Mudlarking About: Thames Beachcombing with London Walks

Beachcombing as mudlarks along the river in London

“Ah – it seems you’ve found a bit of old sewage pipe,” says Fiona. Perhaps not what you want to hear when you’re seeking buried treasure along the Thames foreshore. Luckily this doesn’t come after hours of searching – Fiona, an inter-tidal archaeologist, is talking to an amateur mudlark, who laughs and heads off to continue scouring the shoreline for more unknown treasures (or unsavoury bits of piping) during the last few minutes of a Thames Beachcombing Walk. This is their idea of fun on a Saturday morning, and it’s contagious, so I’ve come to find out more.

I bring two old fossils (my parents) along too, and we join a huge group at Mansion House Tube Station for a morning of Time Team-esque discovery organised by London Walks. But what’s an easy morning for us was something quite different in the past: in the 18th and 19th centuries mud larking was a common occupation, especially for children, and it was very grim.

The age range of today’s walk is pretty vast and, despite the advice to wear appropriate shoes, someone highly optimistic has turned up in ballet pumps. Luckily for her, the day is bright and sunny, and we’re only down in the mud and stones for about half an hour; the rest of the time we’re treading the pavements.

Thames river shown at the edge of Londinium on monochrome map
This map, drawn in 1897, shows what London looked like after AD190, when it was known as Londinium and under Roman rule. The river was crucial for trade. Credit:

Rules of the River

Fiona begins with a potted history of the Thames, including the Roman settlement where the City of London now stands, and the intense river trading over the centuries that followed. She tests us on the names of all the bridges and we realise how clueless we were until now, which perhaps explains why the introduction takes up so much of the walk. We’re reminded the tide times are there for a reason; though it looks mild, this is a very powerful river. Down at our assigned spot, just beyond the Globe Theatre, we’re given latex gloves and warned about the potential risks of Weil’s disease (I feel triumphant as my borderline emotional attachment to hand sanitiser has been justified).

It’s strange not being able to rummage through the debris on the shore. I hadn’t turned up with a metal detector or any tools, but I’d hoped to dig around a bit in the mud with my gloves on. However, if anyone and everyone could carve up the land with a spade and a trowel, the shoreline would look very different. The rule is you can scour the surface, but you can’t dig beneath it, and you can’t use a metal detector either – unless you get a licence.

Gently turning over pebbles and driftwood seems like a painful process, but it’s much less intrusive. As an amateur just chipping in, I can see why the die-hard enthusiasts deserve to have search privileges, because they know what they’re looking for and they’ll put in the time to search for it. If I lived in London I’d definitely spend £9 a year on a proper licence to try and get into this long-term.

Amateur archaeologists looking for treasure by the river in London overlooking a bridge
Getting into the spirit of things – mudlarkers keeping their eyes peeled for finds.

Fragments and Fangs: Things Found in the Thames

Everyone traipses up and down between the shoreline and the spot where Fiona is giving her verdict on what’s been found. We don’t have any visual clues to go on, so it’s a case of picking up anything that looks vaguely suspicious or old. It would’ve been really useful to have a simple guide on what to look for – just an A4 sheet covering the basic clues like colour, shape or pattern to indicate the most common finds – but we’re actually told very little about what lies here. As a result, everyone crowds round Fiona, the children of the group in particular, to bombard her with their finds.

There are loads of clay pipe stems dotted around on the surface, resembling cigarette filters, and I’ve picked up quite a few. With no distinctive markings, Fiona tells me they can’t be dated, but they could be at least from the 1930s, and maybe up to hundreds of years old (fingers crossed mine are the latter). I assume the slightly tinted ones might be more impressive, but she says they all began life as white clay, then became discoloured depending on what happened to them when in use and in the river.

I’ve already discarded a lot of the terracotta coloured fragments I came across, because they looked relatively new, then Fiona tells some others in the group that the more battered and rounded pieces can sometimes be more recent finds. I can’t help wondering if I’ve just abandoned something centuries older than everything still clutched in my hand… However, we’ve been told only to take home a few finds each, so being sentimental isn’t really an option.

London riverbed objects found by the Thames including pottery shards, clay pipes and teeth
Animal teeth (at least I hope they’re not human…), pottery and clay pipe stems we found in the river.

Inspecting the Haul

At the end of the session I’ve come away with a nice selection of broken clay pipe stems, a piece of Dutch pottery, animal bones and a couple of huge animal teeth. My parents have tracked down more pottery, glass and some huge nails, which Fiona thinks might be from old ships.

We’ve learned how to plan our next visit according to tide times (start an hour before low tide, because the lowest tide point then means the water starts coming in again immediately afterwards), and we now know the area beneath the Globe Theatre is quiet enough to give beachcombers a bit of breathing space, but with a quick exit up the stairs if we underestimate the tide.

The Thames Beachcombing Walk is a decent beginner’s guide to mudlarking, and it gives you a grounding in the river and its history. However, we don’t exactly feel like experts after one session, and we’d need to ask an expert what any future finds meant, so it’s disappointing not to feel more confident in spotting where something came from or whether it’s 50 or 500 years old. Maybe a second in-depth walk (aimed at anyone who’s ticked off this one already) should be the next step.

St Paul's Cathedral and waterside buildings in background with life preserver in foreground
What other secrets does the river hold?

Recommended Reading

Walk Notes: A full list of Thames Beachcombing dates is available from the London Walks website, or by picking up a leaflet from the various stands around the Southbank (one near Tate Modern, another near the second hand book market). Times are tide-dependent, but each session runs regardless of the weather. It costs £10 per adult or £8 for ‘super adults’ (a nice way of saying 65+), students and anyone with a Discount Walkabout card. Children under 15 go free if they’re with parents.