5mph trains, puttering along to the end of the pier past speak-your-weight machines and candyfloss stalls. But they retain a nagging hold on our imagination, for that very reason. They are not sophisticated. They are the reverse of sophisticated. But they connect us to childhoods past, when the world was simpler.

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people in the queue by Kewei SHANG.The two longest queues in Britain last week were outside Liverpool Catholic Cathedral, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Both sets of people were waiting to see relics: in one case, the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux; in the other, the priceless collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery just found in a Staffordshire field. It shows that the urge to connect with the past in tangible ways is not just confined to religious devotees.

The breathtaking scale of the discovery has stunned archaeologists and historians – almost 1500 gold and silver items thought to date from the 7th or 8th century. We know so little about ‘the Dark Ages’, and this find promises to open up and transform the way we understand a civilisation that is still largely unknown. You can read more here and here.

The real story for me, however, is Terry Herbert.

Britain also has the world’s most fanatical treasure hunters, who, immune to the ill-concealed scoffing of professional archaeologists, now account for almost all the worthwhile artefacts found around the country. Last week’s disclosure that Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old, unemployed metal-detecting enthusiast from Staffordshire, had discovered a priceless trove of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery put the treasure hunters in the national spotlight. But most of them, frankly, would prefer to be quietly tramping the fields.

“Hardly any of these characters are in it for money or glory,” says Julian Evan-Hart, one of Britain’s foremost treasure hunters and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Metal Detecting. “There’s something in their psyches, a sort of acquisitive impulse that make them go out and look for things. When you talk to them you’ll find a lot of them collected eggs or stamps when they were kids. They’ve never quite lost the urge.”

In the hierarchy of despised pastimes, metal detecting must come just a couple of notches below train spotting and stamp collecting. Yet this window onto a vast unknown world was opened not by an expert, not by a team of trained archeologists, not by an American funded research institute, but by a man who wandered around fields on his own looking for buried treasure.

Golden Ticket by Witheyes.It is the attraction of the lottery – that you are an ordinary person, that you have no more right to win than anyone else, but there is the slim possibility that in your ordinariness you can achieve greatness. It’s the lure of all forms of gambling. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – with the famished little boy tearing open the chocolate bar in the sweet shop and discovering that it contains the Last Golden Ticket. It’s Lucy falling into the wardrobe and finding a passage to the magical world of Narnia.

It’s also, by a strange coincidence, the spirituality of St Thérèse: Ordinary people doing ordinary things with great love and great care, in the full knowledge that this kind of love is what transforms the world and makes a new one possible. Without a trace of sentimentality. The same ruggedness, resilience, and sense of purpose that sent Terry Herbert across the fields each morning.

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