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What’s the pull of magnet fishing? A Cam regular explains the attraction...

Magnet fishing became a Cambridge thing during the first lockdown last year: at the start of the pandemic the Cambridge Magnet Fishing group consisted of just two members, and today there are 280.

Magnet fishing is a popular activity. Picture: Keith Heppell
Magnet fishing is a popular activity. Picture: Keith Heppell

One of the original duo was Richard Leech, who spends most Sundays at Riverside fishing metal out of the Cam. I popped along at lunchtime on Sunday and Richard and his two colleagues Rich (the other founding member) and Ronnie had already collected a shopping trolley, a metal milk crate (for pint bottles ie from the 1970s), a lantern, a bike, assorted bicycle pumps and bits of scaffolding. A couple of days before Richard pulled out his first Lee Enfield .303 rifle – the Kalashnikov of its day – and the overall tally to date includes pistols, shop tills, electric scooters, an electric bike, ammunition...

“We’ve pulled more than 20 trolleys out of the Cam,” says Richard nonchalantly, adding that a scrap metal merchant would be along later in the day to pick it all up. “Plus way over 100 lanterns and more than 1,000 bike locks – a total of 50 tonnes of metal since we started, without a doubt.”

It sounds like an epidemic of rubbish and junk.

“It’s been evenly distributed through the years,” replies Richard. “The lanterns are probably 50 or 60 years old, there’s World War II stuff, the trolleys are more recent. It does raise the question of how much crap is in our rivers. It’s a typical ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation. Once you throw a magnet in you realise how much is in there...”

The neodynium magnets are powerful enough to stay locked on to a shopping trolley and anchors.

Richard Leech, magnet fisherman working the river on Riverside, after two hours of dredging. Picture: Keith Heppell
Richard Leech, magnet fisherman working the river on Riverside, after two hours of dredging. Picture: Keith Heppell

“What we’re doing must be good for the river,” Richard suggests. “When we started you could feel stuff all the way along the bottom of the river near OtherSyde, now you can spend an hour there before you get something out.”

Richard’s hobby – perhaps ‘calling’ would be a better word – began when he took his two sons out kayaking. They had a magnet – you can get one from £50 up to £280, with 30m of rope thrown in – and “we started pulling stuff up and that was it”.

It wasn’t like Richard had been a fisherman before – “I’d rather put a stick in my eye,” he says. He’s a roofer for a Cambridge company, but he clearly finds magnet fishing rewarding.

“It’s getting more and more popular,” he adds. “It seems to be the kind of thing where once you’ve started you can’t stop.”

But sometimes they have to stop: on “seven or eight” occasions the police have been called out because a grenade has been brought to the surface. And earlier this month, Richard caused a furore which resulted in the Chariots of Fire relay race being rerouted.

“That morning, at about 9 or 9.30 when I pulled the grenade out of the river, there was no one to be seen,” he explains. “I put it in a bucket of water and put it in a field 100 yards away – in North Paddock, which is between Trinity College and the road – and phoned the police.”

A grenade fished from the river Cam. Picture: Keith Heppell
A grenade fished from the river Cam. Picture: Keith Heppell

What happened next was the first time in 29 years that the iconic run has been disrupted.

“Porters stood by the river and told the runners to stop, and the army cadets who were running were panicking – as soon as I put the grenade in a bucket of water there were people everywhere,” says Richard, who lives in Cherry Hinton.

“It was on the tannoy,” adds Rich. “The Army came out and identified it as an empty training grenade from the First World War.”

Reactions to the magnet fishers are varied.

“We do get some people saying thank you, both walkers and on boats. Some people think we’re a nuisance – Trinity College for one! You’re never going to please everyone.”

There’s no question about being in it for the money. Richard has only ever sold one find – “a big anchor, it fetched £50 at a car boot sale”.

But why so many grenades? The trio have a theory about why “14 or 15” have been found in the Cam near the Museum of Engineering.

Richard Leech magnet fishing by the river Cam. Picture: Keith Heppell
Richard Leech magnet fishing by the river Cam. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Where Tesco is now,” Ronnie says, “there was a Home Guard place there, they trained on the meadow – but it’s hard to find on the old maps.”

There’s no more grenades being chucked in the river, so where is all the rubbish coming from these days?

“I wouldn’t blame it all on the boat people, but let’s just say a lot of it is,” says Richard. “Let’s put it this way: there’s someone on one of these boats that loves their Fray Bentos pies – lots.”

Magnet fishing started off in the north of England: the first reports were in 2018, of people using magnets to fish vehicle keys out of the water. It has since skyrocketed, with 15 or 20 people turning up for an afternoon’s trawling by the Cam. An event in Birmingham last month saw 200 magnet fishers show up for an event which raised £5,000 for cancer research. Reports that they are looking for grenades are way wide of the mark, says Richard.

“It works like a reward scheme: if you put the hours in you get something interesting eventually. People think we’re here looking for grenades but if anything you dread getting a grenade. We found four in one area outside Riverside Place, so we avoid that area now.”

So are magnet fishers a new breed of river conservators? They don’t see themselves that way: they’re part social historians, part environmentalists, part lovers of outdoor activity – and part detective.

“The till I brought out of the river last week had been jimmied open,” Richard notes, “so it was obviously taken in a burglary years ago.”

Solving unsolved crimes, helping the river bed to breathe, recording people’s eating habits, retrieving and disposing of junk metal, cataloguing the ordnance used by yesteryear’s armies – maybe it’s time magnet fishers got some more positive recognition?

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