It’s 9am and already I am sinking. Literally. I am trying to negotiate the muddy banks of the North Greenwich foreshore at low tide and not quite succeeding. “Just keep moving and try and step over stones rather than just plain mud”, says mudlark Steve Brooker trying desperately to hide his amusement at my novice behaviour. Steve tries to reassure me saying it’s a right of passage to fall in the mud at which point I scurry rapidly over to the pebbled patch, disinclined in becoming the days’ entertainment.
Steve, aka “Mud God”, has been mudlarking for almost 20 years and says it takes many years to understand the changeable tide and the subtle differences in the mud in order to uncover the treasures of the Thames. Misjudging either can have fatal repercussions. This is why mudlarks always pack together rather than going solo. Accompanied by his friend John, aka “G-M”, and armed with waders, wellies, a trowel, bucket and keen eyes, Steve begins to show me how to make a successful mudlark. Thames mud is anaerobic (without oxygen) and preserves whatever it consumes. The areas that become darker in colour usually mean that there is decomposition and, in theory, is a good place to start scraping. Almost immediately, Steve pulls out a hair-thin medieval pin, – a positive sign of human and urban settlement. Steve has in the past found everything from bones, bombs and bullets to the more unusual artifacts such as 17th century trader’s tokens, Bellemine jugs, Roman sandals, Mesolithic fishing harpoons and Helen Mirren’s ring .(Indeed this is true.)
Today Steve has only found a shilling, a bear-grease pot (old remedy for stimulating hair growth), Tudor bricks, a spoon and some old buttons. Disappointed but not disheartened, he says that each different stretch of the Thames foreshore gives off relics distinct to the activities of the area. We are currently situated in the industrial area just west of the Thames barrier and you’re mainly going to find factory waste whereas in Wapping you are near the Tower of London and will find lots of weaponry and signs of urban habitation. More to the west the objects found denote suburban dwelling.
Mudlarking was extremely popular in London during the 18th and 19th centuries where lowly men and women made a living by scavenging for anything that could be resold. The most providential items were coal, iron and old rope. Because of the magnitude of traffic on the river, many items found their riverbed resting place from simply falling overboard between crossings. By the early 1900’s mudlarking seems to have become an unlawful pursuit and today you can only mudlark with a permit from the Port of London Authority. Presently, mudlarks are seen more as treasure-seekers and amateur archaeologists of sorts and many of Steve’s finds end up either in museums or police stations. (Hand guns and sawn-off shot guns are regular finds) With his amassed collection slowly taking over his home, I wonder what invigorates him to do this in the first place. “I want to change history”, is his immediate response, continuing that he really gets excited when items have been personalised, – coins with teeth marks, jugs with graffiti scratched into them or even worn-out old boots. You can almost still feel the strength of emotions and the character of its original owner, something that makes the item that much more tangible and real.
Now that the tide is coming in sharply, our day is done. After a hard-morning’s work our mid-day pint seems indeed well deserved. Still reeling from their lack of finds I relate to Steve and G-M my own discoveries, – angle grinder guards (“No, they’re not ancient Chinese cymbals”), an old gas canister, (“No, it’s not a bomb”) a shard of floral blue and white pottery (“No, it’s not a Ming”) and an old boot. (“No, it’s a new boot”) It has become quite obvious that it takes quite a honed-in and skilled eye to become a mudlark. Taking pity, Steve gives me his shilling. At least, I say, I didn’t fall in the mud. Steve and G-M look at each other with knowing grins. “All in good time, my friend, all in good time.”
You can now catch up with Steve on his show, ‘Mud Men’ with Johnny Vaughan on the History Channel, Mondays at 9.30pm.