Mudlarking on the River Thames
What is a Mudlarking
The Thames foreshore has always been a magnet for kids of all ages. So what is Mudlarking.
Mudlarking is the verb, of being a Mudlark. The act of searching for treasure. Whatever you define treasure to be. It can range from a 2000 year old Roman coin to the remains of an ancient Saxon fish trap.
In the old days before sanitation and refuse collection, everyone's garbage and waste was just thrown into the river.
Secondly countless items have been dropped, lost or deliberately placed in the river over the centuries.
From sacred artifacts dropped in to appease the river gods to the empty stumpy beer bottles of a German merchant men. The river is chock full of weird and wonderful stuff just waiting to be found.
Tower Bridge beach at Low Tide
Londinium. An ancient quayside appears at low tide
Mudlarking is Archaeology
Archaeologists are always interested in where people throw their rubbish. These artifacts can give us an insight into their lives. There were also countless numbers of ships, that plied these waters, and lost cargo over the side.
You may find anything from ancient Roman relics, to 1000's of clay pipes, to more modern 500 kg German Luftwaffe parachute bombs left lying around since the second world war. 1939-1945.
You can Mudlark anywhere as long as you take precautions and get the right permissions. Obviously you will find more items in areas of high population densities, like adjacent to the centre of the City of London.
As a child growing up in London in the 50' and 60'. The Thames river and the canals leading off from it, was a playground for many of us kids.
The East End of London the scars of war are still visible
Walking the Thames: Safety First
During WWII the Germans bombed the living crap out of this part of London. (The docks). In an attempt to destroy the docks infrastructure, so that ships couldn't dock, and so starve the population of London.
At the beginning of the war. Britain was not self sufficient in foodstuff and imported huge amounts from overseas. These nightly raids by the Luftwaffe left there mark and quite a few artifacts. All of my friends, me included, had collections of spent bullet cartridges. Sometimes we would find unspent bullets.
These were great fun, for sticking in a fence post, lining up a nail on the firing cap and smacking the nail sharp with a hammer. The bang used to make us laugh and squeal, never a thought that this thing could kill or maim one of us, or someone else.
We never even looked at where the bullet was facing. Dumb kids I guess. To find these treasured items, we would wander down to the rivers foreshore and just aimlessly wander along, until the tide forced us to give up. We would spent hours finding all sorts of things.
From old horse harness's to old bits of broken china. I know now that the china was mostly the blue patterned stuff, actually from China. It was great for skimming across the river. The main thing that we tended to find though, were loads of these white china pipes.
We used to think, that they must have smoked line trains, back in those days, as they were everywhere. We would puff away in parody fashion. These pipes were sold everywhere in London, ready filled with tobacco. They were basically disposable smoking gear. The chuck away item of the period.
Always make sure that you have that days Tides tables. The river can rise and fall 25 ft per tide and it is a very fast flowing river. You do not want to get caught on the foreshore with a rising tide.
Keep near the steps and in sight of your exit points to make sure you can exit safely. Weils disease or Leptospirosis, is found in the river but it is uncommon in terms of infection.
There is a vaccine, to treat the jaundice like symptoms, should you become infected.
Sunken hulks preserved by the river mud
Codswallop bottles are a common find
Treasures are Relative
Where is London exactly
The Museum of London
We would sometimes come across a sunken boat or old barge that was half submerged in the deep oozing alluvial mud. There have been some remarkable finds.
The mud is so thick and oxygen depleted that just about anything that is dropped in to it is preserved intact for centuries. We would come across old leather bags and shoes that looked like they had been dropped in yesterday.
We generally just threw them back in, as kids do.
The Old Roman Quayside in London.
There has been an active dock in this part of the river for 1000's of years. In the last 1000 years London has been the leading and busiest dock in the World. With ships from every corner of the Earth, items from those countries sometimes fell in, and have been preserved.
The North Bank of The River Thames.
The North bank, between Tower Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, seems to be the most prolific place to find things, or maybe it's just the proximity of the city.
This part of London has been a centre of business, finance and all forms of commerce for hundreds of years. The ease of access has led to so many discoveries.
We tended to do our mudlarking, about a mile or so down river from Tower Bridge. We always found loads of odds and sods. For example the Codswallop bottle pictured here.
The Glorious Mud
The colours in the mud, is like looking at a rainbow on steroids, it is so full of pollution and chemicals. The oils and alchemical mix, produce the most amazing rainbow of colour effects.
It would put 60's pop art to shame.
Some people do this as a full time business/hobby. Some as a side job, to earn some extra money. They get geared up, with metal detectors and all sorts of paraphernalia.
They do find some amazing stuff. Their method is different. They will dig a 4 foot trench and search through these layers. Any gold treasures or antiquities must be notified to, the Museum of London.
Ideally the Museum of London, would like you to treat the foreshore as one big open archaeological site. So you should record where you find things.
The Museum of London will probably not be interested in old tyres and general contemporary rubbish.
In a 1000 years time, that worn out old tyre, may be fascinating to our descendants
Tips for London safety reminder
Remember to be Safe. Reminder
1 Always tell someone where you are going and get a tide timetable form the Port of London (PLA) website. The tides change daily, so you need to check the website; on the day that you go.
2 Also keep an eye on where the nearest exit is as you wander along. This is harder than it may seem. The dock wall ladders that you will see behind a boat, may not reach down to the foreshore ground level. Check them first.
3 You can get so engrossed along the foreshore, that you can forget time and miss the rising tide.
4 Try to record where you find something. Obviously this does not mean the millions of clay pipes and codswallop bottles, but something significant, like the crown jewels or similar.
So be careful, bring some gumboots [wellies], and have a great day.
Treasure but what is it?
The Square Mile
This section of the Thames backs right on to the financial powerhouse that is the City of London. In fact the financial power of the City of London was founded on trade based along the Thames. The major financial and economic decisions of the whole country and commonwealth are still decided here at the Bank Of England. St Paul's Cathedral is also just a 100 yards from the waters edge and a 5 minute walk from the city along the river.
Metal Detectorists do it in the mud
Metal Detectorists you will need a License
We can often see someone sweeping along looking for buried treasures. If you want to get into this full time you will need a license from the Port of London Authority (PLA).
As mentioned above, the tidal drop in the river can be 25 feet , leaving large areas of mud exposed each day. For many hours. If you were to go at it, with a mission.
I suppose you could spend 8 hours a day, doing it. Who knows you may find the next Roman Hoard of Gold. It does happen.
If you are visiting or live in London and were wondering where to go on a day out. Then mudlarking will definitely be something different and memorable.
You will have a great day out, some fun and get a great view of London, that is both unique and beautiful.