UPPER WATERGATE STAIRS
These steps are in quite good condition (2017) though they can be very slippery as high tide covers them. As part of the new commercial development the approach ( an alley continuing from Watergate Street ) was gentrified and a safety rail installed on the steps.
However, none of this influences the will of the Thames and if the retreating tide leaves mud you can be sure that it will be thick and plentiful where the steps are .. especially at times when the ‘clipper wash’ isn’t helping to rinse the beach. The photo below was taken on a foggy Sunday morning. I’ve now become accustomed to planning visits to Upper Watergate for weekdays, after the clippers have started running.
This is the only entry/exit point for this stretch .. cut off by Deptford Creek downstream and (except at very low tide) at the protruding walls just this side of Deptford Strand upstream. The tide comes in very quickly and it happens to cut off the stairs location first .. so always make sure you’ve got your eye on it and allow enough time to get back to the stairs
Special warning July 2017 Upstream from the steps, one of the large metal walkways connecting the land above to the disused loading dock out in the water has recently collapsed. Although there is still enough headroom to walk underneath, technically this is unsafe .. it’s only a matter of time before it sinks more or breaks apart and you don’t want to be underneath it when it does! If you do want to continue underneath, you do so at your own risk .. but at least reduce the danger by walking close to the river wall.
The OS Map 1860s shows a surviving dockland featuring engineering works and foundries, but this was soon to change. The stairs are now squeezed between the new residential riverside downstream and a high wall which surrounds the former Master Shipwright’s house which was built in 1708. This whole area had been the centre of naval shipbuilding since the 15th century and under Henry VIII it became the foremost royal dockyard for the construction of warships. This changed gradually over the centuries as other dockland areas gained favour and after its official closure in 1868 the immediate area became a Foreign Cattle Market. Animals had to be slaughtered on-site before they were moved on so this may account in part for the number of animal bones that litter the whole stretch.
There was a ferry service indicated by the straight line connecting Deptford with Millwall opposite. This couldn’t have been operating long before the mid 19th century because until then there wouldn’t have been much call to travel to the Isle of Dogs unless ‘en route’ to somewhere North.
One can see it at many other locations but there’s a particular concentration of chalk along this Deptford stretch. The chalk is not naturally occurring but was laid down mainly as a secure and less abrasive bed for barges to rest on. Along with the chalk came the flints, including fossils such as corals and sea urchins.
When we moved to Deptford in 2008 I assumed we hardly ever saw anyone else down on the beach because nobody knew about it. At the time the approach was white-boarded and looked like the entrance to a building site .. a little later the whole of the downstream stretch became one. I’ve since learnt that the seasoned ‘mudlarks’ don’t rate the location as very fruitful, but unless you’re looking for the best or most preserved examples of specific things, there’s enough here to satisfy.
Upper Watergate Stairs are cut off fairly early on by the rising tide so the window here is no more than the average recommended ‘two hours before low tide to two hours after’. If you happen to go two hours before there’s plenty of interesting shingle but the few outcrops of ‘historical mud’ are very low on the beach i.e. only accessible around the point of low tide. The stretch to the right, downstream going towards the Deptford Creek inlet, is pretty barren .. it’s far better to wander in the other direction.
In my ‘advice’ article I referred to the value of checking the exposed edges of built-up mud and here above is an illustration. I have found a number of clay pipe fragments or longer examples from all periods in Deptford, but the majority have come from the later 18th century, as is this one. It’s often really surprising how clean looking the pipes become when they are on their way out of the mud. Those that have to be excavated wholly from the mud are sometimes completely black, but this colouration fades almost completely within a few days of contact with the air.
I had assumed that these irregular balls of fired clay .. which I’ve picked up over the years and only in Deptford .. had something to do with the pipe making because they look like they’re of the same clay, but I’ve found no information so far which supports that. They’re certainly too uneven to be marbles. A fellow collector was fairly confident that they’re the ‘rattlers’ which were included when paint was supplied in large ceramic bottles, but I can’t find any confirmation of that either!
The little clay object below was being rinsed back and forth at the water’s edge. My first thought was that it could be either part of an oil lamp, or an oil dispenser because of the small spout, or possibly a holder for small ceremonial candles .. but no.
It’s actually part of an Ottoman chibouk, a smoking pipe, and I have an almost complete match with one for sale on the online antiquities auction site bitsofhistory.com where it’s dated 18th century.
There’s a specific spot on this Deptford stretch which brings up a lot from the late 19th century, most in reasonably good condition. I’ve found a complete medicine bottle (with fluid ounce markings) there before and recently, in July 2017, I found another. The smallest corner was gleaming through the dark mud and when I rinsed this away it was clear there wasn’t the slightest scratch on it. Apart from this it seemed unremarkable until I turned it over.
There’s always a moment of excitement when an object ‘speaks’ in words. It’s the start of a proper conversation, which will continue because it’s fairly certain that the Internet will have something to say about it. ‘Lamplough’s Effervescing Pyretic Saline’ was a late Victorian antacid, a relief for indigestion.
Here is a newspaper advertisement for it, dated 1895. H. Lamplough Ltd had a few shops in Holborn and the City area. The smallest bottle, this one perhaps which measures 15cm, cost 2s 6d (two shillings and sixpence). I think that was a lot of money at the time for fizzy water!
At first I assumed the above was a chimney pot but it’s probably too small and it would be blackened inside so it’s more likely something to do with drainage, and not very old. There are a great deal of thick ceramic fragments on the foreshore and one can be forgiven for thinking that they are ancient pottery .. but they’re more likely smaller pieces of something like this!
23/08/2017 When I went down for a brief visit today it was at once obvious that large parts of the stretch had been plundered on a Viking scale. Whole outcrops of the ‘historical’ mud I was so familiar with had been trowelled away to the ‘bedrock’ .. a real shame about that! The place will recover, re-invent itself and start offering more .. but I think it will take some time.
Needless to say, there was very little to be seen .. but I did find my so far most convincing ‘bunghole’. I mean convincingly ‘medieval’ in age .. the surface nicely uneven; the clay itself a bit gritty; the glaze patchy and with an olive tinge.
Also today’s ‘special’ on the menu seemed to be Tastefully Weathered Sherd ..
The piece below looks out of focus but it’s not. It’s an example of spongeware which was developed at the Staffordshire potteries in the 1750s and continued to be popular for basic domestic ware into the 19th century. The patterns were applied by hand using specially cut sponges .. very similar to ‘potato printing’ .. making each piece in a sense unique.
18/08/2017 At first glance I thought I was looking at what remained of a circle of words, a maker’s stamp on a piece of stoneware, but then I realised it was on a flint! An impression made by coral, or by a sea creature of some kind .. too organised to be purely geological.
This is similarly vague but, although worn, unmistakably what’s left of a sea urchin fossil.
And lastly, as a change of scene .. a fragment of clay pipe eroding out of the brick it was a long time ago baked into. I’ve seen these before .. but whether brick-makers took their sand from the Thames or whether their own pipes ended up in the mix .. I don’t know.
20/07/2017 Some very satisfying markings on weathering timbers
A skeletal hand reaching out from the water ..
I’ve learnt a lot since about the irisation of glass .. at least, more than I knew when I thought this might be a precious mineral! It’s a natural result of weathering during which the glass gets a thin chemical coating which happens to split light in a similar way to a rainbow.
It doesn’t take hundreds of years. Although I’m guessing that this bottle fragment is most likely mid-19th century judging by the thickness and the shape of the collar ..
.. this piece on the other hand is relatively young!
ST GEORGE’S STAIRS
At the top is a metal latch-gate onto the steps. These are stone, reasonably broad and in good condition though, as with all, they are slippery when wet or muddied. This is the only entry/exit point for this part of the Deptford stretch, interrupted by the inlet to South Dock just a short distance upstream while downstream the gate for the other set of stone steps (known as Queen’s Stairs or Drake’s Steps) is permanently locked .. the steps themselves are becoming increasingly unsafe!
At low tide it’s possible to walk all the way to Deptford Creek though the foreshore becomes very narrow after Queen’s Stairs. On my last visit I had to wait until at least 1hour before low tide for it to be just about passable wearing Wellingtons, but I think this was a relatively high ‘1.2m’ low tide.
One can’t go far to the left but the mud which collects in the area approaching the South Dock inlet can be very soft and deep in places and these patches can be very difficult to judge from their appearance i.e. some look sandy or gravelled on the surface but are just as quicksand-like. You’re unlikely to be swallowed completely but you could easily lose a boot! In the other direction, as mentioned, you have to watch as it approaches 1hour after low tide ..in other words, tide coming in. Make sure that you’ve still got enough beach to return on.
Part of the Royal dockyard upstream from Deptford Strand was used for victualling (stocking with provisions) the navy’s warships from the 17th century onwards and in 1858 this was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard. When the rest of the dockyard closed in 1869 the victualling yard remained in navy ownership. A few of the 18th century buildings remain, some converted into modern flats. The yard finally closed in the 1960s and it was quickly utilized as a new housing estate .. the Pepys Estate.
At about 1.5hours before low tide there’s enough beach in the vicinity of St George’s Stairs to do some beachcombing. This isn’t a richly yielding stretch but it’s not boring! There isn’t quite the variety or number of antique potsherds one sees at Greenwich and there are fewer pipe fragments.
Present day offerings to the river, usually in the form of figures or vessels, are a common find throughout the Thames Foreshore. I don’t agree with pocketing them myself .. even fragments .. though I have been told by a very experienced mudlark that it’s not an issue if the water has already received them. For me the photos are enough though.
The Deptford stretch is a good place for unusual or ‘aesthetically’ shaped flints! The distinctive ‘craquelure’ on this one above is apparently because at some time the flint has been heated. In Neolithic times this was done to use the stones as so-called ‘pot boilers’ i.e. to heat water up at a time before there was the means to put a vessel on the fire. There are a lot like this in Deptford and Greenwich but whether that makes them Neolithic tools or not I’m not sure. I noticed a number of ‘Flint kilns’ labelled on the 1860s OS map of the Isle of Dogs opposite, so they could also have come from there.
I’ve noticed at least two of these flat, round stones .. around 30cm across and each with a hole in the middle. One guess is that they may have something to do with milling, since directly above was the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard (see the last map section above).
A curious thing about part of this stretch, roughly in the area of Queen’s Stairs, is that I’m always finding knife handles. What is even more curious is that they span the ages right up to the present! Considering that the victualling yard was directly above it may not be a surprise to find the remains of knives from up to the early 20th century perhaps. But it doesn’t explain the Stanley knives or the plastic-handle kitchen knives that are amongst them! I’m very unsure about the dates of the older looking ones anyway.
For example, the one above has the remains of wooden halves either side of the ‘tang’ as it’s called (the continuation of the blade as part of the handle), with large rivets of a copper alloy binding the parts together. This has some resemblance to an example recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and identified as 14th-15th century .. pure wishful thinking on my part!
But I’m more excited, and for many reasons more certain, about this one below. My previous training and experience as a theatre designer has given me a fairly sound sense of what’s appropriate to period. When I found this bone handle half, I felt sure that it could be Tudor or at the latest 17th century.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme website https://finds.org.uk/ is the most reliable place to find confirmation if anything similar has been recorded. I found this bone knife handle dated ‘Post Medieval’ 1500-1700 which is very similar though not in as good condition.
A little later I came across an even more similar knife handle found during a Thames Discovery Programme event on the Tower of London foreshore
On another occasion and coincidentally very close to where I’d found the knife handle I was lucky to spot this very small (5cm) form in ivory. I’ve no reason to suppose that the two are related but I have a similar feeling that this could be 16th-17th century. The base of the cross-like shape has a smooth drilled hole suggesting that it was fitted onto something.
24/01/2017 I’ve used this elsewhere as an example of the ‘shape/signs’ to look out for and how one can always expect the unexpected! When I happened to see this I thought it must be a ring, perhaps even a precious one .. and for a moment I couldn’t shake off the Tolkein.
.. but it changed into a clay pipe, the first one of this kind that I’d seen. These were popular from the 1830s to 1860s and usually depicted dragoons, turks or druids. They were also much shorter than the regular ones, not much longer than what’s survived of this one.
The modelling of the faces was most often (politely termed) basic and unskilled, as evidenced also by this similar one found in Oxfordshire courtesy of bluerow.co.uk.