Thames foreshore

I felt I needed to explain why I haven’t been posting for a while and to, hopefully, start recompensing. I’ve been unable to write partly because I’ve been trying to get to grips with a rather overwhelming obsession with the Thames foreshore. Before I moved to Deptford in 2008 and discovered that we were within a stone’s throw of the access stairs known as Upper Watergate I had always loved the Thames whenever I saw it .. as most Londoners do .. but had never considered getting that close to it. That started to change on realizing how very ‘interesting’ everything down there could be at low tide! We quickly became so accustomed to spending time there so when in 2009 the photographer Brittany App wanted to take some shots of us in our favourite environment there was little question about the choice.

David Neat and Astrid Baerndal photographed by Brittany App

St George's Stairs, Thames foreshore 2017

What made our local ‘beach’ so appealing was the wealth of options! We could go down there with a camera or a collector’s bag, most often both .. either way we knew we would almost always come back with something of value. We could go down there to think, mentholated by the unbelievable peacefulness of the place .. but equally we could benefit from the opposite when we didn’t want to think, when we needed to take our minds ‘off’. We could go to experience a semi-natural habitat shielded from the human bustle above, hearing only wind and water, sharing it for the moment with flocks of seagulls, families of swans, solitary herons, cormorants or the occasional fox .. or we could go for reminders of our own human past amongst the decaying jetties, fragmenting ironwork or even more ancient timbers. Often we would go there just to be amused .. it’s strange how regularly the foreshore offers up images or objects in seemingly deliberate opposition!

Heron at Deptford, Thames foreshore 2016

Plastic duck, Thames foreshore 2017

The foreshore collective constantly plays tricks! Objects often appear to be what they’re not .. little scraps of red-brown rubber will often sit amongst the pottery sherds; white cable stained with age will poke up amongst the pipe fragments; smoothly rounded ‘pebbles’ of brick most often outnumber the naturals they’re imitating. Even the knowledgeable can be fooled by the chalk i.e. knowing that this part of England lies on a massive chalk foundation .. but this chalk hasn’t risen from underneath the London Clay, it’s what remains of the chalk that was shipped in and laid down as more stable beds for the barges. The presence of most things to be found on the foreshore, and the reasons behind their abundance in certain places or their absence in others, can often be illuminated by a little historical detection. But there are unsolved mysteries too .. for example, why so many of the oyster shells have holes in their centres (apparently this is not jewellery) or where the strange green stones found around the Rotherhithe shoreline come from.

When I put it in these words .. no wonder I’ve become obsessed!

But this present obsession is much stronger than before because for the last few weeks I’ve started to think seriously about how I can use it, or in better words .. what I can make out of it! So I started by interrogating what the attraction was down there, what thoughts it was generating .. what was the sculptor in me thinking rather than purely the person? I wasn’t just scanning for historical fragments but seeking out aesthetic ‘favourites’ from the multitude of shapes on offer, regardless of what material they were or their social significance.

Pipe bowl, Thames foreshore 2016

Whiting Stairs, Thames foreshore 2017

So I’ve thought a bit more about that act of searching .. of scanning. The brain conditions the eye to pick out the ‘otherwise’, that which doesn’t belong .. but only in terms of visual distinction, of colour and form. In other ways that whole idea of ‘belonging’ or not is debatable .. because for me as the finder all these things are ‘meant’ to be there and according to the intricate gameplay of the foreshore one thing can be as ‘natural’ there as another. It would be similar saying that the snake in the grass doesn’t ‘belong’ there

photo courtesy of

Above courtesy of

But certainly one’s looking for visual ‘otherness’ .. a contained colour or tone difference; a noticeable pause in the surrounding visual activity; anything to do with repetition especially if it’s regular i.e. evenly spaced parallel lines or divisions; smoother geometry i.e. better circles or squares than nature usually needs. Often one gets only the last-departing hints of these differences because the Thames has already had many years of ‘taking them back’. Whatever they looked like when they were newly artificial, the river invests them in camouflage, almost as if once accepting them into its folds it takes part in their concealment.

old padlock, Thames foreshore Greenwich 2017

In other places, especially higher up the beaches, there’s so much ‘otherness’ in the melee that significant others can often hide in plain sight. The fragment of pot which one can just about make out within the scrap metal frame turned out to be Tudor!

Deptford junk, Thames foreshore 2009

So I’m sure that searching the Thames foreshore has greatly enhanced my appreciation of the full formal spectrum as I like to call it ( though I have to find a better term). I mean the range of likely form types, including their usual colours and surface patterns, from mineral through organic animal/vegetable to artificial man-made. As a boy hunting for fossils I became familiar with part of it .. the lower and oldest part of the spectrum from mineral shapes and pattern coincidences to true signs of life. Physical forces may have shaped stones or given them surface patterns that look uncannily ‘designed’ but usually one gets to be able to distinguish these from the more conclusively deliberate and organised trace-forms left behind by living creatures. These have a different formal style .. almost always involving some form of equal repetition and very often showing some form of symmetry. If the fossil is more than an impression, rather a cast of the original lifeform transmuted in mineral, then there is also local colour to differentiate it from stone.

After that this formal spectrum would continue through lifeforms themselves .. especially in this context their surviving parts i.e. bones, horns, teeth, shells, driftwood, seed pods etc. Then it’s onto the artificial .. starting with stones which have been shaped as tools; including animal bones which have been modified or decorated; through to early pottery and metalwork .. and onwards! What would be at the end of this spectrum then? One might immediately think of the number of smartphones that end up on the foreshore .. but no, they’re just tools, they don’t deserve such a significant place, and in any case the spectrum is not strictly chronological. Here, and I’m just suggesting for the moment, one should place the symbolic .. forms which have no practical, everyday function other than to represent something greater! This final portion would embrace both ancient and modern .. fertility figures, talismans, religious symbols, offerings to the Thames ( of which there are many present day ones ) .. pieces of fine art, if any.

So far I’ve just been describing, and at the same time organizing, the basis inspiration for what I now want to create out of the experience so far. I have plans and I could say more, but I’d prefer to let this evolve more naturally, less deliberately. What I am compelling myself to do is to create a separate Thames foreshore section in the above main menu strip. To start it off I’m writing a more practical guide based on various places I’ve visited so far, for anyone interested in doing the same.


20 thoughts on “Thames foreshore

  1. If ever there was a perfect subject for a “Boyle Family land-cast” scuplture series, the Thames foreshore would be hard to beat.

    • I agree! Maybe the Boyle Family had wanted to do that, but they always maintained (I think) that they used chance to select their locations and maybe the pin never fell on the Thames!

    • It’s a move towards trying to preserve the foreshore .. though in ‘natural’ lore it’s meant to change! What I do agree with though is that people should submit ‘significant’ finds for recording .. so that everyone can benefit from at least photos and info .. rather than the Thames foreshore ending up buried away in millions of bedroom cupboards. You can still wander without a license as long as you don’t ‘search’. I know .. difficult!

  2. An excellent essay and I found the pictures very pleasing to look at. I think you get a feeling of what you describe through them with textures and colours being pleasing to the eye. This form of local archaeology is highly interesting and I look forward to the new category.

    On the last picture it looks almost if as there is a die amongst the objects. An illusion or a disposed gaming piece?

    • Thanks, I always work on the photos a little afterwards for just those reasons .. usually when I take them the diffused London light bleaches colours and shadows so I have to put them back. Re the last picture .. it’s interesting because I often think I can see things in the photos that I missed when I was there .. but in this case the photo may be a bit deceiving in terms of scale .. the ‘die’ is actually half a brick, a fairly modern one with a pattern of holes.

  3. The mystery of the round holes in oysters. It is not only man who finds them good eating.
    An oyster borer, or drill, is an aquatic snail that preys on oysters, especially thin-shelled young oysters. Using a band of scraping teeth (a radula) and a shell-dissolving secretion, the gastropod drills a hole in the oyster shell and eats the creature within.

    • That does sound like the best explanation and I think it’s one that’s been put forward. Even if it turns out to be right there’s still a little more mystery because apparently there have been a number found with square holes!

    • This is both fascinating and incredibly creepy at the same time! Thank you for this information I can now rest but probably never sleep again!

    • You mean .. healthy compared to rubbish tips? I’m not so sure! I’ve come across places which have smelt pretty ‘gaseous’ and I would have preferred to have known why! Didn’t stop me searching them though. Also there’s a risk of getting Weil’s disease (though eyes, nose or cuts etc.) if the water is contaminated by rats that have it. Nature .. bless it!

  4. Another fantastic post, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this…..what are the holes in the oyster shells? This is going to drive me nuts.

  5. David very nice photos. Only Mother Nature, the artist and the natural subject can capture images that others would not realize are beautiful in its simplicity.
    Thanks for sharing your photos, informations, and tutorials. Very useful in my nativity projects.

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