PLAYING IN THE MUD. LOOKING FOR BURIED TREASURE ON THE BANK OF THE THAMES
You think you have learned all there is to know about London history? Been to every museum, taken every tour, listened to every audio guide about the Tudors "this" and the Stuarts "that". Well until you start digging in the London mud, turning over a few rocks your education on London is totally incomplete.
There is an art to looking through the London river-side muck for hidden treasure. One might think you are scavenging and maybe that is partially true but the actual "art" is called Mudlarking and it has been going on for centuries. But before you go getting dirty on the banks of the river Thames you need to know when to go, what you are looking for...and where to find it.
THE THAMES IS LIQUID HISTORY
Our day began meeting at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, 9:00AM prompt! We were late. When we finally arrived this very tall man approached us with a bucket, a trowel and a very long beard which looked like it too could be a hiding place for treasure. He quickly told us we were the "only ones" who have ever gotten lost trying to find the Cutty Sark, a massive and important London landmark and ship. Hmmpph. I have said it before and I will say it again, "I cannot be held responsible for my actions before I have my coffee. I blame our Uber driver. Dressed in our wellies and now having lost some very valuable time due to the fact that the tides wait for no man (or woman) we were quickly on our way to the north shore, close to where the Palace of Placentia once stood, birthplace of Henry VIII or what our bearded man described it as a "Tudor rubbish dump". Awesome!
This bearded man, our guide and historian was the self proclaimed Mud-God himself Steve Brooker, professional Mudlarker (it's a thing). Anyone can walk the length of the Thames shore at low tide but only the mudlarks are allowed to retrieve material from the north shore. The south shore is less tightly regulated. He takes his work seriously as any professional archaeologist and historian would. He brought with him a wealth of history, folklore and stories, enthusiasm and almost childlike excitement the moment we started looking down .
Almost immediately, Steve pulls out a hair-thin medieval pin, " a good sign of human settlement" and a excellent place to start looking. How he actually saw this pin was incredible. I barely saw it in his hand. The Thames is where history comes alive he shows us. Within the space of a few metres you travel through 500 years. His enthusiasm was completely and totally contagious. One would think if Mudlarking has been going on for hundreds of years as it has, how could there be anything new to find on the foreshore of the Thames? But with every tide and the mud being eroded by the wash from the Thames Clippers new evidence of centuries of life and death in the way of artifacts emerge from its murky waters. The Thames mud he tell us is anaerobic (without oxygen) and preserves beautifully whatever it consumes. He fully understands the idiosyncrasies of the tide which I learned later was most important and the nuances of the mud banks and the river bed. He reads them like a palm reader reads the lines on your hand.
Steve has in the past found everything from bones, bodies, bombs, bullets, Victorian jewellery, Georgian coins to the more unusual artifacts such as Tudor daggers, voodoo dolls, Indian sacrificial offerings, Roman sandals and Helen Mirren’s ring (you read right, Google it). He also discovered a locked ball and chain leg-iron suggesting that a prisoner had jumped off a ship and drowned rather than face his punishment. When asked about this favourite find he said there were many but mentioned some engraved tokens likely to have come from the baker on Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London began had huge significance from a historical prespective. He loves holding a piece of history in his hands.
If this was a history lesson then this was the most incredible classroom. You get to rub the dirt off something to reveal what lies beneath from something you’ve just pulled out of the mud for the first time in 500 years.
The River Thames is the beating heart of London Steve reminded us. Offering up glimpses of a 1000 years of human history of which he considers himself, "but a brief custodian". By law, anything older than 300 years found on the Thames must be reported to the Museum of London, whose 30-year relationship with the mudlarks has resulted in a collection of 90,000 artefacts.
THE TREASURES WE FOUND
As the foreshore was now filling with the tide's rushing water we sat down and went through our spoils, artifacts from our first mudlarking adventure. Collectively we had found some old coins, broken glazed pottery dating back to the Tudors. We found bullets, nails marked with the Tudor "T", fossilized wood, old toy parts dating back 200 hundred years and a clay pipe dating from the 1800's. Steve was particularly excited by the little white nib (see photo below) to the left of the pipe. Looked a bit like half a Q-Tip. It was a Georgian wig curler. Steve was delighted. My most interesting find was an engraved brass sealed capsule that looks a bit like a bullet (just above the Georgian wig curler). We were told that it is a ancient Indian offering and if I get it opened there should be a tiny scroll with a message inside and it was still perfectly sealed. I haven't opened it yet as there is a part of me that loves the imagination of what might be inside. We found an engraved button which to the trained eye revealed the name of the button maker of the 18th century, providing a unique insight into trade in the City of London. Steve was very respectful of the process, making sure that nothing of historical significance was removed, and there wasn't. You have to have a license to Mudlark and "it is important that items you may find that are important not end up in the back of your drawer somewhere". We were just happy finding a broken wig curler and learning about what it was.
What an experience. Standing by the shore of the Thames the tide had moved in fully, the current now swift. It was time to go. Looking back the shore we were standing on only a few moments ago was now underwater. This immediately brought home to us just how very important it is to know the tide times and to never go alone. The tide came in fast. Our day was done. My last memento I took from the Thames was something I did not find on the muddy foreshore. It came from looking up not down. Someone had craved a message into the riverbank wall. A message covered in moss that could have only been revealed and seen at low tide and disappears again when the river rises. It said, "Hello, I am Crazy". A special reminder from the universe that I was not alone in that feeling. Likely written by a mudlarker, just like me.