Living my entire life on or near the coast of Massachusetts, I’ve kind of taken it for granted that any walk on a beach of my home state might turn up treasures beyond a pretty scallop shell or a tumbled piece of rose quartz. This part of the US has been settled since the early 1600s, and over years of beach strolling, I’ve found my share of prizes: clay pipe stems, shards of pottery and glass (and a few intact pieces!), interesting bits of metal from fishing weights to the working mechanism of an oil lamp. My favorite finds include a tiny plate from a doll’s tea set, several ink bottles, and a large piece of early seventeenth century redware pottery.
So it was with great delight and fellow-feeling that I recently devoured Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames. Mudlarking is the term (dating back to the 18th century) for rummaging around on the shore of a river or harbor, looking for lost and cast-off items that might be of use; in the last several years, it has more or less become the act of wandering the edges of the Thames at low tide (the Thames below Richmond—where Hampton Court Palace is—is subject to the tide) looking for…well, treasure. Of course, “treasure” is a relative term, so while some do their mudlarking with metal detectors, looking for money or jewelry, others (like Ms. Maiklem) mudlark for the sheer love of history, of connecting to the past through the bits and bobs she finds on her mudlarking trips.
And what bits and bobs she finds! The Thames has hosted human settlements back to the Neolithic, so her collection spans everything from stone tools to Bronze and Iron Age finds, through Roman coins and mosaic tiles to medieval potsherds, Tudor jewelry, eighteenth century Chinese porcelain, and so on up to the present era.
The book is divided into sections about each stretch of the Thames. In each, Ms. Maiklem entwines the history of that part of the river with accounts of some of her visits and what she has found, juxtaposed with snippets of autobiographical and family history that lend a personal and often moving edge to the narrative. It’s a lovely, absorbing read, and I know that when I finally get back to visit London, I’m going to find a mudlarking trip to join. In the meanwhile, however, there’s always the beach right here…
Have you ever been mudlarking? Where did you go, and what did you find?