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What is mudlarking and how to get involved in London

Want to try London’s coolest new hobby? Mudlarking is the quirky riverside activity that Londoners will love – provided you don’t mind getting a little muddy.

The practice of combing exposed riverbeds for lost treasures, termed ‘mudlarking’, is becoming increasingly popular thanks to social media.

With a number of the city’s most seasoned mudlarks on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter sharing details of their best finds, plus upcoming mudlarking events and book releases, anyone can get a taste of the exciting activity.

And understandably, lots of us are keen to dive in!

But, what is it exactly? Who does it? And how can you join in the fun?

2Chill spoke to Chiswick-based ‘mudlark’, Jason Sandy, who has been active in the community since 2012 and boasts a massive 83,000 following on his Instagram, @jasonmudlark.

Here’s everything you need to know about what mudlarking is, plus the best ways to join in.

What is mudlarking?

‘Mudlarking’, the practice of scavenging through river mud for lost items of value or historical significance.

The term ‘mudlark’ was originally used in the late 18 th and 19 th centuries to describe people, often living in poverty or with limited employment options, who scoured London’s riverbanks at low tide.

Close up of objects found while mudlarking on the River Thames

It was a fairly dangerous occupation then, with broken glass, raw sewage and even the corpses of animals or humans known to wash up.

Nowadays, though, the activity is more of a hobby than occupation, with current day participants often looking out for pieces with interesting histories, rather than simply monetary value.

As well as searching by eye and hand, digging and scraping, some modern mudlarks also use metal detectors.

In fact, the educational side, of sharing the stories behind their found items, is important to many members of the community.

In order to work out the origins of their finds, mudlarks will often take to groups such as The River Thames Mudlarking Finds to get opinions, search for information on databases like the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), or even seek out expert advice from institutions including the Museum of London.

Items also often end up on display to the public, whether as part of a permanent or temporary exhibits.

A 2000-year-old bone hairpin Jason found on the Thames foreshore now lives in Museum of London as part of its Roman London gallery.

What is mudlarking and how to get involved in London

A Richard III boar badge likely worn to the king’s coronation by an attendee – also discovered by Jason in the Thames – is now used to teach schoolchildren about artefacts at the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester.

You can check out more of Jason’s finds in the recently released Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures (2021), co-authored with Nick Stevens.

Where can I mudlark?

Luckily for Londoners, the River Thames is one of the best places for mudlarking.

Firstly, whereas riverbeds in locations like Cardiff, Bristol and Newcastle can be dangerous due to the dense mud – which you can sink into and drown in, since it goes above your head – when the tide recedes on the Thames, it’s a reasonably gravelly foreshore, which is safer to walk on.

The type of mud under the river and fact that the area’s been home to civilisations for so long also means that there’s a lot to be found there.

Jason explained to 2Chill : “It’s like a repository of all these lost artefacts.

“Thames mud is anaerobic – that means there’s no oxygen – so things that fall in thousands of years ago just wash up in the same condition that they were dropped in many years ago.”

According to Jason, potential finds range from Celtic times up to modern day, and “everything in between” – as well as fossils that are millions of years old.

What is mudlarking and how to get involved in London

However, in order to participate in London you must have a Thames foreshore permit from the Port of London Authority (PLA) – it is illegal to search for or remove artefacts of any kind without one.

Mudlarker newbies can get a ‘standard’ permit, which is valid for certain locations west of the Thames Barrier up to Teddington.

Searching is not allowed east of the Thames Barrier, while searching, digging, scraping or removing items is also strictly prohibited at Queenhithe Dock, Brunel’s Great Eastern Slipway, Tower of London and at Greenwich Palace.

More advanced ‘mudlark’ permits can also be obtained, however, these are only available to the members of the Society of Thames Mudlarks.

Currently the PLA is not issuing any new ‘mudlark’ permits.

How can I get involved?

Your best bet as a beginner is to try out a guided tour, according to Jason.

Those run by the Thames Discovery Programme, for example, offer you the opportunity to explore the foreshore under the guidance of an experienced archaeologist at a reasonable price – and without the need for a permit.

Non-profit organisation Thames Explorer Trust, based in Chiswick, likewise offers private foreshore tours, which you won’t need a permit to join.

For those who’d like to learn more, but aren’t quite ready to jump straight in, there’s also a number of mudlarking events to check out, such as ‘ Larking: The Thames and Beyond ’.

Hosted in Southwark Cathedral in celebration of Lo ndon mudlark Lara Maiklem’s recent book, A Field Guide to Larking: Beachcombing, Mudlarking, Fieldwalking and More (2021), the event displays a number of found treasures.

The exhibition, running until Saturday, October 30, is part of the Cathedral’s River Season. This series features a number of mudlarking tours and relevant talks, with visitors able to bring along their own finds to be identified to the celebration on the final day.

West London residents can also visit the ‘ Hands on History ’ event run by the Chiswick Pier Trust on Saturday, September 25, and Sunday, September 26, where you’ll get the chance to meet some of London’s mudlarks, as well as see their collections.

Additionally, Jason recommends checking out other mudlarkers’ social media pages, where finds, tips, events and other details are often shared.

Some to follow on Instagram include Lara Maiklem (@london.mudlark), Florrie Evans (@flo_finds), Nick Stevens (@rockthemudlark) and Malcolm Russell (@mudhistorian).

Marie Louise Plum, or @oldfatherthames, also posts educational videos and vlogs of her mudlarking adventures on her YouTube channel.

How do I get a permit to mudlark and what should I know before going out?

Prospective mudlarkers can apply to the PLA for a ‘standard’ permit via the website.

The fee for 2021 is £90 for an adult, £60 for a junior aged 15-17 years and £35 for a junior aged 12 to 14 years – though each junior must be accompanied by a permit-holding adult.

A monthly permit allowing for one visit and valid for one month is also available for £40.

Once approved, you should check out the information available on the website for permit holders, which includes foreshore maps, details on temporary exclusions, as well as safety regulations and tide tables.

Participants are advised to wear sensible footwear and gloves, carry a mobile phone and not go alone.

It’s also a good idea to buy a tide guide, so that you can check the high and low tides throughout the year, and ensure your tetanus jab is up to date.

It’s worth knowing that, per the Treasure Act 1996, all finders of gold and silver objects, or groups of coins from the same finds, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report them. The report should be made to the local coroner within 14 days of discovery.

Objects of potential archaeological value can also be voluntarily submitted for analysis and review via the Portable Antiquities Scheme.


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