At time of writing, we’ve just completed three weeks of lockdown and are into the fourth, our Government deciding that it’s still far too early to lift the current restrictions and that we must ‘Stay At Home, Save Lives, and Protect The NHS.’ Unprecedented times for all of us.
I have to admit I’ve been struggling with writing at the moment. Normally I find my mudlarking blogs hugely enjoyable to do but these aren’t normal times. My brain feels slow and addled right now, as if a thick fog has descended; words won’t come, sentences don’t form. Time has almost ceased to have any meaning as we all struggle to remember what day of the week it is. I’m also currently writing a book but have been struggling with that too, I don’t really know why, but perhaps this is what some people refer to as writer’s block. A friend, also a writer and historian with numerous books to her name, has emailed me to say she’s going through similar and the best advice is to not push it. Perhaps limit your writing to a manageable 200 words a day. It doesn’t sound much but it quickly mounts up and at least means you’re keeping your writing project going, whatever it happens to be. Above all, be realistic and kind to yourself. The mojo will return.
I’d written a blog about clay pipes intending to upload it this month, but in the last minute decided to leave that for another time. Somehow it didn’t feel appropriate and I wanted to mark this strange time with something a bit more current. So this particular lockdown blog is more a collection of rambling thoughts about the river and what I’m doing right now while not able to access my beloved foreshore. And perhaps it needs to be said loud and clear, mudlarking is very much off limits right now. Sadly, social media has seen many people reporting sights of some mudlarks ignoring the clear instruction of the Port of London Authority, who manage the tidal Thames, that all leisure activity must stop until such a time as the Government lifts the current restrictions. It’s sad that there’s a tiny minority of people who think the law doesn’t apply to them.
And yet…. there is always hope.
I’m eternally grateful for my health, my family remains well and the weather has been glorious in London with one of the most stunning Springs I can remember for a long time. Perhaps everything is heightened by the restrictions of lockdown, I don’t know; but bird song is louder, more beautiful; the air crisper and cleaner; the sky a Mediterranean blue; blossom is blowsier than I remember, the scent intense, its colour deeper and more vivid. All around me I see simple acts of kindness as so many people help out those who are self-isolating and can’t do their own shopping or pick up medicines, while hundreds of thousands signed up to become NHS Volunteers and to help in any way they can. Crises can bring out the best in ordinary people.
I’m also extremely grateful to live ten minutes walk away from the river at Twickenham and this is often where my ‘one a day’, state sanctioned walk takes me in the afternoons to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.
I’ve been keeping myself busy doing things that perhaps involve a different type of focus and concentration, namely creative projects such as restoring a vintage Edwardian Lepidopterist’s cabinet, kindly bought for me by the other half after a successful bid on eBay. The cabinet involved a long car journey (prior to lockdown) in order to pick it up from the seller, an eccentric young man who lived in a house reeking of mothballs. The mothball factor has meant the cabinet has been outside in our garden, in the fresh air, for the better part of the last four weeks or so while we try to get rid of that particularly pungent smell. Someone on Instagram helpfully recommended charcoal bags as being highly effective for getting rid of the stench of mothballs so, if you can get hold of some during these difficult times, they’re well worth trying. As of today, thankfully, there’s only the very faintest of traces of mothball smell left.
When the cabinet has finally been cleaned up to my exacting standards it’ll be the perfect place to display my growing collection of Thames treasures; from pottery sherds spanning Roman to Victorian, trading tokens, coins, beads, aiglets, Tudor dress pins, clay pipes and numerous other personal objects telling the stories of long forgotten Londoners from the past. I look forward to blogging about it and showing a few more photos when it’s completely restored.
One item that will definitely be joining my collection of treasure Thames finds is this key, found on my final mudlarking trip to the Thames Foreshore before lockdown.
I’d been mudlarking near the City of London that day and was about to head off home as the tide was coming in when, by sheer chance, the wash from a passing Thames Clipper threw this glorious item at my feet. Slightly encrusted, hardly surprising after hundreds of years immersed in the river, I glanced down and saw this small, blackened, heavy, post-medieval key, made of iron, possibly belonging to a casket or something similar. A fellow mudlark suggested it might be a key to an old door or a cellar but I think it’s far too small and for that. When lockdown is over I’ll be showing it to the Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London, in case he wants to record it on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and it’ll be an opportunity to hear a bit more about the possible history of this key.
Meanwhile, who knows its secrets or how it got into the river? Maybe someone running away from the plague or Great Fire in 1666, leaping into a wherry on the north bank near London Bridge in order to get to the relative safety of the south bank at Southwark. In my mind’s eye I’m imagining someone, a resident of London, carrying with them an old wooden chest containing important documents or deeds made from parchment or vellum, perhaps also coins or maybe a locket and other personal items. They would have been very cross to have lost the key in the dark and swirling waters of the Thames. The owner of this key would have known nothing of modern times, of electricity, international travel, the internet and so on, yet would have shared our hopes and dreams, our fears about death, illness and a plague that was an invisible enemy, then as now. I literally shivered when I held this key in my hands, the first person to do so for nearly four hundred years.
Coincidentally I’ve just been reading ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’, an intimate account of a life lived in very dangerous times. Pepys was an eyewitness to some of the most significant and spectacular events in seventeenth century English history including the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 (Pepys was a passenger on the ship that brought Charles II from exile), the plague that ravaged the capital in 1665-1666, and the Great Fire of 1666, described with such vivid language and clarity and bringing to life the horror and despair of those times. Pepys writings, once distant and from another century, now take on a familiarity for us as we live through our very own Covid-19 pandemic.
Pepys’ diary entry for August 30th, 1665 is as follows:
‘Up betimes, and to my business of settling my house and papers; and then abroad and met with Hadly our Clerke, who upon my asking how the plague goes, he told me it increases much, and much in our parish; “For,” he says, “there died nine this week, though I have returned but six” – which is very ill practice, and makes me think it is so in other places, and therefore the plague much greater then people take it to be.’
On the 31st August, 1665 Pepys’ diary entry continues:
‘….the plague having a great increase this week beyond all expectation, of almost 2000…. Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its encrease. In the City died this week 7496; and of them, 6102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is neare 10000 – partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them.’
While on the 20th October 1665 Pepys writes:
‘But Lord what a sad time it is, to see no boats upon the River -‘
One of the more noticeable features of our current situation is how similarly quiet and still the river is with virtually no traffic on the water at the moment. Boats and barges remain tied up at moorings, while the Thames Clippers, normally busy transporting tourists, have fallen silent. In Pepys’ time, the river was already a liquid super highway bustling with small ships, boats, barges, wherries and lighters moving people and goods around London, and indeed trade was at the very heart of the economic growth of the capital. It’s therefore particularly poignant that he notes the effects of the plague on the Thames and how difficult it was for him to see this.
And yet there’s always an upside. The absence of humans and our destructive ways means that nature now has an opportunity to recuperate, regenerate and repair. Friends living by the river in other parts of London report a crystal clarity in the water; mooring features, wharves, jetties and ancient timbers from old ships, usually covered by mud, have become visible again. River birds such as cormorants, coots, Egyptian Geese and swans are currently nesting and hatching their young in bigger numbers, safer than ever before from humans. There’s also an abundance of fish and seal sightings in the Thames are increasing. We’ll all benefit from this period of quiet and it shows how much damage people can do to the natural world.
Normal life, if things can ever be described as normal again, will resume at some point albeit slowly, gradually and with great difficulty for many businesses and employees. My heart goes out to them.
The Thames will still be there when this period is over and I look forward to returning to the solace of the foreshore again. To all my readers, please stay safe and well. Remember, everything passes.