Just mud­lark­ing about

Comb­ing or ‘mud­lark­ing’ the banks of the Thames used to be a mis­er­able, sor­did oc­cu­pa­tion. Now, it thrillingly brings to life the city’s colour­ful past, re­ports Ted San­der­ling

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

In his di­ary of 1861, Arthur Joseph Munby de­scribed how a ‘young woman, with simious face and creel on back, stood by me as I looked over the rails down the White­fri­ars dock, con­sid­er­ing her chances of stray coal; then… she waded through mire and wa­ter, among dead cats and bro­ken crock­ery’.

The name mud­lark has since passed to those who search the fore­shore for plea­sure rather than sur­vival. Mud­lark­ing has be­come a way for the con­tem­po­rary Lon­doner to con­nect with the city’s past, to reach across the bound­aries of time and touch some­thing that has been un­touched for hun­dreds of years, shar­ing a sen­sa­tion across cen­turies. Which is where I come in. That poor young woman’s bro­ken crock­ery has trans­muted into my trea­sure.

Mud­lark­ing, for me, was a side ef­fect of my ex­plo­rations of Lon­don and yet, from it, I’ve had some of my most evoca­tive en­coun­ters with the city. I love to find frag­ments with just the small­est hints of writ­ing on them and trace them back to their ori­gins in a feast of de­tec­tive work. A shard of glass, say, with a just de­ci­pher­able ‘…nwar­ing/…eck­ham’ was trans­formed with de­li­cious re­search into a bot­tle of Royal Naval Pickle, made by Man­war­ing, Peck­ham, and dis­played in the 1911 Fes­ti­val of Em­pire. I’ve found a mys­te­ri­ous brass cap­sule con­tain­ing a tight scroll of cop­per with ar­cane mark­ings (it turned out to be a Cey­lonese suraya, a holy tal­is­man) and a Frozen Char­lotte doll (named after a tragic Amer­i­can folk song).

Meet­ing a smartly dressed man on Wap­ping beach, I dis­cov­ered the ad­dic­tive qual­ity of pick­ing Tu­dor pins from the sands. Each one a sharp shaft of brass wire, an­other length wrapped round the top for a head. And th­ese pro­cesses, pinched be­tween my fin­gers, brought the writ­ings of Adam Smith to life.

My com­pan­ion held up a £20 note and I read for the first time upon it ‘The divi­sion of labour in pin man­u­fac­tur­ing: (and the great in­crease in the quan­tity of work that re­sults)’. One man would make 20 pins a day; 10 men could make 50,000.

After ev­ery trip to the river, I know a lit­tle more than I did be­fore and I have touched history. All you need are wellies. Give it a try.

The River Thames throws up trea­sure and trin­kets with de­light­ful reg­u­lar­ity, each telling a lit­tle bit more about the history of Lon­don

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