On…Mudlarking on the Thames

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A slightly different type of blog entry today, because I wanted to reflect on a rather cool experience I went on last week as part of my work. We went mudlarking on a section of the Thames foreshore, just underneath Millennium Bridge on the north side. Mudlarking, for those who don’t know, is basically scavenging in the riverbed for things of value; whilst we weren’t exactly trying to make a living from our time down there, we did have on hand a member of the Thames Explorer Trust who expertly identified the various bits and bobs we brought to him. And really, I know the term mudlarking isn’t exactly accurate for we were all young adults and not Victorian children, but it’s the most succinct term I could think of. ‘Scavenging and picking up stuff’ is hardly very catchy. Anyway, it was a fascinating experience, and a rather unexpected one, for when I first found out about this item on our itinerary, I was a bit sceptical. What could be found on the Thames foreshore? Surely everything that could be scavenged had already been taken? I expected to find bits of glass bottles and rubbish, and thought the whole 3 hours would be more of a litter picking duty than a real mudlark. However, I was pleasantly surprised and we found a huge amount of interesting objects which kept us preoccupied for our time on the foreshore.

We started at about 1.30pm, just about two hours before low tide which is the recommended time to go looking on the foreshore. It was a rather cold day, it had rained the previous night and so there weren’t exactly many people out and about. Our worry was that it would rain whilst we down right next to the river, but luckily it only started raining once we had finished. We met by Millenium Bridge and then walked down underneath it on the Thames embankment, and then we were led even further down onto the foreshore which was connected to the embankment by an incredibly steep staircase. It was so steep that a few of us (including myself!) chickened out and climbed down the stairs gingerly, backwards and on all fours. The bottom-most cement stairs were still slick and slimy from their time being submerged by the Thames at high tide. The foreshore section that we were on was very stony, with large pebbles and hardly any sand. I was assured by the Thames explorer guide that at the height of summer, people would come to sunbathe here but on this windy, foggy day, I couldn’t quite imagine it.

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We were given trays in each of our groups to carry our findings in. Once again, I must reiterate how sceptical I was at the start, and seeing this large-ish tray only made me more so. There was no way we’d find enough to fill the tray, I thought! But I was so wrong. For not only did we fill the tray, but by the end of our session, we were having to pick and choose which objects we wanted to keep and which we would throw back onto the shore.

You see, the Thames foreshore is a treasure trove of mostly Victorian artefacts. A lot of it was pottery: beautiful shards of white pottery with blue patterns, brown pots with raised markings and green pieces with red embellishment. Pottery was exciting at first, for its colours and its smoothness would attract the eye, but to be honest, there was an abundance of the stuff and it soon became ignored. Though one person in my group did find a bit of medieval pottery, according to our guide, which was considered quite rare in these parts; he speculated that it was a bit of a medieval wall.

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More interesting were the organic things we found. There were a lot of oyster shells, a remnant of Victorian diets, and some of them had distinctly man-made holes in them. Our guide told us that nobody knows why the holes were there. To me, it was fascinating to think that our speculations on the origins of these holes was something which archaeologists still try to figure out to this day. Another common object were large pieces of bone from cows. Apparently, one of the meat factories and warehouses had once been above this part of the foreshore, and in typical Victorian fashion, they dumped all their rubbish right onto the Thames and the foreshore. So we found ourselves handling bits of bone, and even at one point, a whole jaw which still contained teeth and could be moved around to mimic the chomping action of a cow. What was particularly cool about this find was that the cow was definitely slaughtered before 1858, because it was incredibly discoloured and more brownish looking. Our expert informed us that the discolouration was due to the state of the sewage and the river prior to the Great Stink of London in 1858 which prompted Victorian London to create a proper sewage system. Not sure how often you get to hold a part of a cow which is at least 150 years old, but I don’t get to do it often and for me, that was very memorable. The other ‘organic’ like thing we found were fossilised worm trails. There were a few rocks which would have swiggly bits to them. Often these swiggles look like they were embossed onto the stones itself. Our expert told us that these were the trails left by prehistoric worms; a snapshot of the little homes they would build by borrowing through soft soil.

We also found Victorian smoking pipes, bits of old sewage pipes and rusty nails. The occasional wine bottle from the Victorian times was also found. Of course, as I suspected, there was also modern-day rubbish often in the form of beer bottles.

The Thames Explorer Trust member also gave us a plethora of information about the Thames.  Historically, when the Romans came and settled in what is now the City of London, the Thames was considerably narrower than it is now. The Romans dug it out and made it deeper in order for their ships to more easily travel along it. He also informed us that the chains on the walls of the Thames were for people to cling onto if they fell in and had to wait to be rescued. He also told us about how the walls were made of different stone because the rising levels of the Thames has necessitated higher walls as a flood prevention measure, but unfortunately, the people who predicted the rising levels underestimated it and so additions to the walls have been made over the last few centuries.

All in all, it was an incredibly experience, one which I just did not expect. I’m not a very outdoorsy kind of person, but collecting things – often beautiful fragments of history – was very cathartic. The only criticism I have, which I think most of my group agreed with, is that the expert went on for too long with his interesting stories. Whilst all his information was interesting, standing on the rocky unstable ground of the foreshore had tired us all out and our feet were aching. If we had perhaps found a place to sit, perhaps back up on the embankment, we probably would have enjoyed it more. Still, as someone who has lived by the Thames all her life, but has never really thought about it or cared about it, this experience really changed what I thought about this incredibly important river. Its windy bends which make their way through the Cotswalds and areas like Reading and Windsor (near where I live) to London (where I live now) means that the river has always been close by. Yet, it wasn’t until this walk on the foreshore that I really began to think about its historical significance, how crucial it was to the development of modern society (at least in the south-east of England) and just how much history is still around and available for us to discover.

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I think one day, I’d like to return to the foreshore (for it is open to the public) and perhaps collect the bits of pottery and try to make some kind of mosaic. I’ve always loved mosaics and created a bunch when I was younger, but I think it’d be something quite special to use bits of ceramic from over a century ago. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had this idea, but it’s definitely something I’d like to remember and keep in mind. The theme of my work week was interacting with historical objects, often in the context of museums. But for me, I think being able to actually find and discover and hold objects of history, in a place as historically significant as the Thames, was one of the best experiences of the week. I’d highly recommend this as an experience, because it will definitely surprise you!

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