MUDLARKING

Here is the mouth of the river Walbrook where it exits into the Thames.  I have written elsewhere about the ghost rivers of London but the Walbrook is one of the smallest - and strangest. It is also one of the more difficult to trace.  This was the river around which the Romans built Londinium, the first incarnation of the city in what is now the old financial district.  It seems to have been sacred to them.  On its banks they built the temple of Mithras, the remains of which you can still see squeezed between two grim office buildings near Mansion House.  Some very beautiful treasures, such as the head of Mithras shown here, were found deliberately placed in its channel.  

Speaking of treasure, I was down on the river bank early yesterday for one of the lowest tides of the year and I came across several 'mudlarks'.  Now the original mudlarks were written about by John Stow in his epic seventeenth century Survey of London.  They were scavengers who patrolled the banks of the river up to their waists in mud seeking a living by collecting almost anything they could use, sell or eat.  An unpleasant, cold and smelly job no doubt.  Mind you, however unpleasant, it couldn't have been worse or more dangerous than that of the 'Toshers' who entered into the sewage system from the river bank to search it for whatever valuables could be found fallen from above.  The hard won knowledge necessary for both occupations was a closely guarded secret and seems to remain so today.   
You see you can still find many old things on the river bank.  Fragment of clay pipes from the 17th and 18h century are common.  Prior to cigarettes, these were the cheapest way to smoke.  You would buy a bundle of five, pre-packed with tobacco, smoke them and throw the pipe away.  Decorated and carved ones are rare and very collectable.  Coins, pots, and other more substantial finds are found fairly regularly. Such was the case a few years ago with the gorgeous Battersea Shield.  So on very low tides a new breed of scavengers descend and start digging and sifting and searching.  There are have been a few high profile treasure finds in England in the last couple of years - usually by guys like these operating on the fringe of legality.  

The contemporary mudlarks, equipped with metal detectors, spades and rubber waders, are a tight-lipped bunch. Yesterday, I tried to engage several in conversation without much success.  They are not genial, academic or enthusiastic collector types but hard-bitten, secretive grumps.  At least one tried to waft me away from where they were digging (the mouth of the Walbrook) to somewhere where he suggested the more easy pickings were.  They claimed to be looking for ceramics (finds of which have a different legal status than gold or silver) but that seemed unlikely given the vicious spade he was vigorously wielding and the metal detectors being waved by the others.  I didn't really mind. I was glad to find that such an old London occupation was still being practised.

Besides, there has to be an upside to spending Sunday morning up to your neck in sh**.