One of the best things about the beachcomb world is going on expeditions with beachcomb buddies. Last fall, I went on one of the best expeditions ever, combing UK beaches with Nicola from Scotland, who I met at IBC ’17 in Kamuela, HI, and Evan from NC/the Bahamas, who I have known since IBC ’11 and ’12 in Lewes, DE. (Lasting friendships are one of the biggest takeaways from the annual Int’l Beachcombing Conferences (IBC).
So in the spirit of beachcomber sharing, let me suggest a great budget beachcomb vacation for you: Mudlarking in London on the Thames River foreshore.
Mud-Mucking & Mudlarkers
There are many types of shorelines where you can find interesting things. I especially love beachcombing along sandy, windswept beaches where the water is (relatively) clean. Occasionally, however, it’s fun to venture into a ‘combing’ sub-sector, such as looking for geodes or fossils in upland riverbeds, or mud-mucking near old settlement or city dump sites. Mud-mucking (or if you prefer, ‘beach bogging’) is my least favorite combing genre as it usually involves slopping over swampy, muddy or semi-filthy shorelines that can be dangerous and/or disgusting. But sometimes, the rewards are worth it.
An example of an incredibly productive mud-mucking site is the Thames River foreshore in London where shore finds can sweep you back thousands of years. Bronze Age spear heads. Centuries-old silver coins. Roman relics and pre-historic fossil bones. This massive
and extensive repository of artifacts renders the Thames the Granddaddy of all mud-mucking sites. So if I think I might come upon fascinating beach treasures like these, I can suspend my distaste for muck.
Thames and Field Museum
Thames River Foreshore
From the 1800s to the 20th century, London mud-mucking – or as they call it, mud-‘larking’ – was a recognized occupation. Mudlarks were people who searched the foreshores for useful or valuable items to sell. Nowadays, mudlarks are mostly urban archaeologists and historians, amateur treasure hunters, and beachcombers like us, who
search the foreshore for interesting items or those that can shed further light on London’s settlement history. A litany of remarkable items found there include medieval buttons; jewel-encrusted rings and pendants; long-stemmed clay pipes with decorated pipe bowls; old keys; and intact antique jars, bottles and figurines.
But mudlarking is not all treasure and ease. Back in the day, mudlarking was an extremely hazardous occupation and it still can be dangerous. Thames River currents are swift and tides rise quickly – 22 feet with every tidal change – so being trapped on the foreshore without a quick getaway plan can be deadly. Stairways down to the foreshore can have uneven steps or be coated with slime, so navigating them requires care and concentration. And although the Thames is cleaner than many other metropolitan waterways, it is still dirty and often infused with rat urine or, after storms, raw sewage. If you have cuts on your hands or feet, you need to be extra cautious so as not to contract the nasty Weils disease.
There are also not-so-nice things on the shore – broken bottles with jagged edges, rusted sharp metals, unexploded ordinance, hypodermic needles – all of which can cut your feet, slice your hands or blow you up! And there are bones. So many bones. I have never combed a shoreline with so many bones. (Well, except once. In Fiji. By accident. On a beach where Indians tossed the cremated remains of their loved ones…) Are the bones on Thames foreshore human bones? I suspect some are. But since my archaeologist husband wasn’t there to confirm one way or the other, I avoided them (though some did look rather interesting…) Health and Safety – The Thames Admirer Blog
I first mudlarked the Thames foreshore in 1977 and then later in 2004. These were quick, casual combs, though both times I found some old coins and clay pipe stems. This more recent 4-day expedition with Evan and Nicola was planned and purposeful. We went in the Fall because of fewer crowds, cheaper plane tickets, and still moderately warm weather (but with increasing storm activity to stir things). We had two daily low tides, one just after dawn and the other just before dusk, which meant we could mudlark twice a day and devote the high-tide midday hours to leisurely lunches, museums and exploring.
Martin (Nicola’s husband) found us very reasonable lodging in Southwark on London’s south bank. The hotel room we shared had towels with holes and a bathroom down the stairs but it was clean, safe and only $45 US each. Better yet, the hotel was only about a mile to the foreshore so each morning, we rose early, grabbed oranges and coffee, and walked the 20 minutes there. Sometimes we ‘city-splored’ on the way to and back, which is how we came upon the Banksy Print Gallery one day. (I had no clue who Banksy was but am now full of admiration for his work and his chutzpah. Banksy Print Gallery
If you only have time for a short mudlarking expedition like we did, Southwark proved fortuitous. It is in the heart of old London and was once filled with Medieval businesses and inns, and later, Victorian homes and manufacturing plants. By the 20th c, it was downtrodden, filled with run-down or abandoned warehouses. But gentrification measures over the last few decades have worked wonders. Now it is a safe and interesting walking district, the shops, restaurants and historic sites strung together via Bankside Riverwalk. Along with eateries (including Borough Market, and Starbucks for a quick coffee) there is also the Tate Modern Museum, which became our home away from home for lunch, coffee and to wash off.
During high-tide hours, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, magnificent Southwark Cathedral and the creepy Clink Museum (an actual prison from the 12th century until 1780) are also nearby to explore.
We designated the foreshore area from Waterloo Bridge to Southwark Bridge as our ‘precinct.’ This was not only because of the settlement history but also for logistical reasons. There were four bridges (Waterloo, Black Friars, Millennial and Southwark. Bridges) to attract and trap debris. There was a pedestrian bridge (Millennial) in case we wanted to explore the shores of the north bank. There was a tube station (Black Friars) if we decided to shift further afield. There was significant boat traffic on the water, the wakes from which stirred thing up, churned things toward shore and exposed items semi-buried in the mud. There were several shore-to-foreshore stairways, which made shore access – and more critically, shore escape when the high tide swept in – easy. Finally, the area around us was safe and convenient with many restaurants, (and thus, bathrooms) and historic sites to see. All these factors strengthened our chances of having a fun, rewarding mudlarking experience.
I knew we wouldn’t find anything in a few days to match the array of treasures that experienced local mudlarkers find on their daily or weekly combs; especially when they use metal detectors, or rakes and shovels to extract things buried in the mud. So no 2,000 year-old Roman brothel coin for me. Oh well.
But the pebbly foreshore did not disappoint and we found more than enough to leave us happy when it was over. In the first hour alone, Nicola collected over 40+ clay pipe stems (designated for IBC ’18 goody bags). We also found gorgeous 15th to 19th c shards of embossed or glazed pottery, old black glass bottle bottoms, interesting metal bits and some decent sea glass.
I especially took a liking to the green-glazed pottery from the Tudor era (late 1400’s to early 1600’s). I also fell in love for some reason with flint/chert chipped, half-moon ‘bubbles.’ (They nestle so nicely in my black bottle bottoms.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chert
And Evan, who wouldn’t leave a darkened foreshore until he’d unearthed a mystery bottle stuck in the muck, found a beautiful 19th c pickle jar. (He even drew a crowd. They must have thought him a crazy cluck, messing in the mud like that at dusk. But Ev went home, triumphant, with his prized pickle jar and could’ve cared less.)
Enriching the entire experience was the time we spent in London’s many (free) museums during midday (and high-tide). The Tate Modern had interesting exhibits, and as importantly, a first floor sandwich shop and 6th floor restaurant with inexpensive meals and expansive views of London’s north bank and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
At the British Museum, we enjoyed afternoon tea and explored innumerable rooms filled with mesmerizing exhibits. But it was the Museum of London that proved the greatest asset to our mudlark tutorial. Several exhibits provided sufficient information to accurately identify and/or date some items we’d found. Disappointingly though, the Museum was no longer exhibiting the extensive button collection one mudlark had donated to them. But we did meet a staff person assessing metal objects someone brought in, and learned just how instrumental mudlarks are in helping researchers build records of the London’s settlement history.
All in all, this mudlark expedition proved tremendously educational, productive and fun. We found wonderful treasures. The people of London were friendly. The city views were spectacular. And we ate many delicious meals. We would have stayed longer, but the call of the north was strong. We had a train to hop for more combing in Seaham and Fife.
Such a rough life we beachcombers lead!
General Planning Strategies
Interested in doing a bit of mudlarking? Here are some guidelines and tips to help you on your way.
Caveat: I’m not a mudlarking expert. If you want more in-depth information on it or tips of good places to lark, google it or contact one of the mudlarkers who post on Facebook or Instagram. Some have their own websites, give paid tours and are even moderately famous for their treasure troves, their publications and/or their mudlark ‘personas.’
- Time your vacation around the Tides and Seasons.
I always select mid-to-late fall or early-to-mid spring months for major beachcomb expeditions (and conferences!). Not too hot, not too cold, fewer crowds and enough temperamental weather to stir things up so that more may be exposed or tossed up on the shore.
I also refer to tide charts. If I am visiting an area like London with lots to see and do, I tend to try to time my trip when low tides are in the early morning and late afternoon. That way, I can beachcomb twice a day and still be able to sightsee in midday during high tide. In London museums are free, so take advantage of all they have to offer, especially in terms of educating yourself on London’s history. Doing so aids in identifying and dating your foreshore finds.
- Apply for a mudlarking license
As of 2016, anyone who mudlarks on the Thames River foreshore is required to get a license. Apply for one at the Port of London Authority (PLA) and they will give you guidance on what you will be allowed to do and where. Their webpage also includes other helpful information. Order your license at least two months in advance before your arrival date, or risk being fined if you lark without one . We didn’t have licenses because the fellow who issues them emailed that he was on vacation. But we kept his email on hand in case the Thames River Police approached us. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
- Can You Keep Everything You Find?
As noted earlier, the Museum of London (Museum of London) has a curator on hand (aptly titled the ‘Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer’!) that can examine and discuss your treasures with you (call for an appointment). And if you think you have found something on the foreshore that could be older than 300 years or of possible archaeological interest, you need to let them know. (Contact them at 020 7814 5733.
- What to Pack?
Disclosure: I only travel with a carry-on, and a briefcase or large personal bag. This holds true even if I go to Europe for two months. Carry-on luggage means I avoid having lost luggage. I can depart the airport quickly. And I can shift from place to place with greater ease. (For travel light tips, refer to my upcoming blog on ‘The Traveling Beachcomber.’)
Clothing & Misc.: Fall and spring are great times to beachcomb in the western hemisphere. London is no exception though the weather can be moody and hard to predict. With that in mind, pack lightly and bring layers. A lightweight raincoat (I use Marmot because it folds up into a small packet) is a must as is a lightweight fleece or sweater. Consider taking a hat (or a thin over-shirt with a hoody), gloves, socks and a scarf to double as a shawl if you decide to go out on the town. Bring rubber gloves (garden gloves are good) and galosh slip-ons, lightweight boots or wellies. My wellies were loaners waiting for me in Edinburgh so I had to beachcomb in cotton slip-ons with thin rubber soles. (My neuropathy makes wearing running shoes or hiking boots difficult.) This was not the best choice of footwear because it prevented me from getting down and dirty like Evan at the water’s edge.
Also consider bringing a water bottle, a lightweight, shoulder strap bag or backpack to hold things while larking and some sturdy recycled plastic bags to hold your treasures.
If you only have a few days in London like we did, then Southwark (‘Suth-ark”) is good place to be. As noted earlier, the settlement history spans 20+ centuries or more, so the chances of finding some interesting things is good. And there are sufficient places to eat, interesting sites to see, and it is relatively safe and convenient. It is also home to many decent, economy hotels all located within a .25 to 2 mile walk to the foreshore You can take a bus, subway or taxi to the river. We mostly walked (healthier and cheaper).
For lodging, google ‘Lodging in Southwark.’ and look for places situated near the foreshore by the Tate Modern. Or, if you are adventurous, on a budget and feel a bit like roughing it like we did, try the Bridge Hotel on Borough Street. In an older building with narrow stairs and hallways, we shared a third-floor walk-up with a fridge and electric kettle. The bathroom and showers were down a flight of stairs, which was a pain. But the pleasant hotel manager more than made up for it. He fed us snacks and tea, suggested good routes to the river, and stored our bags after check-out so we could beachcomb before our evening train trip north. http://www.thebridgehotel.net It was also in a safe area near a supermarket and a post office (to exchange money).
- Getting there
Fly into Heathrow and take the express train into London. It’s not much more expensive than the regular commuter train and it gets you there in 15 minutes. Whenever in need of directions, ask people. I find Londoners to be very helpful with directions. (http://bit.ly/2BUGEbb)
- Changing Money
If you haven’t ordered British pounds pre-trip from your local bank, (like I forgot to do), you can always change some money at the airport, as money exchange booths are located as soon as you get through customs. But don’t change too much (I exchanged $100 US) as the exchange rate is not as good as it is at local Post Offices. So when you check in to your hotel, ask the front desk where the closest Post Office is and head there.
- Scout out restaurants and groceries stores near your hotel
Scout out places where you can quickly grab something to eat or – if you have a fridge and kettle in your room – stock up on fruit, cheese, crackers, carrots – whatever works for you. When you return exhausted from a full day of fun, you’ll be thankful you did.
CAUTIONS and PRECAUTIONS
Nowadays, the Thames River is regarded as one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world but still, it is a city river and thus, pretty dirty. And its foreshore is not much better. In addition to fast currents, cold water, vessel wash and rapidly rising tides, the foreshore can be littered with things that cause harm. Finally, steps and stairs down to the foreshore are not always well-maintained and thus, can be slippery and dangerous.
There is also the possibility of contracting Weil’s disease, spread by rat urine in the water and sewage discharged during storms. Infection happens through cuts in the skin or through the eyes, mouth or nose. Wear waterproof Band-Aids and waterproof gloves/boots/galoshes if you have hand or foot cuts. And don’t touch your eyes or face before your hands are clean. An anti-bacterial wash can help before you give your hands a really good scrubbing. Medical advice should be sought if ill effects are experienced after visiting the foreshore, particularly “flu-like” symptoms i.e. temperature, aching, etc. As noted earlier, wear waterproof bandaids on your cuts followed by waterproof gloves, shoes or boots, and then thoroughly rinse/soap your hands and your treasures off directly afterwards.
- Never mudlark alone.
- Be vigilant about rapidly rising tides, starting about 2 hours after peak low tide. If away from stairs, start shifting closer to them so you can make a quick exit if need be.
- Be watchful climbing up and down slippery foreshore stairs.
- If you have cuts on your hands (or feet) and still choose to mudlark, wear protective bandages and clothing (waterproof gloves and boots). Generally, it’s a good idea to wear gardener gloves and boots or hard-soled shoes anyway to avoid being cut.
- After mudlarking, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. And best to rinse/soap off all your finds as well before handling them.
So there you have it. Below are a few informative articles to read. There are many more. Just Google “Mudlark.” Let me know about your own mudlarking adventure, how it went and what treasures you find.