We were muddy, we were wet and we were a little bit shivery. We were down on the river’s edge at low tide, pushing our hands through the silt and gravel, using bits of driftwood to poke around in the dirt, looking for treasure.
The treasure we’re seeking doesn’t glitter. We’re mudlarking in the Thames by Tower Bridge on one of the mornings organized by the Thames Explorer Trust.
Eleven-year-old River picked up a small piece of green pottery. ‘What’s that?' he said, turning it in his muddy fingers.
‘It’s a piece of a Tudor bowl,’ said our guide, and at once the Tower of London behind us leapt into life and we could hear the rattle of the portcullis as it shut behind the traitors. River was handling a little bit of the prison’s history, perhaps a plate on which Elizabeth I or the incarcerated Mary Queen of Scots had once ate. Then he found an oyster shell – was that the remains of the Queen’s supper? Our guide, a social geologist (a new profession to me), told us it probably wasn’t, as oysters were then the food of the poor, not royalty. That’s why there were so many shells scattered around us.
‘They’re the Mcdonald’s wrappers from the past,’ he told us.
The best bit was that we became instant experts. We felt like we were real archaeologists, who could spot and identify things as if we’d been studying learned journals for years. We knew if a fragment was medieval, as at that time they only glazed their pots on the inside, not on the outside. We gathered the stems of clay pipes, holding them up to stencils of different shapes from different ages that the guide had brought with him so we could easily date them. He explained that clay pipes were the cigarettes of the 17th century. You didn’t refill them; once used, they were thrown away. That’s why you find so many of them on the river bed.
We were watery scavengers. We found black Wedgewood, blue 19th-century dinnerware and a Victorian earthenware jar. The tide turns very quickly, and after a couple of hours we had to scamper up the ladder back to the high bank above, our pockets stuffed with treasures to take home. We glance over to Shakespeare's Globe on the opposite bank, and I hear the rumble of Tudor crowds gathering to go in to see a show. I fingered the same implements they did. I saw the leftovers of their lunch.
River has made a ‘Museum at Home’ with his finds. He hadn’t just looked at and learnt about history – he’d touched it. Now, whenever he sees the Thames at low tide, he points to bits of cracked pot and shouts, ‘It’s medieval!’ Mudlarking brought the past alive.
Mudlarking and Archaeology Foreshore Explorations are open to families with children aged 5+. Read more about London family breaks, including things to see and do with kids, and family-friendly places to stay and eat.