Britain's river beaches conceal thousands of pieces of our past. Madeleine Marsh meets the enthusiasts for whom raking through mud has its own romantic rewards
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The Independent Culture

LAST week, a treasure hunter scouring the banks of the Thames struck lucky. The gold ring he found buried in the mud near Cannon Street station turned out to be the archaeological equivalent of winning the National Lottery. Its workmanship and the unusual mauve-blue colour of the enamelling suggested a link with James I. This provenance gives the ring a value of £20,000, and the Museum of London and a national art charity are determined to buy it.

The man in question was a true enthusiast, a member of the Society of Mudlarks and Antiq-uarians who had been combing the Thames foreshore with his metal detector for years. But you don't have to be an expert, or have this kind of sophisticated technology, to make historical discoveries. Some experience might be needed to tell a Stone Age flint from a garden pebble, but anyone can recognise a piece of jewellery, and found objects don't have to be ancient or valuable to be exciting. "The past starts straight away," says Mike Heygate of the Council for British Archaeology, "and it lies literally all around us."

The river beaches of Britain are where the past is literally swept to the surface. At low tide there is still a wealth of unburied objects that can be picked up while wandering along the foreshore: not digging, not metal detecting, but simply beachcombing - or mudlarking.

The term "mudlark" was first coined in the late 18th century to describe the London poor, often children, who scratched a meagre living (an average of 3d a day), trawling for river finds on the Thames foreshore. "Their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river," wrote Henry Mayhew in 1861. "It is indeed pitiable to behold them, especially during the winter ... paddling and groping among the wet mud for small pieces of coal, chips of wood, or any sort of refuse washed up by the tide."

For today's mudlark, though the mud is still in evidence, the emphasis is far more on larking about - mainly in the shallows and along the foreshores of tidal rivers. Sometimes the finds can be quite staggering.

"About a year ago," recalls Mary Kershaw of Harrogate Museum in Yorkshire, "a man was fishing at Ripon. Wading back to the riverbank, he found a sword lying on a clay bed. He thought it was a child's toy and flung it into the back of the car - and there it stayed for a couple of months until a teacher suggested he take it to the museum. It was a Bronze Age sword in perfect condition, quite remarkable."

Andy Foxon, from Hull Museum, told of a similar discovery made last month: "At Ferriby [on the river Humber] a local man was walking the foreshore when he saw a strange wooden panel sticking out of the mud. At midnight, when the tide was right, he returned and pulled it out. It was a Bronze Age oar, some 3,000 years old. That's a really amazing discovery - a wooden object from such an early date."

Among the richest hunting grounds for mudlarks are the rivers running through major conurbations - such as the Clyde, the Forth, the Medway, the Mersey... and, of course, the Thames - the rubbish bin of London since Roman times. At low tide, lying on the surface of the river beach in the mud and pebbles, is an astonishing variety of material. In a couple of hours you can easily fill a carrier bag with shards of pottery (17th-century slipware, 19th-century Willow pattern, art deco china); fragments of clay pipes dating from the Elizabethan period onwards; bones; metalware; flints ... the fragmented cast-offs and chuck-outs of generations of Londoners, preserved by the mud and swept by the tide to the surface.

In financial terms, 99 per cent of objects found might be worth little or nothing. "If you can avoid using the word `treasure' in your article, we would be eternally grateful," pleads John Clark, curator at the Museum of London. "You won't make your fortune down there."

But while these bits and pieces might not be financially valuable, in a romantic historical sense they are treasure indeed - mudlarking through centuries of rubbish, you feel literally in touch with the people of the past.

Artist Vicky Hawkins, a passionate mudlarker, picks up the kind of ordinary objects no self-respecting treasure-seeker would be seen carrying home. "I go to the Thames for ideas and material," she explains. Born in Bow and raised on the Isle of Dogs, she lives on the 13th floor of a condemned tower block in Stepney with a great view of the river. Since childhood, she has gathered stuff from the foreshore. "I was raised a Catholic, and I used to bring back loads of bones," she giggles. "I thought they were relics and made altars out of them."

Today, though no longer a Catholic, she does much the same thing. Her studio is filled with large boxes overflowing with clay pipes, pottery shards, glass bottles, teeth, bones and other river finds ranging from canine skulls to cannonballs. For 12 years Hawkins worked as Bridget Riley's studio assistant, and perhaps as a reaction to painting all those mathematical black and white lines, her own work is now inspired by chance and objets trouvs. She makes jewellery from river finds, picture frames from driftwood and bones. She mosaics chairs and other objects with china from the Thames, strange and beautiful fragments recycled into new decorative life.

"When I pick something up from the river, I feel I've rescued it, given it status," she enthuses. "As I walk along the shore I feel incredibly happy; I love the noises, the boats, the bits and pieces, and there's always the chance I'll find something wonderful. I think of the Thames as London's secret garden."

Don Lee, a former school teacher, is virtually a full-time mudlark on the Thames. "I'm not finding museum pieces," he says, "but the stuff used by ordinary people like you and me. I'm divorced, retired from Kenneth Baker and all that lot and spend my days on the river - I'm having the time of my life."

Armed with nothing more than a child's garden rake, a kitchen fork and a stout pair of wellingtons, Lee patrols the area of the Thames round Blackfriars and has found objects ranging from a Saxon knife blade to medieval brass finger rings, from an Elizabeth I half-groat to 18th-century clay wig curlers. He doesn't dig or use a metal detector and, colourblind, confesses that his eyesight is poor; he searches by looking for shapes in the mud. "I think you find what you want to find," he says.

It's not the potential value of the objects that attracts Lee to the river (only one find in his huge collection, a medieval pilgrim badge, is worth as much as £100), but the history behind them and the excitement of tracking them down. "A lot of the old boys you meet down there think they're wasting their time unless they're finding gold rings. But that's not me. What about this? It's a Tudor leather shoe sole. Look at that tiny instep, and that squared toe. You couldn't buy one of these, and you couldn't sell it. But isn't it incredible? Just think about the tiny foot that went into it, and the hundreds of feet that must have walked over it until I pulled it out of the mud."

Lee is infectiously excited about all his discoveries, be it his pilgrim badge ("It's in beautiful condition; most of the lead ones crumble like biscuit when you pick them up,") or his collection of tiny, hand-made brass pins, dating from the 14th century onwards. He meticulously records the dates and places of all his finds, researches their history, and then gives talks to schools. "I take in my stuff and let them handle it. The kids love it. They can't believe they are putting a 17th-century thimble on their finger, or are holding a Roman tessera, and that these came out of their local river."

Less desirable things come out of the river, too. Like any other area of water, the Thames can be both dirty and dangerous. "It's not like a beach at a holiday resort," stresses Roger Mutton, public relations manager for the Port of London Authority. Though historical rubbish might be romantic, there is nothing rem-otely appealing about the condoms and other refuse deposited by modern Londoners.

Mutton recommends wearing rubber gloves and wellingtons. "The foreshore is not the safest place in the world," he warns. "You have to be aware of Weil's disease [a strain of jaundice], there are areas of quicksand, and the tide can come in very quickly."

The Port of London Authority is justly proud, however, of its efforts to clean up the Thames. Crabs and shrimp can now be found in the pools, and last year not only were seals twice spotted in the river, but they were there to chase the native salmon.

Sometimes, the danger to treasure hunters is entirely of their own making. Holes that have been dug, and not filled in properly, can snare the unsuspecting mudlark. Don Lee, who fell into one, knows this to his cost. "It was like something out of some very, very poor opera. I was up to my crotch in mud, stuck fast and the tide was coming in. I waved to some workmen on a nearby building site, and they just waved back until one of them finally realised I wasn't waving but drowning and kindly came and dug me out. Another half-hour and I'd have been a Thames relic."

On all stretches of water, common sense should be followed, caution applied, legal restrictions observed and the tides watched with an eagle eye. Anyone who wishes to dig on the Thames must obtain a permit from the Port of London Authority, and comply with their regulations (see box). But you don't need to dig to make exciting discoveries. A recent exhibition at the Museum of London included a Saxon sword pommel circa AD 800, with silvered, interlaced serpents, picked up by a beachcomber on the foreshore at Chiswick.

Perhaps the main thing to remember, though, is this: like Rembrandts in the attic, great finds are few and far between - and completely unpredictable. But the small stuff, such as pipes and pottery, can be found almost everywhere by anybody - including the back garden.

"The strangest call I ever had," says Mary Kershaw of Harrogate Museum, "was from a couple who had found a World War Two grenade in their flowerbed. I advised them to call the police and, above all, not to touch it. There was a terrible silence on the phone. `Oh dear,' said the lady, `I've brought it into the kitchen and given it a good wash'."

Mudlarking, too, is open to everybody, re-gardless of wealth, education or status. "I used to think that only rich people could own things like this," concludes Don Lee happily, bundling up his booty - "but now I know anyone can make their own little museum."


The Port of London Authority: The PLA owns the riverbed of the Thames, up to the mean high-water mark. The public is allowed to beachcomb on the shores, but serious mudlarks - and anyone intending to dig (even if it's only scraping the surface) or use a metal detector - must obtain a license (£9 per annum) from the PLA and abide by its rules. The Authority also issues licenses to the Society of Thames Mud-larks and Antiquarians, a group of serious searchers with no desire for either publicity or increased membership. The Port of London Authority is at Devon House, 58-60 St Katharine's Way, London E1 9LB (071-265 2656).

Mudlarks and the law: In any area, laws of trespass and other restrictions should be observed. When in doubt, contact the landowner or landowning authority. Any interesting objects found should be shown to the local museum. Museums are generally happy to give opinions and advice. Since resources are limited, however, assessments can take time.

Archaeology: For advice and information on archaeology from amateur level upwards (including projects for children) contact: Council for British Archaeology, Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate, York YO1 2UA (0904 671417).