In part one of our Mind the Tides series, we looked at how the the Thames at low tide can expose some wonderful natural beaches, and how only a generation ago, the idea of a beach “holiday” next to Tower Bridge was not so ridiculous.
If you haven’t realised it already, I’m sorry to say that the time to top up that tan has well and truly passed. Instead, this week, we’ll look at another, rather less mainstream, activity people can enjoy while the tides are low.
The delightful term mudlark was in common use in the 18th and 19th centuries, describing skill-less, poverty-stricken Londoners someone who would scavenge through river mud for valuable trinkets and cargo, dropped from passing cargo ships.
This was at a time when London was a busy trading port, and some people, mainly but not exclusively young boys, living near the river were actually able to salvage enough to survive from the meagre earnings of the items they would find. Although a “full-time” mudlark could boast a certain amount of independence – they were self-employed, after all – it was not a pleasant gig. The river at the time was filthy and the shores awash with raw sewage, broken glass and, sometimes, the dead bodies of cats, dogs and even humans.
Despite this, a mudlark was a recognised occupation until the early 20th century when, unsurprisingly (thankfully), the activity as a vocation decreased in popularity.
The term has re-emerged, however, to describe something far less miserable: the urban equivalent of beachcombing. Known more romantically as treasure hunting.
Mudlarking can be a rewarding pastime for amateur archaeologists, or anyone interested in London’s history. Due to the preservative qualities of its mud and the ebb and flow of its tides, the Thames is very good at randomly spitting up well-kept historical artefacts that had once been lost in its murky depths. The foreshore of the tidal Thames has been described as “one of the richest archaeological sites in the country”.
And it’s no surprise. There’s evidence of human habitation around the river dating back to Neolithic times. The British Museum features a decorated bowl that was found in the River at Hedsor, Buckinghamshire that could be over 4000 years old.
Of course, such findings are rare. A far more common sight to mudlarks is the clay pipe, essentially the equivalent of the modern cigarette butt. These pipes, sold pre-filled with tobacco, were regularly used and discarded by dock workers in the 16th century, which is why they are such a relatively common find.
This may not sound much like treasure, but to stumble upon a 500-year-old piece of history (even if only a small piece) is still pretty exciting!
Where to Mudlark
Central London has some prime mudlarking locations, but before you venture to the foreshore you should always check the timings of the tide first. Make sure you’ve got an escape route in mind and never stray too far from the steps.
“Eyes only” mudlarking is allowed anywhere along the Thames foreshore without the need for a permit. Any activity which disturbs the surface of the foreshore, e.g. digging, requires a permit. Read more about your safety and your rights here.
You could try your luck anywhere: under the Millennium Bridge outside Tate Modern, on the small beach outside Gabriel’s Wharf (a fairly easy to access patch), around Blackfriars Bridge and Southwark Bridge… anywhere revealed by the low tide! Laura Porter writes on about.com that when she explored the north bank near St Paul’s Cathedral, she found “hundreds of clay pipes laying on the surface!”.