A Mudlark Explains the Joy of Her River Hobby

Objects found in the mud on the foreshore of the Thames River.
London has been settled by human beings for thousands of years, so almost anything could turn up along the shore of the Thames, from clay pipes and pottery (seen here) to ancient Roman coins. (Photo: M G Photography/Shutterstock)

As children, many of us dreamed of being treasure hunters when we grew up. I got interested by watching "The Goonies" too many times — but other generations have had other inspirations, from the classic "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson or the new series by the same name.

Few of us grow up to do this work, and those who do are often professional archeologists or anthropologists. And then there's Lara Maiklem, an editor, who has taken up the hobby of mudlarking, which is a kind of treasure-finding all its own, done along the banks of rivers. Maiklem's river is the Thames, which flows through the center of London.

Her findings are documented on her Instagram pages London Mudlark and Lara Maiklem-Mudlarking — the latter features companion images for her book, now out in paperback, "Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames."

Maiklem's idea of "treasure" is self-defined. She says she was blessed with a mother who really taught her to look, and to take pleasure in the small things around her. So for her, treasure is, "Anything out of context or extraordinary was treasure to me (it still is) so finding a dry snake skin in the long grass, fossils in a ploughed field, rabbit skulls in undergrowth, bird's nests hedges, pretty pebbles on the beach, broken china in the garden bed, it was all treasure to me," she tells MNN.

She got into mudlarking about 20 years ago. She craved the city life and moved to London, but having grown up on a farm, she missed the space and solitude of the countryside. She wanted to find places that still felt away from the city. For years she walked various river paths, enjoying views of the Thames as "a streak of wilderness and openness in the city that is unique."

Then, one day, she found herself at the top of a set of rickety wooden steps looking down at the river's foreshore. "The tide was low and the riverbed was exposed and I went down and started to look about. That day I found a short piece of clay pipe stem and reasoned that there was probably more, so I went back on another low tide and I found some china, then I found myself going there regularly and finding more and more 'stuff' and that's I suppose when I became a mudlark," she says.

Where the name mudlark comes from

According to The New York Times, "The name — mudlark — was first given to the Victorian-era poor who scrounged for items in the river to sell, pulling copper scraps, rope and other valuables from the shore. But more recently the label has stuck to London's hobbyists, history buffs and treasure hunters who scour the river edge searching for objects from the city's past."

Mudlarking does require a permit, and last year around 1,500 were issued by the Port of London Authority. They, along with the Crown (currently Queen Elizabeth), own the Thames and regulate its exploration. Mudlarks must report items of archeological interest to the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Maiklem says after she has photographed and researched what she finds, she often takes objects back to the foreshore of the river, or gives them away. "What I do keep is carefully curated and restricted to things I don't already have, objects I collect like 16th century book clasps or large dress pins, or better examples of things I already have. Most of what I keep is small enough to fit in the old 18-drawer printer's chest I found in a junk shop a few years back," she says. Anything bigger has to be "really special" to take home. "The largest piece I have at the moment is a piece of whale bone about as big as my thigh with a hole drilled in it and knife marks along it. I have no idea what it was used for, I found it near the dock that homed London's whaling fleet in the 18th century and it interests me," she says.

'The time vanishes'

In today's busy, stressful world, arguably the best thing treasure mudlarkers take home is the relaxation, peace of mind and mindfulness found in the meditative work of mudlarking.

"You're doing something (searching), yet not really doing anything so you can let your brain wander. I mudlark for 5-6 hours, which sounds like a long time, but the time vanishes. By the time I leave the foreshore the river has taken away my problems (moving water does that), and that's more valuable than treasure," says Maiklem.

Considering how elusive a relaxed and contented state of mind is, and how rare truly private time can be while outside in urban areas, mudlarking is a valuable reminder that calm is where we find it: Maiklem says that though she's been busy writing and promoting her new book, she can't wait to get back to the river.

"I've told the river more than I've ever told anyone else, it's my therapy and I'm a much nicer and happier person when I've been mudlarking."