Letter of Recommendation: Mudlarking

The New York Times Magazine

Illustration by David Jien

I was a magpie as a child; I am a magpie now. My interest is piqued by shiny objects: In my pockets are brass buttons, pressed coins, old brooches. I am fascinated by the things people hold onto, the stuff that rattles talismanic in their bedside tables. A coin, or battered key, a ring from the five-and-dime — ancient codes to crack when someone dies, if no one’s kept their history. I hold dear a pin bearing Patti Smith, and a little jade elephant that lives in the pocket of my handbag. I have a mourning ring that my grandmother left me, of jet and pearl, but whom it mourns I do not know.

And because I love small, ancient things and painting a narrative onto them, I recently found myself crouched beside the River Thames, searching through the mud, a tiny speck beneath a great gray blanket of British sky. I did this last as a child, by Battersea Bridge, and have thought about it ever since, not knowing that what I did then had a name: mudlarking. In Industrial-Age London, mudlarking was an unseemly occupation, the province of urchins and rudderless women, who picked the carcass of the Thames foreshore for coal, rope, nails and bones to sell for a few pennies. It was a dangerous, pungent way to make a pittance, and I wonder what my Victorian sisters would think of grubbing around in the mud for the sheer joy of it. Today’s mudlarkers are for the most part history geeks, folks who embrace the solitude wrought by spending a few hours searching through antiquated, domestic minutiae in the rain.

The river is an erratic mistress. She might deliver a garnet, a sheep’s thighbone, Tudor gold or a hypodermic needle. Who knows?

On that gray morning, I sifted through the mud with the author Lara Maiklem, longtime enthusiast to my novice. In her captivating book “Mudlarking,” Maiklem writes that it is “often the tiniest of objects that tell the greatest stories.” She’s been coaxing stories out of the mud for over 15 years; the river is her intimate. We were the lone people on the misty foreshore for an hour or so, the Thames running alongside us, a thick, gossipy, Eeyore of a friend. The metal boughs of Southwark Bridge echoed with the rumble of trains underground. The rain drove down, unforgiving. Because a large portion of the Thames is tidal, the foreshore is only accessible twice a day. Tidal charts are imperative — the river is fast and deep — as is a permit to mudlark, authorized by the Port of London Authority. If you’re mudlarking in the winter, you’ll need gloves (a warm pair, and a latex pair on top of them), thermals, waterproof clothes, rubber boots and a find bag. A hip flask and hand warmers might not be a bad idea. And you’ll need patience. The river is an erratic mistress. She might deliver a garnet, a sheep’s thighbone, Tudor gold or a hypodermic needle. Who knows?

We stood on a landscape of rubble, oyster shells, ancient animal bones and a crazy jigsaw of tile, the detritus of what London ate and built for thousands of years. Roman roof tiles, charred tiles that withstood the Great Fire of London, tiles unmoored by the Blitz — it was all there. Walking nearer to the water, there were hundreds of pins, bobbing in the murk — pins that had swaddled 16th-century babies, pins a Victorian dressmaker would have used, pins that held a funeral shroud. Near the pins, there was a miniature dull sliver of gun gray, almost invisible to the naked eye. Lara spied it first, generously pointing me in its direction. It was a rose farthing from the time of Charles I, used to pay a wherryman, then dropped by drunken fingers. This was the story I told myself about it. Was its owner bound for a brothel, a playhouse, a bear fight? I clutched it tightly and said hello to the ghost of the person whose palm it rested in, hundreds of years before mine. The river had held it until now, a muddy guardian.

There were pipe bowls and stems in their shards. Shoe soles tripped out of the mud, impossibly narrow and perfectly preserved. I wondered about their owners: one who may have stood in the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe; one a few hundred years later, who knew the horror of the workhouse. So often we rose-tint the past, but mudlarking throws that nostalgia on its head. The river spits history at us, forcing us to engage. It holds the bones of convicts, who were crammed inhumanely on prison barges for crimes as petty as stealing bread. The mud bears witness to the inherent injustice in being born a human. Horror and war have always existed. Plagues, pandemics, fires and persecutions abound. Tyrants reigned and murdered their wives by churchly decree. Humans are nothing if not consistent.

But for thousands of years, people have also sought out the sun, sat by the side of the bridge and had a beer. They made their family dinners, and I carry the scraps of their plates home, to show mine. They celebrated engagements, marriages, births; they prayed to myriad gods and longed for an answer. Lovers engraved their names on tokens, the tide carried them away; children tried to catch wriggling elvers, dropping a ha’penny as they slipped free. People sang their songs, drank their tea, paid to cross, whistled their tunes and wore their Sunday best. They held secrets in their hearts and sometimes threw them into the river, lost in the peaty water, until now. The great world continues to spin, the river ebbs and flows. I am one of many millions who has been here before. And this, this simple truth, reassures me.