Mudlarking

I can’t believe I didn’t know about this for so long, after living here for almost five years! And it’s even something we can go do within the current lockdown restrictions!

For those of you who are as in the dark as I was about what this is, well, you’ve heard of beach combing? Mudlarking is like that, except along the Thames River in London; and you’re not looking for pretty shells, but rather, for bits of centuries-old-trash-turned-treasure. Centuries of lost or cast-off items that now qualify as antiques. It’s treasure hunting the whole family can do together, right here in London.

The Thames is tidal, and twice a day it churns up centuries of junk from its depths, and washes it up on shore.

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised how little modern rubbish there was. Given the amount I see on my own road and in the commons on a daily basis, this looked practically pristine in comparison.

The river didn’t smell as bad as I’d feared, either. But possibly that changes if it’s rained recently.

Actually finding treasure was a little bit harder than I’d expected. After seeing pictures online of all the things people have found and posted, I thought for sure we’d find at least one exciting item. But it really is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are a LOT of pebbles and shells and bits of old roof tiles and rocks and wood and nails and bones to sort through. Spotting a tiny ancient coin amongst all this is harder than I’d realized.

The things you have to know before you go are:

  1. You need a permit. You have to apply, pay for it (I chose a Β£40 monthlong membership option), and make sure you read through all the restrictions.
  2. You must go at low tide. Check the tide tables and plan to go about an hour before low tide, and make sure you’re out of there before the tide comes back in and seals off your exit.
  3. Make sure the spot you’ve chosen isn’t one of the areas that don’t allow mudlarking. Some areas of the Thames foreshore are protected.
  4. Wear waterproof gloves and footwear. You’re touching things that have marinated in centuries of Londoners’ sewage. This is not for the feint of heart, or the phobic of germs.
  5. Bring a bucket and spade, and some plastic bags for your finds and for your dirty gloves. You’re only allowed to dig up to 3 inches deep. There’s so much stuff on the surface that you’re not going to miss out by not being able to dig. You’re looking for what just washed up with the last tide, not digging for buried treasure.
  6. If you do find something of historical interest, you are required to report it to the Museum of London. They may ask to see it so they can document it, and then they’ll return it to you.

I did some research before we went. I read a lot of articles online about mudlarking and looked at pictures of things people have found and identified, to get an idea of what you can find and what my eye should be looking for.

This article is the most interesting one I read, with lots of good background along with photos of some of the most common treasures you can find when mudlarking.

It’s also helpful to check out one of the Mudlarking Facebook pages, and to search the hashtag #mudlarking on Instagram.

I didn’t know where to go my first time, so I was a bit cheeky and found a guided tour being offered online, and decided to just go to the same location at around the same time.

We went to the north side of the river, near the Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. You can also access the foreshore on the other side of the river here, in front of The Globe theatre and Tate Modern.

If you do want to go on a guided tour with a guide who can tell you more about the history and help identify your finds, Thames Explorer offers them.

Our first time out, we didn’t find any one thing that was particularly exciting. No Roman coin, or garnet, or Bartmann jug bottleneck, or even a whole clay pipe. But that’s OK. We can go back again! And the bits of blue and white Victorian pottery and china could be turned into a beautiful mosaic.

My little one, R, got very into picking up stems of broken clay pipes. This is the equivalent of your child picking up cigarette butts off the ground, which normally any decent parent wouldn’t allow, but somehow in this case it’s fine…?

But then, I have been known to let my city kids play in a nearby pit of pebbles and build a “birthday cake” out of bricks and screws, so I might not be a decent parent anyway. If your birthday wish is for tetanus, have we got the cake for you. (Don’t judge me too harshly! The playgrounds were closed for months last year! Desperate times.)

When we got home, our clothes went straight into the washing machine, along with a scoop of Napisan powder, and our bucket of finds went into the sink and got a bleach wash before we laid them out on a towel to sort through our treasure (and our trash).

We looked at this picture and tried our best to match up our pottery shards to their era:

And a few days later, we all had threadworms. Which is commonly spread around here amongst nursery and primary school children, so it could very well have come from school, but also I kind of think it maybe came from letting my children play in the sewage-drenched contents of the Thames riverbank. It’s easily treated, but just. So. Gross. Do yourself a favor and DO NOT google it.

I’m not saying we got threadworms from mudlarking, but I’m also not saying we didn’t get threadworms from mudlarking.

Still though, it was a cool experience and one I would recommend for anyone interested in history. Just don’t forget your gloves.

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