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We Went Magnet Fishing in Nottingham Canal with Youtubers The New Magneterz

16 March 20 words: Ash Carter
photos: Tom Morley

From guns, knives and bombs to bikes, trolleys and train carriages, you wouldn’t believe what's lurking at the bottom of our rivers and canals. And with the practice of magnet fishing – the process of retrieving such objects with industrial magnets attached to lengths of rope – growing increasingly popular around the UK, we decided to tag along with East Midlands collective The New Magneterz to find out what all the fuss was about...

There’s already a palpable sense of excitement as we approach the seven-strong group of magnet fishers, equally spaced out across an otherwise quiet stretch of canal beneath Chain Lane Bridge in Dunkirk. The weather is a foul mixture of rain and a cold, whipping wind, ensuring that our group arrived looking like we’d just been hauled out of the same body of water they were investigating. The group seemed neither to notice nor care about the conditions; they weren’t there for the weather – they were there to fish. Not in the traditional sense: their rods, line, hooks and bait were replaced with brightly coloured lengths of thick rope to which heavy-duty, purpose built magnets were attached. And their fish? Absolutely anything and everything metal that had found itself into the waterway over the years. By the sounds of things, they had something big.

We’d invited ourselves along to spend the day with The New Magneterz, a group of magnet fishing enthusiasts who traverse the length and breadth of the East Midlands searching for long lost treasure beneath the murky waters of its rivers and canals. It’s apparent that we’ve arrived at an opportune time, as one, then two, then three of them soon reel in their own magnets in order to help fish out whatever metallic Leviathan is the cause of the excitement. It feels a little like we’ve walked into a pub during a penalty shootout, and I suddenly feel like I’m in the way. 

The feeling doesn’t last long, however, as I start talking to Steven Matts, one of the group’s founders. In cold-weather clothing, including a New Magneterz branded hoodie and unicorn hat, it’s clear that he’s in his element, excitedly telling me about one of his most recent finds: an antique sign. “I had it appraised and found out it was from a particular promotion that ran from 1901 to 1905,” he says, with a smile. “The last one had sold for £350, but I don’t want to sell it. It’s a piece of history to keep hold of.” 

Their involvement in the hobby shows the increasing attraction of magnet fishing, which is growing gradually popular both with participants willing to get their hands dirty and those more comfortable watching the subsequent videos of their finds. A look at their own YouTube channel provides accounts of their previous adventures all over the East Midlands, not all of which have been incident-free. The weekend before, the group had been taking part in an expedition in Loughborough when they found a still-active stick grenade from World War One. “We have a procedure that we follow,” Steven tells me, “we instantly called the police to let them know that we’d found an explosive device, and they arrived within ten minutes.” Unfortunately for them, their find coincided with a university open day, and the arrival of the bomb squad caused a bit of disruption. “We did issue a public apology for that one,” he continues, “we don’t go specifically looking for bombs, but you never know what you’re going to find.”

Once we got the safe open we found out that there was around £700 worth of jewellery, as well as cash, birth certificates, passports and a ring

With perfect timing, our conversation is briefly interrupted by a younger member of the group asking whether what he has just pulled out is a bomb or not. Half-joking I pray, and half-not, he puts us at ease by letting us know that it is in fact just an old car part. With relief, we make our way over to the scene of the ongoing struggle, only to find that, at long last, they’ve recovered what was causing them so much trouble. And it’s exciting news. 

“That’s a money box, no doubt about it,” Steven tells me, instantly recognizing the black, metallic cube that is now resting on the canal banks. “It’s from an old payphone, and it’s probably full of pound coins.” The initial mood of excitement quickly turns to one of duty, as the next stage of the process comes into action: getting it open. As a member of their party starts working it over with a three-foot long piece of scaffolding – an earlier find from the canal – Steven informs me of a similar discovery he’d had last year. 

“It was a safe, wrapped in a pillowcase. Once we got it open we found out that there was around £700 worth of jewellery, as well as cash, birth certificates, passports and a ring.” After informing the police, Steven was later told that the ring held enormous sentimental value to the owner: “To be able to reunite them with their ring was particularly satisfying,” he tells me, with genuine sincerity, “and the safe was actually linked to a series of break-ins, and was used as evidence for a conviction.” I wonder out loud what most people would, if they were being honest, and asked him if he’d considered keeping the cash? “People said that we were daft to return it, but we were doing the right thing.”

It’s an ethos that runs through all aspects of their activities, and not one that all magnet fishers adhere to. Before all of their trips, Steven makes contact with local scrap metal dealers to ensure that all of their finds are safely cleared up. “I always try and find a local, independent scrap man to pick it all up. We don’t want the hobby banned because of people leaving waste everywhere.” His point is emphasised by four or five large pieces of scrap metal lying separate from their own carefully organised pile of finds, lazily left over from another group's visit to the same spot recently. “The Canal and River Trust are getting fed up with amateurs leaving their rubbish everywhere. I caught two guys in Leicester walking away from their pile. I got a photo and decided to name and shame them online. The council already have enough to do, it’s down to us to clear up after ourselves.”

We don’t go specifically looking for bombs, but you never know what you’re going to find

As the struggle to open the money box continues, other members continue to pull out an eclectic array of items from the canal: a large knife, some railroad spikes, a smaller penknife, old car parts and huge amounts of scaffolding. Steven tells me that the site was chosen due to its proximity to an old World War II barracks, saying that it is not uncommon to find weapons from the era. “I’ve found an old WWII-issue naval flare gun as well as a German-issue Luger pistol.” As we talk, a builder makes his way across the bridge, armed with a chisel and almost novelty-sized hammer. Even from his side of the canal, the appeal to get inside the money box was too much to resist. With renewed impetus, the attempts to open it continue, quickly rewarded with the first glimpse of a gap in its previously impenetrable armour. 

“This is all part of the thrill of not knowing what you’re going to pull out!” Steven tells me, and I couldn't agree more. I want to get involved myself, but am weary of getting even dirtier. It’s a song of innocence and experience: the New Magneterz are all wearing welly-boots and waterproof shoes, whereas my previously-pristine Stan Smiths look like they’ve been used as plates to serve a scatological sundae. The enthusiasm isn’t financially motivated, either. Rather the irresistible desire to scratch that curiousity itch and find out what’s inside. Someone dropped that box in the canal years, maybe decades ago, assuming it would never see the light of day again. And now we have it, and the need to know what’s inside is overwhelming. 

To our amazement, three hours had gone by during our time with the group, and every minute of it had been fascinating. The practice of magnet fishing may have its naysayers but, as Steven pointed out, those who do it responsibly are pulling thousands of tons of metal out of the UK’s canals and rivers every year, free of charge. What’s more, they’re making important historical discoveries along the way. Their group includes a father and son team, and the camaraderie between all of them is unmistakable. It’s relatively inexpensive to get involved in – with a good-quality magnet costing between £50-£70. As we start to say our goodbyes, I let Steven know that I’d love to join them the next time they’re in Nottingham. It’s been way too much fun to be a one-off visit, although I’ll re-think my footwear next time. 

And the money box? With the builder’s tools ultimately proving unsuccessful, one final attempt is made to get it open, using a more rudimentary method: dropping it off the top of the bridge. Falling to earth with an almighty thud, we close in to see if we’d been successful. Sadly for us, the box was still stubbornly refusing to give up her secrets.

A week later, I received a Facebook message from The New Magneterz page. It was Steven letting me know that they’d finally managed to crack open the box. What was inside? 30p. I guess it’s all just part of the fun. 

The New Magneterz website