Advice for anyone interested in beachcombing or mudlarking the Thames Foreshore

As a whole the Thames Foreshore can vary considerably in terms of accessibility, safety, interest or ‘fruitfulness’ and even within one very small section of it there are potentially ‘hot’, or ‘cold’, or just simply unpredictable areas. Quite apart from what’s often stated .. that the foreshore constitutes perhaps the largest and richest open archaeological site in Britain .. it can be the place for a quiet or meditative stroll, quite distinct from the bustle of the metropolis even in the parts of the river which run through the centre of it! It can be the place if you just want to view London from a different angle, or to literally get ‘in touch’ with London’s ancient foundations. It can even be the place if you just want to re-connect with Nature, because in spite of the fact that much of what you see .. including the pebbles and sand under your feet .. may not be wholly ‘natural’, there is a strong sense that Nature rules here, that it and the many other creatures it harbours are in the process of slowly getting their way, and taking it back!

Near Johnson's Draw Dock, Thames Foreshore, Isle of Dogs

The above was taken near Johnson’s Draw Dock, Isle of Dogs and below the greened remains of a ‘dolphin’ for mooring boats near Enderby’s Wharf, a little downstream on the other side.

Old 'dolphin' near Enderby's Wharf, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich Peninsula

The difference between ‘beachcombing’ and ‘mudlarking’

Most people who visit the Thames foreshore do so fairly casually, not with premeditated intent or preparation .. and that makes a crucial difference in terms of footwear! One could say that the simplest definition is that mudlarks are the ones wearing Wellingtons. Staying with simple .. beachcombers are content with the shingle, or anywhere the ground underneath is relatively solid and not wetter than a normal London pavement. Beachcombers can find just as much as mudlarks, but the finds will generally be different. For example the higher up ( nearer the wall) one looks the more ‘worn’ the stuff of the foreshore is .. the longer it’s been in the tumbler! Again, that’s a gross over-simplification because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about the Thames it’s how complicated its rules are and how it likes to play with them. What I mean is that one can beachcomb for pieces of clay tobacco pipe along any level of the beach but on the whole the higher up one looks the more broken and worn-down the pieces will be. It certainly doesn’t mean that the ‘special’ pipes will be preserved in the mud while the plain and ordinary ones end up in the shingle .. or that a perfectly preserved object won’t be miraculously delivered there!

With the stones themselves it can be different because as they get smaller they tend to move in the opposite direction, settling as bands of gravel usually at the middle levels. Beachcombers don’t have to bring tools with them .. they are most often ‘eyes only’, and the things they find will be relatively clean!

Decorated pipe stem, Thames Foreshore, Tower of London, TDP

The above photo is courtesy of the Thames Discovery Programme which is one amongst many useful sources of information on searching and recording the Thames Foreshore

Just as beachcombers are not usually equipped to mudlark .. I get the notion that mudlarks are not usually disposed to beachcomb .. having moved on! They’re not necessarily differentiated by ‘license’ anymore since now everybody needs one, though the ‘Grand Masters’ who’ve earned recognition by officially recording a significant number of museum-worthy finds are allowed to dig a couple of feet deeper than everybody else. Apart from the Wellingtons, the waterproof over-trousers and the general demeanour which says ‘MISSION’ .. the mudlarks ‘uniform’ is his (or sometimes her) bucket! Those buckets .. they look the business! I used to think it was just this, but actually they’re a pretty good idea. The chances are that finds will be more protected in a bucket than a swinging bag and if one wants to take advantage of the Thames water to clean them up before heading off home a bucket is the best thing you can have! I’ve learned a lot from the mudlarks I’ve met .. although they may be understandably reticent about exactly where to find the best things, many have been surprisingly open and forthcoming.

Old bucket, Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe

Above a ‘naturally occurring’ half-filled bucket on the beach at Rotherhithe

What should you know first and foremost?

If you go down with the intention of any form of searching you now need a permit! This is a recent change .. I don’t know when exactly, but I first heard about it recently in November 2016. Of course this doesn’t apply if you’re just going for a wander or to for a breath of aromatised air, but presumably if a Port of London Authority worker on patrol notices your gaze glued to the ground, perhaps pocketing the odd thing and especially if you’re holding some form of tool to rake with .. you’ll hardly have a case! Single day permits are expensive at £30 and difficult to plan for, whereas in comparison a three-year license for £75 is far less painful .. even quite ‘charitable’!

It gets more complicated, because although the holder of a so-called Standard permit (whether 1-day or 3-year) is generally allowed to ‘dig’ to a depth of three old-fashioned inches, there are a few foreshore locations where even this .. even setting foot on them in the first place .. is no longer permitted! So rather than reading all that here, you need to go here below instead to apply for a permit and for a current ‘heads up’ on what’s out-of-bounds

The same Port of London Authority (PLA) website also tells you when the low and high tides are predicted for each calendar day for set points along the Thames, which brings us to the second .. or perhaps this is the first .. most important thing you need to know. If you’re very new to London it may come as a surprise to know that the Thames is tidal like the sea, but then .. there are also a lot of Londoners who don’t even think of that either. At high tide there generally won’t be any foreshore to access, whereas many of the seasoned mudlarks’ favourite spots are only revealed at the lowest of low tides and then maybe for just an hour at the most. But most of us less fanatical can be more than satisfied with the longer ‘in between’. As a basic rule-of-thumb one can usually at least start beachcombing something around 2 hours before low tide and then one can count on having another 2 hours after low tide before the Thames reclaims it once more .. so 4 hours roughly. It’s never exact because the times posted on the PLA website are at best good predictions which can be affected by the unpredictable (such as actions taken at the Thames barrier) and also because one low tide won’t be as ‘low’ as another on another day .. they can vary by more than a metre!

Most often there’s just one low tide and one high tide within daylight hours (though not necessarily in that order of course) which means there’s usually just the one 4-hour window, whatever time of the day that falls. It’s much easier in the summer .. and sometimes one can even do it twice in the same day! On the other hand in the winter one can often be unlucky, on some days not getting a chance at all. For example, as I’m writing I can see that in a few days time on January 10th low tide where I am will be at 05:20 in the morning so by the time it’s light enough the foreshore will have gone, and the next low tide won’t be until 18:00 when it’s too dark again.

The third most important thing that you need to have an inkling about is mud. There’s a lot of it .. but that doesn’t mean it’s always there! What I mean is, it moves around according to a number of different influences and it can mean the difference between a genteel stroll and an assault course for hippos! Even if it’s not deep, the same beach can be sparkling with beachcomber clarity one day while the next it’s nothing but indecipherable mudness .. an opaque coating on everything! It doesn’t happen by chance .. there are reasons why there’s more ‘tidal mud’, as I call it, on one day compared to another, and it can be in part predicted. I haven’t been looking out for these things very long so I don’t know for sure, but I’ve noticed that the mud tends to stay on the beaches if there’s little or no wind to churn up the water as the tide is going out. Often if it’s foggy .. it’s going to be muddy. Similarly when the Thames clippers and other large river transports are operating fully they make serious waves every ten or so minutes which, I’ve now been told, prevents the mud from settling. Previously I was curious why there seemed to be more mud on Sundays.

Fog and mud, Thames Foreshore, Deptford

Above a foggy Sunday morning at the top of the access stairs in Deptford. There’s usually clear shingle here, instead the mud at the bottom was a good foot deep!

I should explain at this point that this short-lived ‘tidal mud’ is most definitely not the mud the hardcore mudlarkers enthuse about! Theirs is a wholly different kind of mud .. and by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could list twenty different types. Theirs is what I call ‘historical mud’ .. it’s generally much firmer, ranging in consistency from an extremely soft, fresh clay to something approaching rock, but there are also looser ‘sandy’ types; it’s often a bit darker than the temporary mud and usually pitch black slightly underneath the exposed surface where the air isn’t getting to it; it often, though not always, has lots of obvious bits in it. It may not be the mud itself that brings anything interesting to view but often at the fringes of it are collections of things which the mud has released .. mainly pebbles, but sometimes something more.

Here is my attempt to illustrate at least three distinct types which are good to spot because they’re often promising. The first below is perhaps the best because it has remained relatively soft and workable, but dense enough to protect the things within it for a considerable time.

'Historical mud' type 1, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich

You can tell that it’s dense because the water will continue to remain in small pools long after low tide. With this type you’re more likely to see that rich black just underneath the surface. There are almost always ‘collectives’ of harder debris or objects which the washing of the water has eroded out over time. Although sometimes those things will be just sitting .. as if cleaned .. on the surface, most often you will have to ‘spot the clue’ for something just emerging. All I originally saw of the large (20cm) piece of pot lying there was a few centimetres of thin terracotta edge and I had to excavate it out.

The ‘mud’ below is much harder, more compacted and often more ‘gravelly’, sometimes seeming like a dark concrete mix that hasn’t fully set. Whether this type is more advanced in age than the previous I really don’t know but if, like here, the edges are exposed one can often make out strata with different colourations. As before, the ‘finds’ are more likely to be deposited at the fringes or poking through the edges than up top but one can never rule any exceptions out!

'Historical mud' type 2, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich Peninsula

What makes this type difficult to read is that often it’s partly artificial .. that is, from the Tudors onwards it was common to ‘landfill’ areas of the beaches to create a more stable fundament especially on busily working ones. Building debris, pottery waste and even domestic waste was used apparently .. though I’ve yet to find out anything about how this was collected and where from?

The last is an example of another rich type which is often referred to as ‘mud’ though it’s more like a dirt-filled sand, and which can be found at almost any level of the foreshore. At the water’s edge it can sometimes deceive .. alarmingly like quicksand! .. in spite of all the stones suggesting otherwise, though higher up on the beach it will have drained fairly quickly.

'Historical mud' type 3, Thames Foreshore, Surrey Docks

'Historical mud' type 3, Thames Foreshore, Greenwich

But that’s seriously more than enough about mud!

The last in this initial list of fundamentals is knowing where you can safely access the Thames foreshore. Although no part of the foreshore itself is privately owned .. it belongs either to the Crown or the Port of London Authority .. it is a different matter above it and there are many dozens of formerly public stairs or slipways buried underneath office blocks or swallowed by private residential estates. There’s only one comprehensive guide to the ones still viable and that’s a downloadable .pdf from Peter Finch on behalf of the River Thames Society which can be found here

In 2010 Peter Finch took the already diminished list of surviving access points the PLA had on record and checked them all. He found that many had disappeared or become unsafe, or others where the gates had been padlocked. As far as I understand it the entry gates fall within the responsibility of local boroughs and normally the borough councils understand that these gates should remain operable for safety reasons unless the steps themselves are unsafe. The padlocks are often put there by private individuals who, for whatever reason, object to the foreshore being accessed.

The 2010 survey was an admirable job done and a true public service, but it’s now in need of an overhaul. This is partly because another six years of riverside gentrification and continuing commercial development have taken their toll. It’s part of the natural history of the Thames waterfront to continually change but now it’s happening at the rate of a speeded-up film. Many of the old-established stair names Peter Finch preserved from PLA records are unknown to the likes of Google, or too much detail for Geographers’ (who make the standard A-Z), and are rarely referenced even locally! The very small and simplified ‘maps’ reproduced in the .pdf are great for showing very roughly where to search .. on a better map .. which can be entertaining if one enjoys piecing clues together. Moreover the .pdf is just a list of the ones still functional at the time, not a taster of what one might find there or how this might be linked to the history of the location.

Are the ‘beaches’ safe?

We shouldn’t assume just because steps are there, gates are unlocked and access seems ‘public’ that these areas have been made ‘safe’ .. it is at our own risk, this is very important to understand! All that safeguards us is our own carefulness and common sense! You need to consult and remember the safety guidelines from the Port of London Authority which can be found via the same link

Importantly, you don’t want to find yourself in more than 25cm of incoming water, not because you’re in mortal danger from getting wet, but because before it happens nobody can imagine how easily the force of even this amount of water can knock you off your feet and sweep you away! Another aspect easily forgotten is that the Thames, especially around the docklands, was targeted during WW11 and falling in the Thames mud is a perfect excuse for a bomb or grenade not to go off! The cases are rare, but for example this one turned up recently on the foreshore at Bankside.

Unexploded grenade, Thames Foreshore, Bankside

Obviously if you see something suspicious you should not touch it and you have to inform the police immediately! (Photo courtesy of TDP)

But what else 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.


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!

Reporting what you find

Whereas in the past this may have been a polite appeal to your social/cultural conscience it is now officially written as a must! .. but only if you think that what you’ve found could be more than 300 years old. Of course you may not know that for sure .. but then there’s more incentive because reporting it means that it can be identified by experts, and then you will know .. and you may even find out that what you’ve found is more significant than you ever imagined! Details of how to do this can be found on the same PLA page as the permit application i.e. the first link listed here. You won’t forfeit or be asked to pay for what you’ve found .. in exceptional cases a museum may ask if you’re willing to donate it or they may even offer to buy it from you!