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‘The river’s debris is my pleasure and obsession’

18 September 2017

I had a quick half hour on the foreshore before the tide went in, and before my working day began. It was to gather garnets. Certain patches of the Thames foreshore are littered with these blood-red carbuncles, and it’s a mystery as to why. Theories range from their being the spoils of a bomb-wrecked gem warehouse to waste from Victorian sand-blasting or – perhaps most romantic of all – jettisoned ballast in ancient trading ships from India or Brazil. To my surprise, though, I came away from the river with a minuscule, intricately decorative head of an early Georgian watch winder.

Only about 1.5cm across, the watch winder is so tiny and delicate that it would have been easy to miss – a chameleon hiding among all the rusty ships’ nails. The horizontal bar and key are gone, but the head is a thing of wonder. The brass is highly decorated with moulded scenes. Each side depicts a small figure: one male, one female. He is naked and holds a staff, while Eve-like she bears an apple – even though she wears a dress. There is something about her pose that reminds me of those rather stilted early 18th-century portraits by the likes of Michael Dahl. But whether these figures represent Adam and Eve, god or goddess, king or queen is, in a way, irrelevant. This thumbnail of history will go in my box of fluvial treasures, and from time to time I will take it out, hold it in the palm of my hand, and imagine how it lay for centuries, waiting for its release from the river.

And so let me take you back: over a gate and down to the silty slime of the Thames. It is no later than 1720. Plop. Out of a foppish gentleman’s top pocket the watch winder falls as he lifts a lace handkerchief to his nose and steps into a wherry. ‘To Westminster,’ he commands the waterman. Down the winder falls, in gentle little arcs through the stinking water to the deep bed below. The tide goes in, the tide goes out. Years pass, and the winder is rolled between flint and bone, chalk and shell. It disperses in three parts, and each finds a bed of its own, as the gentleman, too, returns to the soil.

Georgian watch winder with moulded figures on either side, discovered on the Thames foreshore. Photo: Florence Evans

Georgian watch winder with moulded figures on either side, discovered on the Thames foreshore. Photo: Florence Evans

It is both a familiarity with the river’s hoard and the unpredictability of its yields that keep me mudlarking. I grew up near the Thames, and my earliest childhood memory of the river is of being drawn to the bank in pursuit of a swan’s feather. There, nestling under the grubby quill was a small shard of blue and white china. I didn’t know then that it was a piece of the ubiquitous willow pattern – the first of many. Today, my pottery passions are fickle and I can’t predict which period my eye (or the river) will favour until I reach the foreshore – whether slipware, delftware or fragments of what mudlarkers call ‘story’, little figures dismembered or caught in a broken scenario. Scraps of old leather, fossils, nags’ teeth, buttons and beads, coins and dress-pins, letterpress abandoned by Fleet Street typesetters, clay pipes or remnants of hand-blown bottles… the river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession.

Today, mudlarking is experiencing something of a voguish moment. Although the Society of Thames Mudlarks has only 51 registered members (all Thames historians in their own right), anyone can obtain a licence to search the foreshore from the Port of London Authority, and mudlarking groups and clubs have sprung up in recent years. It is absolutely essential to have this permission: the River Thames is the longest archaeological site in Britain, and you are obliged to record any finds more than 300 years old with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) at the Museum of London.

It’s a far cry from those Victorian scavengers, usually children, who trudged the muddy waters in search of lumps of coal or scrap metal to sell for a crust. As I busy myself on the foreshore, I have to remind myself that what constitutes a history-hunting hobby for me is really scrabbling about for ancient rubbish, from a point of privilege. And when I post images of my finds on Instagram, I feel a little like a cat laying out its catch. But the sound of the water, and the swell of the tide always tempt me back. By the river, London’s history is tangible at a time when the future feels more uncertain than ever.

From the September issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.