If looking for treasures along the River Thames in London sounds like fun, you may be a mudlark.
Mudlarking is the romantic name for scavenging on the riverbank (also called the foreshore) when the tide is out. At a show-and-tell in London, I saw some mudlarks’ finds: Roman relics, Tudor treasures, and Georgian junk. I really wanted to try it.
Mudlarking is popular and it looks easy, but there are some things you need to know.
1. You Need A License, Even For Looking
There are rules for mudlarking in London. Even “just looking” requires a license.
The Port of London Authority (PLA) website has detailed information including maps and an online license application form. Application processing takes at least four weeks. Licenses cost £35 for one day or £80 for multiple days.
A Standard License lets you look and take items, but you may not dig deeper than 7.5 centimeters -- or just under 3 inches -- in the ground. And try to gently scrape, not aggressively dig. Replace the disturbed soil and leave no trace. This helps preserve the food chain and the health of all the river creatures.
A Mudlark License gives more privileges, but it’s only available to those with a multi-year record of responsible hunting.
To remove any mudlarking finds over 50 years old from the country, you need an export license. The PLA website has information about this, too.
2. There Are Lots Of Places You Can’t Go
Two big concerns when it comes to mudlarking are protecting the foreshore’s natural and archaeological resources and keeping mudlarkers safe.
As a tourist, you’ll probably go mudlarking in central London. From Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge, the Standard License lets you search most of the foreshore. On the north side, there’s no digging or disturbing the surface. And there are a few exclusion zones on both sides of the river.
The Foreshore Map -- Middle District shows this stretch in detail.
3. You Can Get Hurt, Drown, Or Catch Mysterious Diseases
The area restrictions protect the archaeology and biology of the river. You must take these seriously to protect yourself from the numerous safety hazards.
You could be cut off from your exit and swept away by the tide. You might slip on the rocks, fall into the water, and be run over by a speedboat or a garbage barge. You might puncture your foot with a nail. The PLA warns that you could catch Weil’s Disease, spread by rats’ urine in the water.
Why the PLA emphasizes Weil’s Disease when you could catch just about anything from the Thames’ sewers, I don’t know, but their overall advice makes sense: Wear gloves and suitable footwear, and don’t go alone. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Bring your phone.
Wash your hands a lot.
Always know the tide times and have a clear escape route.
4. The Original Mudlarks Weren’t Doing It For Fun
Many 19th-century mudlarks were poor, desperate children. They made their miserable livings selling pieces of coal, bits of rope, and anything else they could find.
Two hundred years on, the mud is still dirty, the water is still cold, and the extraordinary treasures are still few and unpredictable, but mudlarking has become amateur archaeology.
5. You Have A Chance To Find Something Spectacular
There’s an intriguing community of modern mudlarks who write books, make videos, and display their finds on websites and social media with hashtags like #mudlark and #londonmudlarking.
The anaerobic Thames mud is a great preservative. That’s why mudlarks find so much: pottery and glass, jewelry, buttons, pins, nails, bones, and all kinds of garbage (literally) of the ages.
While it would be fantastic to locate a Roman coin or a mediaeval pilgrim’s badge, I hoped for a clay pipe. They aren’t rare. Starting in the 1500s, pipes were used and tossed away like cigarette butts. If I found a clay pipe and then accidentally lost or broke it, that wouldn’t change the course of history. I’d rather find a pipe than a royal crown.
6. The Trick Is To Slow Down
One fine August day, I finally walked down the stairs to water level. The falling tide revealed a good 10 paces of shore for me to poke around on safely.
I stared at the mud and things appeared, starting with a little white speck on the grey pebbles near my foot.
I still can’t believe it was so easy to find that first bit of pipe stem. The hole was barely big enough to draw a thread through, but it was unmistakably a piece of a clay pipe. Victory! The next fragment was bigger, clearly from a different pipe and maybe even from a different century.
As my eyes adjusted to searching, I saw how rich this small patch of ground was.
Here’s the key to success: Use the same gaze as you would for Where’s Waldo or a challenging jigsaw puzzle. Look slowly, and let the objects emerge from the background.
In 40 minutes I had pipe stems, pottery, an oyster shell, and a metal spike with a square rivet sticking out. There was a possible cup handle resembling a stem with leaves, like a museum piece from the 1700s.
7. There Are Rules About Reporting Your Finds
If you find something valuable or archaeologically interesting, you have to report it. Be sure to note the location and depth.
Reporting isn’t very practical for visitors, though. You have to make an appointment with the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London by calling 020 7814 5733. Then you’ll take your items to the appointment for assessment. You might be asked to leave them behind and collect them another day.
Frankly, tourists might be better to think of mudlarking as a catch-and-release activity. If you aren’t willing to make a report, consider taking photos, making notes, and leaving the items in place. If there is an experienced mudlark nearby, you could ask their opinion, but they may be busy with their own quest. The hours between the tides are precious.
8. There May Be An Easier Way
Because of the licensing rules, export controls, and reporting procedures, mudlarking by the book can sound a bit daunting for tourists. The most crucial thing is to get that Standard License, so be sure to send away for it in lots of time.
Then, if you have a license, you can take a mudlarking tour with a guide.
Even with no license, you may take a public tour with the Thames Discovery Programme. Their website is rich in information about the foreshore and its archaeology. Check their calendar online, as the tours are not offered very often.
My own bit of mudlarking was gratifying. I touched history. I walked where those poor Victorian mudlarks had walked. Unlike them, though, I didn’t have to peddle my finds to survive. The next day, I gave everything back to the river.
Want more off-the-beaten-path fun in London? Consider “Exploring Street Art In London: 8 Things To Know.”