Advice for anyone interested in beachcombing or mudlarking the Thames Foreshore

I’m working through my obsession partly by writing about it .. and probably making it far, far worse! But at least I’ve completed this very practical guide and deposited it as the first entry in a new folder Thames Foreshore in the main menu strip. The guide even includes an illustrated list of the different kinds of mud, which in its seriousness may be amusing to some! But I’ve chosen not to preview that particular part as an excerpt here, rather this other part.

What might you find?

As I said, different spots may offer up more than others if you’re just looking for historical human artefacts but if, like me, you’re just as keen to see interestingly shaped stones, driftwood or unexpected flotsam .. just about any point on the Thames Foreshore will do! Most locations have either patches or whole banks of shingle, some interspersed with areas of sand, others with areas of mud. Regarding those ‘stones’, I had, as it were, questioned their authenticity earlier. What I meant was that much of what first appear as nicely weathered, rounded pebbles are fragments of brick or roof tile, or natural chalk which was ‘shipped in’ and laid down as more comfortable beds for the barges. There are pebbles, mainly flint, which were naturally deposited by successive glacial actions up to the last Ice Age around 21,000 years ago .. but many of those, especially the larger and more weirdly shaped nodules, could have just as likely been shipped in along with the chalk.

Pipe bowls, Thames Foreshore, Wapping

For most visitors the fragments of clay tobacco pipe are the most memorable novelties, and a trademark of the Thames foreshore. Pieces of pipe-stem are easy to pick up in certain areas, complete bowls less so .. but spend enough time on the first type of mud featured earlier and you may even extract a perfectly preserved bowl with a few inches of stem! There are so many fragments, not just because for more than 300 years they were sold filled and routinely chucked when smoked, but also because the hundreds of pipe-makers working along the foreshore would likely ditch their kiln leftovers or rejects into the Thames. Even today most will be found close to where the numerous ferries used to transport workers either across or along the Thames, because although the Thames currents will move many things around over the course of time the mud will also tend to accept, envelope and preserve many things where they fell. Because of that it’s not unheard of to find complete ones, which could sometimes be more than a forearm in length!

Clay pipe bowls can be dated with some certainty according to their shape, size and decoration, and with even more accuracy if they feature a maker’s-mark on the ‘heel’, the protrusion under the bowl. The top pipe bowl above dates from 1640-60 while the one below is a fairly typical decorated one from 1780-1820.

Pieter Claesz 'Clay Pipes and a Brazier' 1636

Tobacco Pipes and a Brazier 1636  (Hermitage) by the Dutch still-life painter Pieter Claesz showing a very similar form to the older pipe bowl above.

Two other common items that can do with a little background are the oyster shells and the animal bones. Oysters have been native to the Thames Estuary since the beginnings of time apparently, and it was only relatively recently that they ceased to be a major food source especially for the poor. So the abundance of their discarded shells along the London Thames is more than accounted for by that fact, whether or not the river itself supports them or how much they’ve been specially farmed here in the past. The same applies to the animal bones .. the city’s unusable leftovers tipped into the Thames for hundreds of years. As far as I know the common ingredients are sheep, cow, goat, pig and poultry, perhaps with a portion of horse and even a smattering of boar, especially in the Greenwich area where the Tudor royal palace used to be.

Animal bones against the river wall, Thames Foreshore, Wapping

It’s tempting to think this .. that the concentration of bones in the Greenwich area relates either to 200 years of Tudor/Stuart feasting or to the 19th century Foreign Cattle Market at neighbouring Deptford .. but I’m not so sure. I suspect it has more to do with the river bends and the way these influence where the tidal currents deposit different things. Greenwich has a high concentration because it’s at the centre of a ‘concave’ and the same applies to Wapping where the above photo was taken. On a recent visit to part of Rotherhithe on the opposite side, i.e. on the ‘convex’, I noticed there were surprisingly few.

After the stones, the bones and the oyster shells, the next most noticeable without really trying are the fragments of pottery .. or ‘potsherds’ as they’re often referred to, mainly because it’s the kosher archaeological term. One doesn’t go down to the Thames foreshore seeking a complete pot .. you’ll have to go to either a museum or an antiquities dealer for those .. although apparently there have been rare occasions! But I don’t think it’s widely known how significantly old these fragments can be .. surprisingly many can date back to the Roman occupation or even earlier! The problem with most of them especially if water-worn .. is proving that .. if only to oneself. So it’s always more satisfying to find a fragment which has an unmistakable shape, a definitive pattern, an identifiable colour or glaze. There are a surprising number of 17th-18th century fragments, most commonly cream-coloured slipware or white/blue Delftware which are easily recognisable after one’s seen the first .. even more so the pieces of 16th-17th century Bartmann or ‘Bellarmine’ bottle/jugs.

Fragment of 'Bellarmine', Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

Above is part of the trademark bearded face from an 18th century German Bartmann jug and below a small piece of 18th century English slipware.

Small piece of 18thC English slipware, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich Peninsula

Then there is the limitless count of things which, on the one hand, anyone can come across by incredible chance or ‘fate’ at any time and in any place without trying, but which on the other hand one’s much more likely to come across by putting in some time and effort. I mean the coins dropped throughout the millennia back to even before there were pockets; the tokens, some just as old, which were used in place of money; the religious badges or emblems which pilgrims could buy; the many and various tools, including weapons, used on or around the Thames foreshore .. the list is, as I say, unlimited. Except perhaps in one respect .. purposefully buried treasure! .. because who in their right mind would choose to do so in a place where they could be so easily seen doing it and who, with any knowledge of the Thames, would choose such a fluid and changeable location?

How can you improve your chances?

As I’ve suggested, if you’re happy to remain fairly casual about whether you find anything or not then all you need to do is look downwards and let fate decide the rest. If you’re more ‘engaged’, to the point of feeling that you really ‘deserve’ to find something .. that state of mind will certainly help! But added to that, a little preparatory knowledge is bound to help even more.

In the first place you should go a little before low tide, to experience the location at its fullest. Most are varied beaches, as I’ve said, likely to include areas of dry shingle higher up; mixture patches of stones/sand/mud lower down; and lastly wetter, usually older mud nearest the waterline .. you should check out all of them! You may observe while doing so that certain materials or fragments have tended to rest together along the same ‘tide-mark’. Often, though not always, if you find interesting things along one of these, following the same level along the beach or the ‘mark’ if it’s visible will reveal more. Mudlarkers refer to these as find lines but they might be looking for different ones because they’ve learnt the value of scraping under the surface. Often a darker tone of debris, perhaps even including darker sand or silt, may indicate an earlier ‘historical’ seam. But don’t take the word ‘seam’ too literally because these aren’t arranged as clearly and logically as strata in a cliff face.

Another one of the mudlarkers’ favourite phrases is getting your eye in’ or as I think of it, being tuned to the tell-tale signs of ‘otherness’. Much simplified, if you’re after the usual things I’d recommend you tune your eye to pick up circles and parallel lines for a start. Proper circles, or parts of them and especially ‘rings’, are not native to this environment so they can denote pipe-bowls facing upwards, ends of bottles, bases or rims of pots .. and coins! Neither are regular parallel lines ‘natural’ here .. they’re one of the chief indications of the man-made .. and here they may denote most forms of decoration or simply ‘something straight’.

Of course, colour difference can often be the strongest indication generally and it’s a happy coincidence that the raw umber colour of Thames mud is perfectly balanced to contrast equally with pale pipe-clay and warm terracotta. But up against the shingle the competition of colours is fiercer so here especially one is much more dependant on form.

Scanning for 'circles', Thames Foreshore Deptford

As an illustration of this, the photo above is what I was lucky enough to notice on a recent visit to my local stretch of Deptford foreshore, and below is what it turned out to be. This was a popular form of pipe for a while in the mid 19th century but they’re not a common Thames find and they weren’t a great deal longer than what’s been left here. These male heads were often of dragoons or Turks, presumably because of the convenient headgear shapes.

Mid 19th Century male head pipe, Thames Foreshore Deptford

For me it always ‘marks the day’ when I find a particular type of item I haven’t found before, like when I found my first ‘wig curler’ which was only the smallest of fragments rather than a complete one, but that hardly mattered.

I’d estimate that even when one knows the beach and its ‘hot spots’; however experienced one might be at searching and however well-tuned the eye happens to be that day .. the chances of seeing even what’s lying in one’s path can’t be more than 50%. This is because unless you’re standing still you have to swing your gaze to-and-fro while moving, so there’s always an equal chance that something is on the ‘fro’ while you’re on the ‘to’! But I really think that’s as it should be .. it means that other people get a ‘look in’ after you, including yourself at another time.

The next illustrates the importance of having an eye for parallel lines, for which I’m using photos courtesy of Lara Maiklem (@london.mudlark). What she first spotted was this .. the hint of a stoneware colour, but otherwise the only marks distinguishing it from its surroundings were a few incised lines.

14th century Dutch toy whistle, Thames Foreshore, @london.mudlark

Only a small part of it was visible and it turned out to be part of a 14th century toy whistle from the Netherlands. She was able to identify it so precisely after posting it on her Facebook site because it received a response from someone who had seen a near- identical one in a Dutch collection, shown in the b/w photo.

lon-mudlark_whistle

Lastly, if you’re looking for success .. you just have to put the time in! Often, after checking first when at least some of the beach is even accessible, I’ll be down there 2 hours before low tide and stay around until 2 hours after. It may be annoying at times but I’m thankful for the limit the tide imposes .. otherwise I’d be spending far too much time down there for my own good!

Advertisements

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 marleypeifer.com

Above courtesy of marleypiefer.com

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.