London is such an exciting city to visit but there are so many places I ‘ought’ to go, exhibitions I ‘must’ see and things I ‘have’ to do that I can very quickly become overwhelmed. So when my friend Victoria suggested a walk on the beach and a spot of mudlarking early in the Summer I jumped at the chance!
I’ve spent many happy hours fossil hunting on the beaches of the West Country but Mudlarking on the Thames is a whole other kettle of fish 😉 The river has been such an important part of London for 2000 years so it is not surprising that so many things of interest turn up on its foreshore. MP John Burns (b1858, d1943) was an expert on the history of the city and poetically described the Thames as ‘liquid history’. With the river rising and falling as the tide dictates, twice a day every day by up to as much as 7 metres, there are always new discoveries to be made and the Museum of London contains a plethora of wonderful finds. Anyone can walk the foreshore on the south side and pick finds off the surface (no digging without a licence) but only licensed mudlarks can explore the north shore between Westminster and Wapping. This select group was the subject of Mud Men, a TV series on the History Channel presented by Johnny Vaughan and Mud God Steve Brooker, which explored some fantastic finds and the history behind them.
Victoria and I climbed down a ladder under the shadow of the OXO tower on the Southbank. It felt slightly naughty, as if it wasn’t allowed, but it is and Londoners have been doing it for hundreds of years.
Victoria is an excellent companion for any visit to London, she is very knowledgeable about her city and always has interesting tales to tell. As we walked along the beach towards the Blackfriars bridge, with St Paul’s gazing down at us, she began to weave a tale of life on the river over the centuries.
She picked up pieces of pot and told me all about their probable origins, we saw dozens of clay pipe stems and one or two bowls (which my children and I have been looking for in vain ever since we moved into our 1680 home 14 years ago; we have lots of stems but, as yet, no bowls!), we stepped over old chains, around what looked to be the remains of boats settled forever into the mud and we tried to identify things sticking up out of the beach.
Victoria was just showing me another piece of pot, possibly Roman, when I stooped to pick up something which looked familiar. In April most of the Thinly Spread family went to explore South West Wales with Visit Wales and had spent a happy morning running free on the beautiful Cefn Sidan beach when Bonus Boy made an exciting discovery…
He found the remains of a sea potato, a relative of the sea urchin, which are so delicate and light that they are rarely found whole due to being chucked about by the sea or trampled on the shore. I’d never seen one before and he was very pleased with himself!
Spin forward a few weeks and, there before me on the banks of the Thames, was another one! I couldn’t believe my eyes and I bent to pick it up. But this one wasn’t light or delicate, it was heavy like stone and I realised that I held in my hand a fossil of a creature very similar to BB’s sea potato but from millions of years ago, this one was an urchin, once upon a time!
Left to right: sea urchin shell, sea potato remains, urchin fossil
I think Victoria was a bit jealous of my find and I know her palaeontologist husband certainly was! She left the beach with a couple of blackened acorn cups well on their way to fossilisation and, being the very clever creative jeweller she is, she turned them into these.
You can see more of Victoria’s jewellery in her Etsy shop Eve and Ned
To read more about the dos and don’ts of mudlarking read this piece by Laura Porter.
Mudlarking and fossil hunting are great ways to introduce history and archaeology to children, have a wander on the beach or foreshore and see what you can find!