Mudlarking simply means to comb the river, when the tide is low (rivers have tides, not just the sea). Don’t let pets and young children go near items due to choking hazards or poisons – also keep seaweed away from dogs, as it can expand in the stomach as it dries). Years ago, mudlarking was a profession where people would sell the wares they found. It was often a dangerous job with people coming across washed-up bodies and glass, or even raw sewage (Parliament would close down quite a lot, due to the smell before modern sewers were invented).
Today, larking is more of a hobby, some people use metal detectors. One of the most popular places to lark is the River Thames, as it has less sinking mud than some other areas that would be more dangerous. Things get preserved in the mud, right back to fossils. But to lark, you have to get a Thames foreshore permit and certain areas are banned from larking. You’ll then get information on tide tables and safety (wear good gloves and shoes and carry a phone – ideally go with someone else). They also say to ensure your tetanus jab is up-to-date. And if you do find anything of worth (gold coins!) you have to legally report them within 14 days.
The Way to the Sea is a book by Caroline Crampton who was born on the Thames Estuary, to parents who had sailed there from South Africa in the early 1980s. Now a journalist, she combines her seafaring legs and desire to explore how one of the key estuaries in England has long been pivotal to London’s economic fortunes. It also has sad connotations, with its entry point for immigrants giving rise to far-right politics. Learn about:
- The Thames barrier, which guards the safety of Londoners more precariously than we might
- Ship wrecks still inhabited by the ghosts of the drowned
- Vast Victorian pumping stations that carry the sewage
- River banks layered with Anglo-Saxon treasures
- Literature inspired by the landscape
- Beacons used to guide boats through the dark
- Murky waterways of the estuary
- The estuary’s wildlife and shifting tidal moods
Rag and Bone is a unique family history by Lisa Woollett, whose family made a living years ago, from London’s waste. In a series of beachcombing and mudlarking walks (beginning in The Thames in central London) then out to the Kentish estuary and to the Cornish coast, Lisa offers a beautifully written urgent mix of social history, family memoir and nature writing. A call on what we can learn from what we’ve thrown away; and a call to think more about what we leave behind. Lisa Woollett is the author of photography books about the sea. She lives in Cornwall, where she often takes photographs of river and beach finds. Her great-grandfather was a scavenger and her grandfather was a dustman, while she has been a beachcomber all her life.
Mudlarking is a book about London’s ‘river scavengers’ who look for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour. Lara Maiklem has scoured the banks of the Thames for nearly 20 years and in this book charts what she has unearthed: Neolithic flints, Roman hairpins, medieval buckles, Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes and Victorian toys.. Lara Maiklem moved from her family’s farm to London in the 90s, and has been mudlarking along the River Thames for 15 years. She now lives with her family on the Kent Coast, within easy reach of the river, which she visits as regularly as the tides permit.
Maiklem’s description of the fog is worthy of Dickens or Joseph Conrad. She pungently evokes the broken bridges, slippery river stairs, causeways, jetties and boatyards. No one has looked at these odd corners, since Sherlock Holmes. Daily Telegraph
A Field Guide to Larking is a practical and inspiring guide by the same author. Lark (to get out and about) helps to explore the world in this beautiful field guide. Find maps, charts, tips and lists, with colour illustrations to help identify finds. From tide tables for mudlarkers to a flint guide for fieldlarkers, this book is richly informative, yet small enough to pop in a pocket.
A Mudlark’s Treasures: London in Fragments follows the small boys in the last century, who would make a living from scrap. Today’s relics from the banks of the Thames tell stories: from Roman tiles to elegant Georgian pottery, to create a mosaic of everyday London life through the centuries.
Good (and bad) Scavenging
Around the world, millions of people make their living from scavenging, often on dumps. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, as it’s a way to use up waste, and earn enough money to survive. However, we in the west are creating problems by sending lots of crap to Africa and the like, where people then get ill from toxic fumes (batteries, chemicals in clothes) and there are also fire hazards. Some things that sound good (sending free disposable tampons to African girls) are not good, as there are no litter bins or sewage, so instead it just creates more waste to dispose of (and can harm, as such goods may be shared due to poverty, on a continent ravaged by HIV and AIDS). Instead, donate to AfriPads that lets local people make reusable pads made from papyrus leaves, this creates jobs and gives healthy sustainable feminine care to girls, so they spend more time in school.
Once, ecologist Satish Kumar was listening to a talk by an African visitor who was saying that investing in techology meant that people in Africa could be like the west, with lots of laptops and good access to technology. He was the only one to pipe up that perhaps instead, we could learn from Africans, and use less technology so we didn’t keep sending all our trash over there, often to people who don’t want it.
Adam Minter in his article the burning truth behind e-waste talks of how the 20-acre scrap yard in Ghana has shirtless men standing over toxic fires, to make a living. Burning tires release carbon dioxide and smoke from burning wires can emit heavy metals.
Animals That Scavenge!
Before they became domesticated pooches, dogs were natural scavengers. Today, there are still many wild animals that make their dinners from scavenging, rather than killing other animals themselves.
Foxes are natural scavengers, which is why you may find them raiding your bin. However, in nature they eat rats and rabbits, so if left in the wild, they are actually doing good work keeping nature in balance. Garden writer Alys Fowler once wrote that ‘if I am to love owls, then I must learn to live with rats’ (owls eat rats, but people put down rat poison that kills owls). Likewise, if you don’t want to be overrun with rats, then don’t go out shooting foxes, or complaining about them. They come into urban areas, because their natural habitat is being destroyed.
Hyenas are African mammals that are not related to dogs, despite their appearance. In fact, they are more closely related to cats. Only spotted hyenas ‘laugh’ and that’s more a noise, they are not chuckling! Their powerful jaws enable them to eat bones, horns and teeth (they later bring these back up, keeping the flesh inside to keep alive).
Vultures like to scavenge bones. In the Himalayas, bodies are carried up mountains by yak (the poor things are then released to say thank-you) because the ground is too cold to dig graves or plant trees for coffins. At the top, the bodies are left for the vultures to scavenge. It sounds quite a good idea to leave nature to it, but the reality is not so nice (especially for the yak who has to carry the body up, after its spine has been broken to lay across the back). A Buddhist nation, the accompanying person has to chop off limbs while smiling, so the body’s spirit happily goes to the Gods. Sounds like the stuff of nightmares.
If there is a kettle of vultures above you, it means you still have a chance; you are alive, at least. But they have spotted you… and know you are injured. Now they are circling, waiting to see if you will put up a fight or just fade out. Yet if a wake of vultures surrounds you, then my condolences are with your family as it is game over; the vultures are currently stripping the flesh from your bones, and fighting over the tasty bits. Sorry about that. Matt Sewell (from his book A Charm of Goldfinches)