WOULD YOU LIKE TO TRY MUDLARKING?
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"Mudlarking on the Thames goes back centuries and I can see why it has been popular for so long.
Steve and Nick took me out in January 2015 and patiently revealed how to find what has been lost over the eons. Armed with just a small trowel and a bucket, I was amazed how quickly Steve's trained eyes could find coins, chain mail, religious pendants, and more.
After a little instruction, I found my first coin! It was only a sixpence from 1942, but it made me wonder about who dropped it and when. Was it a sailor or merchant marine during WWII?
Once tuned to the shape and colour, I began finding tobacco pipes everywhere. Imagine, objects from the 17th and 18th century to be had just by walking along the foreshore.
Steve is a wealth of knowledge and could easily identify pottery, coins and other artifacts. He clearly loves the history that can be gleaned from walking where others have traveled for thousands of years.
Twice a day, the water recedes, revealing new objects to those that search. Whether you find Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman, Saxon, Victorian, war time, or modern objects, I don't think you'll care. You'll just be glad you decided, on a lark, to go mudlarking."
'After a hearty and cheerful shake of the hands and introductions with this intrepid explorer of the Thames, we were off. As low tide was at ---12.36---- there was no time to lose so that we could maximise our time on the foreshore before the tide would bring our search to an end.
What an experience, We had never been on the Thames foreshore before and never realised just how wide the Thames was and even more amazing was the height of the wall defence, crunch !!! It was like looking up at a castle wall. This immediately brought home to us just how very important it is to know the tide times and also to make sure you know where the escape routes are. You just wouldn't want to get stuck on the foreshore when the tide comes in especially the speed and the height it rises to.
The other thing that certainly hit us was just how peaceful it was walking along the Thames. Here we were in England's capital and yet this was pure bliss. The only real sound was a gentle wash of pebbles on pebbles as the odd Clipper or launch went past. A beautiful and relaxing sound. You could feel the pressures of life just fading away with the tide, what a great way to unwind.
Steve gave us tips on what we should look for to improve our search techniques on finding items and after spotting an area we should search and with all three of us knelt down in a line and with backs to the Thames we gentle began to “ work the line” as Steve said.
Well, we couldn't believe what was happening there were buttons, coins, beads, a heart shaped locket, small garnets and even a 1960 glass syringe, still intact and lots of other small items including small copper nails, washers, fasteners for stockings and pins.
Other things found that day were Clay pipe bowls of all ages A Bellarmine piece of pottery showing part of a bearded face of Cardinal Bellarmine ( now there's a great piece of history, especially about the contents of what was also known as a witches bottle but I will let Steve tell you that one) ,Tudor pins, still as sharp as the day they were made and made by children too, Tudor shoe leather as supple as the day it was hidden by the anaerobic mud of Thames several hundred years ago. Glass marbles from the old bottles, part of an old Tudor floor tile, even modern poker chips.
With years of experience and with mass amounts of historical knowledge Steve will equip you with all you need to know about this incredible past time, including search permits, metal detectors and covering many more areas.
We have been very lucky in finding many items including, on two different visits, tiny pieces of Tudor gold. One piece already with the FLO ( Finds Liaison Officer who has past it onto the Coroner for recording and identification. Some other 30+ items are also in the hands of our local FLO for recording prior to being placed on the PAS. (Portable Antiquity System ).
P.S. A final note , to find some of these small items, be prepared to spend a good deal of time on your knees, Steve will tell you that some of the best finds are really tiny.
An amazing day which we will always remember.'.
Hi Steve, just e-mailing you to say thank you. Wednesday was fantastic - fun, fascinating and it was a pleasure to meet you. We both love London and get a real joy from the sense of history every footstep brings and it was great to learn about some of this with someone so knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
It was a great morning. And Fruli very good but must be stronger than I thought. That and a coffee and I felt I was buzzing all afternoon. Kind regards from both of us.
"Just to say thanks again for a truly brilliant day on Saturday. We all enjoyed it immensely and afterwards we all agreed that we had found your teaching very clear and easy to follow and felt that we would be able to mud-lark independently in the future.
We also loved your encouragement, company, conversation and anecdotes! Freddy said the mud-larking trip with you was one of the best things he has ever done".
"A morning on the foreshore with Steve was more enlightening than a hundreddesk bound history lessons, and as enjoyable as a night in the pub with yourmost fascinating friend. You may or may not come across a prehistoric rhinoskull or medieval embossed sword, but a humble Elizabethan clothes pin orpile of bones from Henry VII's kitchen are just as thrilling, and Steve'sknowledge and enthusiasm leaves you with a profound sense of connection toLondon's past, and the urge to discover more."
“Tuesday 27th January, a bright and sunny day mud larking in old London town with the Mud God, Steve Brooker. I had the most exciting and interesting day walking along the foreshore of the Thames culminating at the Palace of Placentia finding parts of a Tudor leather shoe (OMG, the excitement!) amongst many other items. The fabulous thing about mud larking is that it takes you through the history of London through its detritus from a Roman coin to a new 2p piece! We came across coins, Elizabethan pins, medieval pottery shards and a fabulous Victorian clay pipe in near perfect order and an Militia button that has to be recorded. I believe anyone interested in history should give mud larking/beach combing a go, who knows what you’ll find”.
"I want to thank you for a truly amazing day yesterday – it was brilliant. I didn’t realise what hard work it is and I’m aching all over this morning – but I have an enormous sense of achievement. I’ve been looking over my little collection of artefacts with pride this morning (although to be honest I think most of them were found by you). But I won’t be admitting that to my friends of course."
"Just writing to thank you for the totally brilliant day out on the foreshore with you last week. I haven't stopped boring people rigid about how amazingly wonderful it was, and I pick up and admire our finds (I use the term 'our' very loosely) multiple times every day. Sigh...
I have told my friends about the COLAS Tower foreshore day and all of us are quivering with desire. Really looking forward to seeing you again there.
Once again, Steve, thank you for being such a great guy and for making my birthday so spectacular. You are a peach!"
"Thank you for the most awesome day and for the small insight into what makes the “Mud God” tick. You taught me so much in such a small space of time. Your knowledge knows no bounds when it comes to The River Thames secrets and though she gave up very few bits of her history yesterday, what she gave us was amazing.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and really hope to bump into you again, I will continue my journey with my bum blocking out the sun and running from clipper waves. Thank you."
"I very much enjoyed my day with Steve, and was quite sorry when it ended. We had a full and busy few hours, visiting several different parts of the foreshore. I learnt a lot, which was very useful especially as I'd just got my Standard Foreshore Permit.
We found all sorts of coins, Victorian pins and some better pipes than I already had, as well as the usual bits and pieces.
He said I'd love it and I did"
"What an incredible day out on the Thames foreshore with Steve ’Mud Man’ Brooker! Armed with nothing more than one bucket, trowels and knee pads we were introduced to the wonderful world of mudlarking. We started on the Isle of Dogs where Steve showed us what to look for at low tide and the signs on the surface indicating where best to hunt…from there we ventured further east for an excellent clay pipe finding patch. And Steve wasn’t wrong, we found stacks of intact bulbs and one nearly full length pipe.
From there it was a quick dash back onto the road before the tide came in and we were then under the Thames through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. Our final search site of the day was the dump by the long-gone Palace of Placentia to pick through the animals bones on the shore looking for tiny metal pins, Steve had the beadiest eyes and found one. So what better way to celebrate this and our other fascinating finds than with a well-deserved pint.
If you want to actually find and touch history then there is no better way than out with Steve on the mud…just remember your wellies!
Just wanted to thank you SO much for our adventure last week– it was such a brilliant day! Mum said it was the best birthday present she’d ever had! We all really enjoyed ourselves, and came home muddy, tired and laden with our finds, which we’re thrilled with. I have to say, I didn’t think we’d be coming back with a monkey skull...
You wear your huge knowledge lightly, and pass it on to us novices with such enthusiasm and patience, it is very inspiring. I know we would all like to keep going back for more, but the thought of being washed away by the tides is a reality check!
Anyway, we will look out for your upcoming projects with interest, and hopefully our paths will cross again at some point. Best wishes from us all"
EXCHEQUER OF WORDS
The Cutty Sark (1869). A 3-masted clipper ship built for the tea trade, and once the fastest ship in the world as sail gave way to steam.
We met Steve ‘Mud God’ Brooker in front of the Cutty Sark Museum in Greenwich at half ten on Saturday. I was looking out for him but he still seemed to appear suddenly out of nowhere, towering over me but dressed in a baby blue, down jacket in consideration of the spring nip in the air and the intermittent rain. The first things I noticed after his height were his beard, with its distinguished greying sideburns that kept the nautical theme going by evoking Admiral Burnside, and his bracelet, which wasn’t really a bracelet so much as a spanner bent round his wrist to meet head to tail. I wondered whether he had bent it with his bare hands.
As we made out way through a tunnel beneath the Thames to the Isle of Dogs side, Steve told us about upcoming projects — he is about to begin filming a scripted doc series about male midlife crises — and regaled us with anecdotes from Mud Men and his years mudlarking on the Thames. He told us about some of his favourite finds, including Roman children’s shoes, complete with wear patterns where the little toes gripped the leather and holes in the heels, which explains why they were thrown out into London’s watery skip.
When we got to the Isle of Dogs foreshore the tide was still going out. Steve’s sessions tend to straddle low tide two hours either side of it. He explained that tides were assigned numbers from 1 to 16, with 1 being the lowest or strongest and 16 the least strong. Ours was a 9, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because tides 1 to 5 can leave the foreshore quite muddy. The middling tides tend to clean things off and make it easier to scrape and to see.
The rain stopped as we hit the foreshore, and the first shaft of sunlight stabbed down from the grey bellies of cloud that hung over the river. Mud God talked the whole time as we walked — an even more impressive feat considering that he was struggling with a bit of laryngitis after an earlier course participant had asked him to repeat everything he said ad nauseam. Steve talked, musing and teaching and gesturing with his arms while keeping his eyes mostly trained on the foreshore, scanning for promising seams of metalwork — as he encouraged us also to do.
Twice a day, the tides classify objects, natural and manmade, by size, and shape, and weight. This accounts for the not unlikely possibility of finding a twenty-yard streak of bricks on the sand, as though they had been sorted on a conveyor belt, or a meter-wide ribbon of rusted iron bolts.
The trick is to ‘get your eye in’, to train it to go from coarse to fine, from runs of large metalwork, through pockets of small metalwork, to promising shapes within those pockets and along the periphery. One of the most promising shapes, of course, is the circle, as small, round bits of iron — nuts, washers, caps — are often deposited in the same spot as coins. When you find those spots and those likely seams metalwork, usually at the border where hardpack (a layer of mud so dense that it is essentially bedrock, with little or nothing deposited in it) meets pebbles, brick or coarse sand, the trick is to cut in a line with your trowel and do some prospecting, scraping the foreshore towards yourself a bit at a time while looking for interesting shapes and colours. If you have a license from the Port of London Authority (about £70 for three years), you are allowed to scrape on certain areas of the foreshore up to a depth of 7.5 cm. In many spots this is deep enough to get down to the hardpack layer, atop which most finds will be lying like a shag carpet woven of lost metal.
I applied for and received my PLA license two years ago, and I’d been ‘mudlarking’ on my own two or three times. Though the walks through the bowels of the city were lovely, however, offering views from below of its sharp buildings and bright people, I’d never found anything apart from the bowls and stems of pipes and indigo-glazed potsherds. The simple truth is, I was doing it wrong. The techniques Mud God taught us worked. This is because they involved set-ups, processes, and ways of looking rather than tips as specific as ‘You’ll find Roman minims if you search in spot x’ — though he also had tips like the latter!
First Steve taught us to ‘bash’ bullets on the foreshore of the Isle of Dogs. Historically it wasn’t a wealthy area, merely the location of the royal kennels which gave it its name. But a munitions factory had gone up near there around the time of the Second War, and the foreshore was littered with the metal fasteners for grenade canisters and especially with .303 bullets. Steve’s teaching methodology reminded me of the ‘cowboy way’ of teaching from the American West: Watch one; Do one; Teach one. Or to put it another way, you’ve got to crawl before you can walk. Beginning in a historically quite poor area, he showed us what to look for and how to scrape, so that when we got to more promising ground we’d be less likely to miss objects.
Val struck first, pulling a bit of Victorian brooch from the foreshore. In earlier days, it probably would have had bits of coloured glass in the apertures.
Bit of Victorian brooch. The apertures might have had coloured glass in them (found by V on the Isle of Dogs.)
Note the ‘P’ Philadelphia mint mark, moved above Monticello. This marked wartime nickels (1942-45) of 35% silver alloy, when nickel was scarce.
Soon thereafter, he plucked a milled silver five-cent piece from Sierra Leone from the foreshore.
Not only was Steve a dedicated teacher and a force of nature like the tide against which we were racing, but also he was generous. When I found my first coin, a pre-decimal LIzzie penny, he said, ‘Well done, mate! You’ve got your eye in already,’ as though I’d made a significant discovery — and he meant it.
Meanwhile, the tide was relentless. Steve’s sessions last four hours, because that’s all the tide gives you, if you’re lucky. Soon we were being pushed closer to the back wall. For the first time on the foreshore I felt the presence of people, as kids whose parents had taken them to visit Greenwich leaned over the fence above the seawall and called down to us to ask what we were doing and what we had found.
And suddenly, just as Steve had predicted, we were on the pins. Pins everywhere, thousands of them in little ribbons of metal. Coins followed, mostly pennies and twopences, and then, ‘A rose farthing!’ I said, darting my hand forward. Sure enough, I’d found a tiny Charles I rose farthing (1620s). I could tell Mud God was chuffed. ‘It’s better when the people you bring find the stuff’, he said, and more than anything else, this tiny, eyes-only find (the area beneath Placentia is protected, and even scraping is prohibited) was proof of Steve’s method. Not only can he mudlark, but he can teach you to do it too. Half a minute later, as he’d paused his search to tell me a story about a club walk on the Thames when his bid for find-of-the-day was upset at the very end of the trip by someone finding a Bronze-Age axehead right beneath the spot he, Steve, was standing on, I found the next coin. ‘There’s another’, I said, and sure enough, in the sandy silt in front of Steve was a glint of silver. A hammy!
My rose farthing and hammy (EdwMy rose farthing and hammy (Edward?) with a bit of gold leaf found by Mud Godard?) with a bit of gold leaf found by Mud God
Mud God finished off the finds as spectacularly as he’d begun them four hours before. Throughout our time on the dumps he’d been searching for an elusive lace chape, an unbelievably tiny bit of metal that would have hung from the tips of Tudor pockets and fringes — sometimes dozens together — to keep laces and ties from fraying. But finding a chape among all the pins was like finding a piece of hay in a needlestack.
Tudor lace tag or chape, worn decoratively and to keep laces from fraying (found by Mud God beneath Greenwich)
The chape would have originally been worn a bit like this:
The tide came in. Back up the stairs to Greenwich, kneepads off, trowels handed over to land with a thump in the bucket Steve carried. We poured our finds into a plastic carrier bag, thanked Steve for the revelatory day, and said our goodbyes. He wandered into the late afternoon Greenwich crowd until even his unmissable frame vanished. It felt sudden somehow. Val and I walked slowly back to the railing overlooking the river. Behind us, the white neoclassical regularity of the Old Royal Naval College stood guard over bits of rectangular Lincoln-green lawn. Ahead, the clipper-roiled water of the Thames slithered muddily from wall to wall, like the corniced belly of a sand serpent, completely obscuring the fields we’d searched only an hour before.
I turned to Val and smiled, looked down at the Tesco’s bag that held our finds. ‘I can’t wait to do this again’, I said.
Postscript: Steve says it can take anywhere from three months to three years of mudlarking to get your eye in; without his teaching and training it might have taken me three decades! Perhaps the best review I can give of Mud God’s mudlarking sessions is that they do what it says on the tin: you will learn how to read the foreshore; how, where, and why to search; and best of all, you will develop a sound foundation on which to build. I am just beginning, obviously, but following our trip I feel like I could go down the foreshore on my own and find things, and — along with the fresh air, expansive views, and (usual) solitude in the midst of a teeming city — that sense of discovery is what it’s all about. To set up a trip with Mud God or learn more about mudlarking, contact him at stevebrooker62@.
To see more of Will's fascinating blog have a look here