In the Footsteps of Mudlarks

mudlarking on the thames river

Simon Clarke is the director of the Thames Explorer Trust in London, England. The organization runs tours at several points on the Thames River, including Millennium Bridge, Rotherhithe, and Greenwich.

Thames Explorer Trust has been around for the last 31 years. Simon says that five years ago, the organization only ran half a dozen tours per year, but now, because of a surging interest in the river and its history, they do around 50 tours per year, and are looking to do even more in 2020.

beach glass found in london

Each guided foreshore exploration covers about 500 meters of foreshore, selected for a good concentration of artifacts in a small area. “The walk, though a bit slippery and rocky, isn’t particularly difficult,” Simon explains. “There are a few tricky access points—steep stairs with no handrails—but many people even in their 80s are able to manage it fairly well.” The tours take place every other Saturday and Sunday throughout the year, and last about two hours. Children should be accompanied by an adult on the tour.

 mudlarking tour on th thames

People from many different backgrounds come for the tour, though they usually have an interest in the history or archaeology of London. “There have been several famous people attending the walks, but I’m not really allowed to say who they were,” teases Simon. “I did have a famous politician once accompanied by several assistants and bodyguards!”

mudlarking tour of the thames river

There are many hazards in the foreshore of the Thames, including deep mud, quick tides, access issues, along with a slew of legal restrictions. “Preparations for the tour shouldn’t be too much trouble—as long as you show up in shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, you’re all set,” says Simon. He also recommends covering up any cuts or sores and bringing along hand sanitizer, and after the tour, to make sure you wash your hands. Don’t forget to bring a phone or camera to record any finds you might have, and something small like a coin to show the scale of your finds.

beachcombing on the river thames

All three of the tour sites have something unique to offer, but if forced to choose, Simon would select Millennium Bridge as his favorite location. There are plenty of other activities near each tour site, and Simon’s recommendations are as follows:

  • At Millennium Bridge: The Tate Modern art gallery, Shakespeare’s Globe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the superb Museum of London, which Simon strongly recommends.
  • At Greenwich Centre: The Greenwich Observatory, the Discover Greenwich Centre, and The Cutty Sark (the last of the Clipper ships).
  • At Rotherhithe: The port of the Mayflower (especially interesting to U.S. visitors), Tower Bridge, and an excellent pub called The Mayflower with a terrace that overlooks the Thames and, as Simon puts it, “some curious steps which lead underneath the building down onto the foreshore which resemble something from a Dickens novel.”

Though these are the first recommendations that come to mind, Simon says there are so many things in London that there isn’t enough space to do them all justice here.

clay pipe found in london england

When on a tour of the foreshore, you can expect to find some or all of the following: animal bones, clay pipe stems, nails and timbers from boats, oyster shells (from oysters eaten by the Romans, Tudors, and Victorians), and a wide variety of pottery from the industrial era to the late medieval era. The possibility of finding something extraordinary is always present when searching the foreshore.

“A few months ago, I was standing on one of the foreshores and noticed some sticks of wood coming out of the mud,” says Simon. He was busy talking to people and it took him several minutes to realize that the pieces of wood were all uniform size and had cross braces set at right angles. “Ninety-degree angles are a sure sign of human involvement. I realized I was standing by a 10th century fish trap, which had been buried in the mud for a millennium, and which would be destroyed within a few days of being uncovered.”

mudlark finds from london england river beachcombing

Simon recalls a time when he took a party of schoolchildren to the foreshore on Halloween and a child found a Victorian China doll’s head turned green from all the years in the mud. Spooky!

Many of the treasures found on the foreshore are too broken or too small to determine the origin. Simon has a carved bone which looks like a mix of a medieval ice skate and flute—even the Museum of London wasn’t able to identify it.

Though there are many treasures on the foreshore, Simon asks that guests of the tour take only photographs of their finds, as many of the limited items buried are precious artifacts that provide insight into London’s rich history. Any gold, silver, or things that look valuable or of a certain age should be reported.

“Recently a guest sent me a fragment of Victorian pottery, which she had put in her pocket by mistake after a visit. Despite knowing that it had no commercial value, she asked me on general principle to return it to the foreshore.”

The main purpose of the Thames Explorer Trust is purely education. “If you ask most people what they think of the River Thames, they usually say that it’s polluted. When you ask why, they say because it’s brown,” explains Simon. At times in history, the Thames was very badly polluted, but it is actually brown today, because it’s a mud-bed river. “Nowadays, it is pretty clean—especially when you consider the size of the city it runs through—and there are now around 125 species of fish that live in the Thames.”

The river has a wealth of history tied to it, and through the Thames Explorer Trust educational tours, Simon hopes to preserve its heritage and promote a healthier future for the wildlife.

Before Simon got involved with Thames Explorer, he was a teacher living on a Thames sailing barge. “I heard a bunch of children scrabbling around on the foreshore outside the port hole. It was a Thames Explorer group looking at the wildlife,” says Simon. “I was due to go back to school and start another term when it occurred to me how much fun it might be to be with a group of pupils in the mud instead of the classroom. The rest is history.”

Simon is a guitar fanatic and is currently trying to master jazz. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn and at 55 probably the most misguided,” he laughs.

Earlier in his life, Simon studied chemistry but quickly changed to studying art, which he did for five years. “I enjoyed my college years greatly, albeit with the typical struggles of a broke artist. And in George Orwell’s words ‘by strict economy managed to be always half starved and half drunk.’ But I loved every minute of being at art college and it was, in truth, the only time I ever really knew what I was doing,” adds Simon.

The freelance teachers working for the Thames Explorer Trust are experts on a wide range of subjects. The organization’s series of walks are called “In the Footsteps of Mudlarks” and are led by four of Simon’s colleagues. Simon adds that he is “a man behind the curtain,” and he is very grateful to his colleagues.

Visit thames-explorer.org.uk to book your walk in the footsteps of Thames mudlarks.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2020 issue.

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