(There are some links in this post, some are affiliate, some aren’t but they’re all there becasue I like to share good things.)
It was cold on Sunday, the wind was biting, but the sun was so bright I needed sunglasses, and wrapped up in my feather lined jacket on the Thames foreshore at Bankside, I felt like I was on a time travelling holiday. I was part of a group of about ten adults and five children, being led on a mudlarking expedition by Christine from the Thames Explorer Trust.
A mudlark, in the late 18th and early 19th century was a scavenger who scoured the river mud for items to sell to make a living, it was considered an ‘occupation’, but these days its a hobby for history buffs and amateur treasure hunters. There are strict rules too, you can only use your eye sight to find artefacts, that means no digging, not even with the toe of your shoe. You can’t take anything home either unless you have a permit, you can photograph it but you have to leave it there. You can of course report anything of historical significance to the Museum of London, but as Christine told us, unless you’re an expert, chances are you’ll be disappointed. In all honesty, I was only banking on finding hypodermic needles, plastic forks, clay pipes and perhaps a severed limb…so I was pleasantly surprised with what I did find!
I’m fascinated by the history of London, Victorian London especially, my favourite book, by Liza Picard, starts by describing the smell of Victorian London. You can describe and draw objects, people, places to the end of the earth but smell is something that you can’t recreate in literature, her descriptions though are brilliant. Down on the foreshore, the smell was pleasant, slightly sea-sidey with a hint of caramel peanuts from the trolley sellers outside of the Tate Modern and music from buskers with guitars up on the Thames path above us floated on the breeze.
As we descended the steps from the Southbank onto the foreshore, All I could see was sand, pebbles and a few broken bottles, Christine assured us that the best finds could be found under Blackfriars Bridge, she was right, but there was plenty to find on the way there. The first thing that I found was animal bone, a hip joint, probably from a sheep. It didn’t matter what my first find was, it just had to be something, but it’s a bit seeing an ant, you see one, then you see hundreds. As if by magic, the sand and pebbles changed before my eyes into hordes of scavenger’s treasure and I started making deals with other members of the group to split the profits. We were warned that it was unlikely that we’d get rich through doing this, but you never know…
After the bone, I started to find the clay pipes, specifically the stems of clay pipes, soooooo many stems from clay pipes. You can’t really age the stems, except to say that thinner ones are usually older, it’s the bowl of the pipes that you want to find, and I did! Two of them! One large and one small (only the small one is in the picture becasue I managed to drop the other one again and lose it before I took the photo), sadly the makers marks had been worn off, but it was exciting. Then came the pottery, plenty of Victorian willow pattern style fragments, but also, a hand painted piece of Delft ware from the 1600s. Some large pieces of Tudor pots and even some from medieval times. Had it not been for the conformations on these things from Christine, I think I’d have assumed they were some knock off Greek urns from B&Q, but I was finding genuine historical bits and bobs and it was thrilling. At the same time, it was really relaxing, almost meditative, it must be all the concentrating, the sounds of the little river waves washing on to the tiny beach and around the struts of the bridges. I was in the middle of the city, but I managed to convince myself that I was breathing fresh air! I was a bit concerned that the time would drag, two hours sounded like a long time to be looking for random, unknown things but it flew by. I needed to head to a café for a cup of tea to warm up and get out of the chilly wind, but I’m excited about doing it again, I’m going to pick another spot, perhaps up stream a bit nearer Bermondsey and give it a go. I want to find more, I want to know more, I want to see what the main artery that flows through our great city will give up next. I can see why people get addicted to doing things like this. Try it, you won’t regret it.
Tickets can be purchased via Event Brite though the Thames Explorer Trust Website