Mudlarking on the Thames: the Glory that Was

The Thames River, tidal and monumental, even in its current tamed state, is a revealer of treasures, a concealer of mysteries, and a draw for seekers, all along its twice daily foreshore.

With roughly ten thousand years of habitation along its banks, at the heart of the City of London—Paleolithic through early Briton, Roman to Saxon; medieval to Tudor and Stuart, Georgian and Victorian; World Wars to Sixties—the eras passed and trash accumulated in its murky depths. The mud has a quality, anaerobic, lacking air, that sucks down and holds onto all, from abattoir detritus to Fire of London remnants. And of course, clay pipes by the tens of thousands from the days when five hundred manufacturers littered London with their single-use, prefilled pipes. The pipe pieces and the rest were sucked under to lie airless and preserved, safe, slumbering, until the day a particular tide sluices out to sea and sucks harder right there, sectioning up a slice of life from the past, all muled together, indiscriminate. The pull of the tide is irresistible and the objects rise. The tide takes its half daily deception of retreat and lays bare the foreshore, in places descending 26 feet from its high-tide height. Exposed are rotten timbers, rows of teeth-like remains from the belly of a ship; acres of pottery; a bottle top, glass, a cork still stoppering the neck of some medieval mead. But the mead and the bottle are gone, just the stoppered neck remains and lies there on the relaxed surface, waiting.

And the irresistible pull of the tide draws the people, bent, quiet, looking, pacing the foreshore in knots of ones, twos, throngs all together; daily looking through the cast offs of an ancient city to see what they can find. You can learn a lot from other people's trash. That the popular plague deterrent, to smoke a pipe, left piles of pipes to be found. That the roof tiles of London, following the devastation of fire in 1666, were shoveled wholesale into the river, perversely making a treasured find: "Ooh, this one's from the fire! Look at the charr marks around the peg hole."

Mudlarking, or searching for treasure, along the Thames, London's largest open-air archeological site, is irrisistible. What is to be found today, having been sucked to the surface, will tomorrow be gone down river and out to sea forever. The pull called to me and I went with my husband when we celebrated a grand anniversary with a trip to London in 2015. Since late 2016, a slew of regulations have swamped the spontaneous pleasure, but still the tide withdraws, the artifacts wait, and people are drawn to look.

How do you get there? A valid permit in one hand and the tide times in the other, one place you can go is down narrow Cousin Lane from the Cannon Street Tube Station; past the dubious white-carriaged cannons that are a bit wobbly on their wheels; past the pub, The Banker, and over the wall to find the narrow steps. Then to the right is the best way, once the tide is below the great rusting hulk of an old barge, rather ominous when seen from below. And always check the tide time!

The ground is not sparsely littered. You crunch on pottery and bits and pieces, thickly piled. A Tudor floor tile, green medieval pottery pieces, blackware from two thousand years ago, jug handles and rims: an array awaits. It is an ultimate invitation to marvel. 

Imagine yourself there if you cannot go. Go if you can. But know that mudlarking on the Thames is a thing to behold. You might not even think of the Thames as having a foreshore. You can see in the 1913 to 1949 drawings and artwork below, the people working and walking on the river and its shore, and little has changed. The photographs further below, I took while mudlarking in the fall of 2015, the fulfillment of a great longing, and I will say, worth all the trouble.

[The Port of London Authority it must be said has significantly changed the course of mudlarking or beachcombing on the Thames since then, and the glory days of wandering have been reigned in. However it is still possible to comply with the new regulations and have a wonderful time searching. With a regular one-day or three-year permit in hand (apply a month before), you can still legally take part in this fascinating feast of treasures. And help is at hand for identifying what you find (links below). Of course, reporting of rare treasures to the Museum of London is also essential.]

Click on any image to see enlarged and as a slideshow.

Images: Christopher Nevinson, London, Winter 1928; all b/w images John Minton, illustrations for the book, Flower of Cities, 1949; William Roberts, The Port of London, c.1920-4, Tate Gallery; John Minton, London's River, Lilliput, 1947; Charles Ginner, London Bridge, 1913

For specific help getting there:

  • Count the Underground your friend, and even consider a river boat or riverside bus.
  • Enthusiasm and validation from Mudlarking on the Thames Might Be the Best Thing I've Done in London,  though written pre-regulations.
  • London Walks, an organization whose paid walks are simply wonderful, offer a new Secret Thames: the Archeology Tour, a significantly modified version of their original mudlarking (or beachcombing) tour, to comply with the Port of London Authority regulations. You will see the river from above with Fiona H, "the Intertidal Archaeologist who's the world's leading expert on this stretch of the Thames," enjoy artifacts previously found, and can go down to the foreshore after the official walk. 
  • Read, "Before You Go Mudlarking," the pinned top post at London Mudlark.
  • And don't forget to consult the Tide Tables.

To identify finds:

Where to report finds, safety advice, restrictions, and all important permit applications:

  • For the phone number of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London, along with all restrictions, permit applications, and safety advice, visit this essential Port of London Authority page.