Monday, March 28, 2011

Mudlarking the Thames

London is my favorite big city.  You can find anything you want there, including lots and lots of history.  So I have taken all three of my kids there on father-son trips.  On such expeditions it is useful to have a little help with organizing things, and one such option are London Walks.  This is a very well organized group that puts on walking tours about town oriented towards any conceivable interest.

When over with a 12 year old I noticed a walk called Mud Larking.  Hmmmm.  What this turns out to be is a low tide scavenger hunt along the banks of the Thames picking up artifacts from Neolithic times to yesterday.

We went, found some interesting items-clay pipes, broken pottery and so forth-and it definitely gave me a taste for more.  One advantage to doing this sort of thing through London Walks was that they supplied a very learned archeologist to identify things for us.

And you would be surprised how wide ranging the finds are.  I picked up something that was clearly a rock but “didn’t look quite right”.  It was fossilized coral that came up the Thames as ballast in a ship from the West Indies!  Another person in our group spotted a one foot square chunk of a Roman mosaic floor, but just an undecorated section.

Last year when my brother and I were over on a more wide ranging archeology trip we took a few hours to do some independent Mud Larking.  Note: you do need to get a permit from the London Port Authority, and there are restrictions as to where you can do this, how deep you can dig down, and a requirement that any finds of historical significance be recorded with the proper authorities.

Armed with tide charts, boots, and a rather inadequate map of an obscure corner of London we set out.  It took us a while, as the nearest Underground station was out of service and this is an area of extensive urban renewal since the Blitz.  You would not imagine it to be so difficult to find a river.

But find it we did, and went over the embankment on a rusty old ladder.

At low tide there is junk everywhere.  Bits of brick and roof tiles.  Broken bottles and pottery.  Clay pipes ranging from weathered chips to nearly intact.  Odd metal in all sizes and shapes. 

I can’t say we found anything great.  This was not a low enough tide to expose the more hidden treasures.  But we came away with a bag of clay pipes for a guy who collects them, an old lock, and for my brother, a brick marked London.  Bricks I should mention are not a collecting category that lends itself to air travel.

A couple of pictures:

This is a weathered, smooth bit of what seems to be either rock or industrial slag.  The generic Brit archeology term for this kind of the thing is “mudstone willy”.  Which would be a pretty good name for a Blues musician.

This object came up just downstream from Execution Dock, where the Royal Navy used to hang pirates.  I would like to imagine it was the hook hand of some salty character-note my best pirate face-but it was probably just a boat hook.

Mudlarking is actually a fairly big time activity in London.  There is an organized group that pursues this and enforces the rules.  They have a website that is all too often down for repairs, but a good flavor of things can be found in a show on the UK History Channel.  One of the ""Mud Men" of the title is a fellow who goes by the nick name of Mud God.  From having a few dealings with this archeology demigod I can assure you he is one of those inspired mad men who feature so prominently in the sort of odd pursuits on the fringes of the conventional world.

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