Today is the last day of March and it’s been a momentous month. I’ve had my first dose of the Oxford Astrazeneca (AZ) vaccine and am so grateful to all the people who have made this possible – the amazing scientific community, the NHS and all the volunteers who have given up so much of their time to help staff the vaccination centres and make the process as smooth as possible. I was so busy chatting to the young man who administered my vaccination I didn’t even realise it had been done. For the first time in a year there’s a real sense of hope about the future and we can start taking careful steps back to some kind of normality. As I type, 30.9 million people in the UK have now had their first dose of one of the Covid vaccines, which is enormously encouraging. There’s still a long way to go, obviously. Covid is a global problem and we need to work together to share vaccines and scientific knowledge, but I’m confident we can emerge from this awful time and forge a new road forward together. People are clever, kind and resilient.
On Monday 29th March we also saw the start of relaxation of our third lockdown restrictions, which was hugely welcome. I think it’s safe to say we were all going stir crazy and it’s been a very long three months. As from the beginning of this week in England (the other three devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have their own different schedules for exiting lockdown) the ‘Stay At Home’ rule has been lifted and we are able to travel about more freely, although not frivolously, and allowed to meet with six people outdoors but still needing to be careful and adhere to social distancing rules. Non-essential shops and hair salons will be open in the second phase of the relaxation of the rules in a fortnight, and it’s hoped the remaining restrictions will be gradually lifted in May and June. Fingers crossed.
For yours truly, this means I’m finally able to travel a bit further afield again without breaching Government regulations so this week has seen me returning to mudlark on the Thames Foreshore for the first time in three months. HURRAH!
It was great to revisit some of my favourite haunts on the Thames and see what’s changed in my absence. We’ve had uncharacteristically glorious weather for March this week – yesterday the temperatures felt more like July – and the sun shone brightly in the capital. This, together with one of the lowest tides we’ve had for a long time, meant the conditions for mudlarking were near perfect and, not surprisingly, many mudlarks came out of their homes to visit the river. It was good to catch up with many familiar faces. London was definitely starting to spring back to life, like a giant waking from a very long sleep.
I started my morning by visiting one of my favourite places on the foreshore, on the south side of the Thames, underneath the embankment near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This area is known as Bankside, in the borough of Southwark. From Tudor times onwards, even as far back as the Medieval period, it was bawdy, filthy, dangerous and notorious. It was where the less salubrious, stinking industries were located – the slaughter houses and tanneries – and also where people came for their entertainments to the brothels, inns, taverns, bear-baiting pits and theatres.
It’s also on this side of the Thames that the foreshore reveals one of its secrets at low tide, if you know where to look. Here it’s possible to see the remains of a Tudor drain from the 16th century. Made from wood, it’s astonishing to think it still survives to this day due to it being partially covered in protective anaerobic Thames mud, which has helped preserve it. The sewage of Tudor Southwark would have passed out from this drain straight into the Thames. Permanent preservation of the drain is impossible due to the cost and sadly one day it will no longer be there, a victim of erosion. But it’s lasted for over 400 years and will still be there a little while longer, part of the archaeology of the Thames Foreshore. It felt good to be able to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ to my Tudor drain after such a long time away -:)
It was also good to visit one of my other favourite spots under Cannon Street Bridge, on the north bank of the river. At high tide these places are inaccessible so there’s something deliciously decadent about walking underneath old wharves and bridges at low tide. The acoustics are strange and eerie, giving an otherwordly feel to the experience. Of course you get to see a completely different view underneath – the girders, the bearings, the abutments, the pier caps and the piles driven deep into the river bed. I’m the daughter and also the mother of engineers and I find bridges fascinating, always have done. And of course when the tide comes in walking here is impossible, so you only have the briefest of windows to enjoy the view from below.
The wonderful weather brought many mudlarks out to the river and some were fortunate enough to make excellent finds. I didn’t find a great deal this time but it really didn’t matter. My star find was a small Hudson’s Bay Trading Bead, discovered in an area of the foreshore which is well known for bead finds. These beads are made of glass, mostly manufactured in Europe and traded to North American regions by the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company (HBTC) primarily for fur. This one is deep red in colour with a dark green core, so small that when I dropped it I thought I’d lost it for good. Thankfully its red colour made it stand out against the brown, grey and beige of the gravel and mud of the foreshore so I was able to find it. Trade beads are beautiful things but unfortunately come with a darker history that’s associated with colonisation, exploitation, empire and slavery. I always remember this whenever I find one.
Having been away from the Thames Foreshore in the City of London for such a long time I was determined to visit as much of it as possible in order to take advantage of the week’s excellent low tide. Even when the tide was on the turn there was still enough time left for me to head on upstream towards the South Bank. When I first started mudlarking here I used to regularly find lots of interesting pottery sherds but nowadays, perhaps because there are more mudlarks, there isn’t as much to be found and I don’t come across the sort of pottery finds as I once used to. I did however catch up with a fellow mudlark on this spot who was lucky enough to have found a glorious 19th century clay pipe bowl decorated with the face of a very angry Mr Punch. He hadn’t made a decent clay pipe bowl find for quite a few years and fortunately the low tide had been very generous to him yesterday.
I didn’t myself find any clay pipes this time, bowls or stems, as these are becoming a much rarer find in most areas of the Thames. But I did come across a very pretty late Victorian/early Edwardian decorated porcelain egg cup, dating approximately from the 1900s, lying peacefully in a small rock pool underneath one of the arches of Blackfriars Bridge, so I was happy with that. Apart from a slight chip at the base it had survived more or less intact. No one can be sure exactly how it ended up in the river but, like most pottery fragments, more than likely it was dumped here as household rubbish.
There was just time for a brief saunter under Waterloo Bridge on the off chance I might find some pottery sherds from long gone Victorian/Edwardian tea rooms, coffee shops or restaurants, although this area is no longer as lucrative as it once was. I was quite tired by now and, as the tide was beginning to come in, I knew I’d soon have to head off up the stairs located by the smiley face above in the photo. I don’t know who painted this but it’s a recent work of art and it was good to see that Londoners haven’t lost their sense of humour during these dark and difficult times.
It was really energising to be out and about in the sun again in my home city. The Thames was most welcoming this week and it was good to be back. On that note, stay safe, please, and continue to take care.