13 December 2019

Mudlark by Lara Meiklam

During my last two trips to London I have climbed down a set of stairs not far from Millenium Bridge to scan the foreshore for bits of crockery.  The smallest bit of crockery instantly conjures up images of a family at the breakfast table.  A piece of pipe stem is even more exciting as plates are still everyday items but it's been decades since I've seen someone enjoy a pipe.  Clay pipes are most definitely from the past.  And then there are the mysterious things you have absolutely no idea about, but passing them around with friends for ideas is good fun.

July 2017 finds.

Lara Maiklem has been mudlarking for several years, feeling more at peace along the Thames than just about anywhere else.  The focus of searching for bits of history churned up by the tide easily blocking out any intrusions.  

'When I was by the river, I was somewhere else, disconnected from the city and a world away from my problems.  It was my escape, from people, work, awkward situations, even sometimes from myself.'

I can attest to that.  One of the most basic rules (and seemingly obvious one) is to be aware of the rising tide and your escape route.  During my two adventures on the foreshore I was lost in my task within minutes, creeping farther away from the stairs, drawn by what could lie just beyond arm's reach.  The very near sound of a wave lapping right behind me was fright-inducing before I realized it was simply the wake from a boat sailing past.  

What did I learn about the Thames and mudlarking from Lara's book?  Two thousand years ago the river was twice as wide and more shallow.  That spitting on a heavily rusted item and then wrapping it in tinfoil will move along the cleaning process quite nicely.  Hindus toss coconuts into the river to deliver blessings (which could very well explain why we found one floating near the shore in Lake Ontario a handful of years ago).  The Crown has strict rules about what is considered 'treasure'.  For instance, the item needs to be over 300 years old and contain a percentage of precious metal.  I can only imagine that staff on the Treasure Valuation Committee pinch themselves regularly for having such an interesting position. 

September 2019 finds.

Maiklem's sentimentality regarding the past is endearing, not to mention an inherent personality trait.  Her great aunt believed that robins are the souls of the departed so they're greeted warmly when they come near.  And I loved Lara's take on the scenario that might have led to each find being cast or lost to the river.  Especially scorned lovers tossing their posy rings from a bridge or boat.  Pity the person (or perhaps even the thief) whose bag of gems or jewellery was discovered (too late) to have had a hole.  It's clear that for Maiklem this isn't hoarding or fortune hunting but a genuine interest in London's past.   She also spends countless hours searching online to connect the dots, beginning with small clues such as initials on a token or military badge.  Typing her own last name into a website listing people transported to Tasmania, Maiklem even discovered that one of her relatives, guilty of forgery, was aboard the Strathfieldsay in 1831 during a journey which lasted nearly four months.

During my last trip to the foreshore in September I was wearing white Converse running shoes, the time before that, a dress.  That tells you how discriminate I was while making my way across the pebbles.  Maiklem is much wiser when it comes to outfitting herself for a few hours of kneeling in sucking mud.  While I wouldn't mind getting down and dirty in my quest to find an apothecary bottle or old farthing, I shivered at the image of Lara wearing a headlamp while mudlarking at 2 am.  Even though I sighed while reading about the gorgeous clay pipe she found, decorated with roses and thistles entwined around the bowl, nothing could tempt me to do that.  But Maiklem doesn't spook easily, writing about her collection of bottles with faces....

'My motley crew sit side by side in a cabinet at home, a line-up of broken misfits and odd bods.  I like to think of them coming to life when the house is asleep, like a group of old men in a tavern, bragging and swapping tall tales.'

I loved every page of Mudlark and all of the vivid images that Lara Maiklem brought to life through her passionate storytelling and adventures. 

*If anyone has any ideas about the piece of obsidian? at the top of my second photo, please tell me!  The lighter colour in the, what I think is hydration rind, makes me wonder if it was once a tool.  It looks as though it could have been sculpted, or simply ended up like that through one hundred years of tumbling over rocks.  Thanks!


  1. Are you sure it's obsidian and not a flint? It looks just like a flint to me, and may have been knapped to give it a tool structure.

    A friend is planning to lend me this book and this has whetted my appetite for it even more - it sounds excellent. I've never mudlarked but have spent happy hours watching the Thames.

    1. You're probably right, LyzzyBee! My piece has a glassy appearance to it, especially if you look at it under a bright light. I thought flint was more stone-like but I've just watched a few videos of men knapping flint and can see a similarity. Thanks for shedding some light!
      You're in for a treat with the book....have your wellies on stand-by because you will be so tempted to head out for a peek on the foreshore. Enjoy!

    2. Ah cool. I come from Kent so I recognise a flint when I see it. A very cool stone, though. And alas, I live in Birmingham now and we have no rivers to speak of, just canals, which don't have banks!

  2. I enjoyed this book so much, and marvelled at Lara's speculation on the history of the various items she's found.