If you've ever stared at the River Thames and wondered about the history or secrets hiding within and been curious to have a look, you may be one of those who contributed to the success of the book Mudlark by Lara Maiklem.
Unsure what mudlarking is? According to Wikipedia "A mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud for items of value, a term used especially to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries". Nowadays it's more about scavenging for history. And I am definitely one of those who love peeking into the past. So thankfully there's a way for the inexperienced to have a go.
The Thames Explorer Trust run events guided by an archaeologist, taking you to the Thames foreshore to scavenge for your own treasures. You can choose which part of the river you want to explore, Greenwich, under the Millennium Bridge, or Rotherhithe. You are advised to wear sensible shoes and waterproof gloves (I wore a very stylish pair of yellow rubber ones). And currently, all attendees are advised to wear a mask. I opted for the section near the monument under the Millennium Bridge.
Groups are limited to ten people and we met up at 9am in the designated spot. First up, our guide talked us through the health and safety aspects and then what to expect. We were given a bit of history and shown examples of previous finds, so we had an idea of what to look for. And then we were led down to the shores of the Thames and told to look down.
Learning to look down and ignore the views, while we search for history...
At first, you feel like you are just starting at lots and lots of pebbles. But then you start to realise that within those are old tiles are bits of crockery, shattered pipes, and lots and lots of animal bones. I have to say the bones surprised me the most, but they were all from cows and probably testify to the amount of beef Londoners have eaten over the centuries.
One of the most common finds while Mudlarking are animal bones, such as these!
Pipe remains are the other frequent find. Apparently in the 1600s these disposable clay pipes were rather like the cigarettes of their day. And there is an abundance of them. Our guide had a chart you could compare yours to, which would give an indication of which decade they were from.
For me, it was the domestic glimpses which intrigued me. Shards of pottery from the middle ages through to the Victorian times, hinting at people lives. The items we picked up also hinted at other historical events – such as a cholera outbreak in the 1800s. And I discovered that even when you've grown up in a city, there is always more to learn!
A handy chart helps you identify the shards of pottery hiding on the foreshore
We didn't wander far along the banks of the Thames, but there wasn't much need to. And after a couple of (very quick) hours, the session came to an end. Everyone was elated by their finds and the things they found out. The most excited shouts often came from the two children in our group. I also discovered they had an absolute advantage over the rest of us. Being less tall and that much closer to the ground, their ability to spot things outshone the grown-up efforts! So if you're looking for a way to peek back in time, or even to bring history alive to young ones, then add mudlarking to your list.