I first ventured onto the Thames Foreshore at Southbank in the heart of London a few years ago. In those early days you didn’t need a permit to search, there were far fewer restrictions, not quite as many mudlarks, a few detectorists here and there, and you were free to search by eye and take home the bits of pottery and other fragments of the past that you were fortunate to find. I was going through a difficult time professionally, not in the best of health with two frozen shoulders plus work-related stress, and feeling very anxious about my future. I was actually on my way to a difficult meeting but was early so leant against the embankment wall near the Oxo Tower at Gabriel’s Wharf and watched the comings and goings on my beloved Thames.
It was winter, the river was slate grey as was the sky, the wind was whipping up the waves while gulls screeched and wheeled above a barge carrying large, yellow containers heading downstream to the Thames Estuary. I could see the tide was going out and realised that I was only vaguely aware of the movement of the river. I’m a born and bred Londoner, passionate about London’s history, its bridges and buildings, and had been photographing them and other famous London landmarks for nearly thirty years. I was also a history graduate and history teacher for much of my professional life but that particular day, looking down on the river, realised I knew next to nothing about it or its inter-tidal zone (the stretch of the river from Teddington Lock to the Isle of Sheppey) that twice a day rolled back like a liquid carpet revealing the most unique archaeological site in the world, the Thames Foreshore. It’s quite magical when you learn something new about your home city, the greatest city in the world.
I noticed a man walking at the water’s edge, wrapped up against the winter chill, walking, stooping, eyes on the gravel, searching for something, and wondered what he was doing. He stopped to pick up what looked like a pipe of some sort , examined it carefully and put it in his rucksack. I wondered if he was an archaeologist and was intrigued. I wanted to know more. So I walked down the Oxo Tower steps onto the sand and gravel below and went over to talk to him. He was, of course, a mudlark. He explained that mudlarks search the river at low tide for objects of historical interest such as clay pipes, pottery, coins, tokens, lead cloth seals and other artefacts. I was instantly hooked and knew I had to learn more. I wanted to be a Thames Mudlark, discover the stories of Londoners long since gone and hear their voices live again through the things they’d left behind in the river.
As I made my way off the foreshore my trainers brushed against what looked like a thick piece of pottery lying in some Thames mud. I picked it up and turned it over and saw this beautiful thing (see photo below); a fragment of a 17th century Delft-style, tin-glaze charger (plate), blue on white colour with a crudely drawn fern and foliage. It was free-style, a bit slapdash and utterly glorious. I’d made my first mudlarking find. As I looked at it I realised that the last person to have touched this lived over three hundred and fifty years ago. Who was this individual? A Londoner? A careless servant? A high-status merchant? Was this a fragment of pottery from Pickleherring or one of the other many Southwark pothouses that proliferated on the Thames in the 17th and 18th centuries? Perhaps a bespoke order for a wealthy trader and his family, or a design that had gone wrong in either the firing or the glazing. Whatever, the colours were as intense the day I’d found it as the day it ended up in the river and I knew that there was no going back for me. I was a mudlark now and that was that.
I’ve met mudlarks who describe themselves as obsessed by mudlarking and are out on the Thames every day, sometimes twice a day at low tide. I’m not sure if I’d describe myself as being obsessed but it’s certainly become a passionate hobby. I don’t go mudlarking every day but I do go out as often as I can, sometimes a couple of times a week, whenever possible and whenever there’s a good low tide. The Thames Foreshore in many parts of London can be quite narrow so it’s vital that the tide is fairly low, under 0.50m, in order to make it a worthwhile experience. But there’s no rule of thumb here and one of my most favourite finds, a late medieval Penn tile showing a flower in yellow glaze, part of the ubiquitous dumped builders’ rubble that makes up so much of the foreshore, was found when there was a high low tide (1.33m), nestling snuggly against the embankment wall. The motto of this is probably ‘take a chance’ because you never know what the river is going to leave behind when the tide’s gone out.
I don’t always find things either. There are so many people mudlarking these days that certain popular bits of the foreshore can be a bit like the M25 at rush hour. It’s great to see so many embrace this as a hobby but I love the peace and quiet when out looking for fragments of the past so have to confess I avoid certain places at very busy times. And it’s not just about finding things; sometimes just being by the river on a beautiful day is enough to soothe my racing thoughts, help me forget my worries and anxieties and leave the endlessly grim state of politics and the world behind for just a few short hours. I come home with my finds, mucky, muddy, tired but happy and exhilarated, grateful for whatever the Thames has seen fit to gift me that day.
I recently asked the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) at the Museum of London if he thought mudlarking had had its day and he replied that, although finds were finite, he was still as busy as ever recording the items brought in to him by mudlarks. I found this reassuring and his comment has also taught me patience: you won’t always find things but there are still many things to be found. Keep your eyes peeled and you might be the lucky one to spot them one day! And as one fellow mudlark said to me recently, “We find what we’re meant to find.”