If you want to discover the history of a city, you can always look to the waters it was built around for the answers. In Paris, the Seine tells the story of the earliest European settlers, Roman ambitions, and the 18th-19th century Parisian social scene. In Rome, the Tiber can recount the olive oil trade of the 3rd century, the thousands of criminals who found their final resting place under her waters, and sacred stories deeply intertwined with the origins of Rome itself.
In London, the Thames River is a treasure trove of historical artifacts, windows into the past, and a constant, flowing reminder of what once was. It is no surprise that some of the most important links to London’s past have been found on the banks of the Thames; washed up on shore after centuries, ready to tell their stories. This has led both professional archaeologists and amateurs hobbyists alike to throw on their wellies (rain boots) and head down to the shores at low tide, hoping to discover a treasure of their own. Welcome to the world of Mudlarking.
A Mudlarker was once a recognized profession in England. For those unfortunate souls who had the task of digging through the fesces and dead bodies of London to hunt for items they could barter, scavenging in the Thames River was a way of life. Mudlarking as a day-job was lost through time, but in the 1980’s The Society of Thames Mudlarks brought this dirty pastime back into fashion. These days Mudlarking is much different, the waters are (hopefully) cleaner and any finds of great historical value are required to be reported to the Museum of London. While you do need a permit for the actual digging, anyone can go down at low-tide and search the Thames banks for treasures washed ashore.
There are several ladders at London’s South Bank, which you can climb down at low-tide (the tide is very important) and try your hand at Mudlarking. I went by myself on a cold, windy day- enjoying an Americano while I wandered down the bank, eyes peeled for anything special amidst the river rocks. I found segments of old clay smoking pipes, tiles of pottery lost and broken long ago, and many, many items that were much less… enchanting.
While I may have found more junk than treasure, I did find this interesting object that looks awfully similar to a key. I figure it is possible that this may just be an eroded metal hook, but I took it home convinced I found a 16th century key that once unlocked a room full of fantastic characters and wonderful things.
I enjoyed my Mudlarking experience immensely, and found my walk alongside the mighty Thames both calming and exciting all at once. While I didn’t find anything that has changed history as we know it, I still made contact with small pieces of our past- I find that very special.
Have you ever tried Mudlarking? Find anything special?