Mudlarking!

As I mentioned in a recent post, my trip to the UK last summer was specifically to research John Pickett Mystery #9, Into Thin Eire. Still, I already knew what Book 10 would be about, and one of my experiences on this trip provided a spark for that book as well. For while I was in London, I went mudlarking!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, mudlarking was an early form of recycling in which people, often children (called mudlarks), scavenged along the exposed riverbank of the Thames at low tide for anything they could sell. John Pickett was an occasional mudlark in his misspent youth, so I thought it would be fun to try something that he would have done. (The other option, pickpocketing, is, alas, frowned upon.)

I went online to learn what I could about modern-day mudlarking, and discovered that, for one thing, you have to have a permit from the London Port Authority. I also learned that they don’t recommend you go by yourself. If you do, you should at least be aware at all times of the location of the nearest stairs; when the tide turns, the river rises very swiftly, and it’s possible to be cut off.

So I searched for a guide to take me out. (Another advantage of going with a guide is that he has the permit issue taken care of.) I eventually made a date with Steve Brooker (aka the “mud god”), who’s been featured on the History Channel and written up in Time magazine and elsewhere. But while searching, I came across an article on mudlarking that quoted a curator at the Museum of London as saying (I’m quoting here as nearly as I can remember), “almost everything we know about childhood in the Middle Ages comes from finds the mudlarks have brought in.” It’s often said that times may change, but human nature doesn’t. Children lose things, whether in the twelfth century or the twenty-first.

Steve Brooker, aka the “mud god,” my mudlarking guide.
The skyscrapers in the background make up the
Canary Wharf business district on the Isle of Dogs.

Still, the idea of those toys, lost somehow in or along the river only to be washed up decades or even centuries later, started me thinking. In Book 10, Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, John Pickett discovers he has a ten-year-old half-brother. That half-brother, I knew, would have had an upbringing very similar to John’s; what if he, too, had been an occasional mudlark, and had found a toy of some kind—one not necessarily of any monetary value, but something that he, a poor child having so little, prizes? And what if he (like all those medieval children) dropped it—not in the River Thames, but at the scene of a crime? I hadn’t even gone on my own mudlarking adventure yet, but thanks to the internet, I already had a head start on my next book!

You’ll be able to see how this element fits into the book when it releases on June 12, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of my own mudlarking finds. Contrary to what you might expect, we did not use a metal detector (in fact, the “mud god” has strong views about the use of metal detectors along the foreshore, and the role they play in erosion); instead, he taught me how to read the tides as the nineteenth-century mudlarks would have done.

I met up with Steve in Greenwich at the Cutty Sark, and we walked through the tunnel beneath the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, the peninsula formed by a deep bend in the river east of the City. (Incidentally, whenever you see London referred to as the “City”—capitalized—it refers to the portion of central London, roughly one square mile, that was once contained within the old Roman wall.) Why that particular spot? Because once upon a time, the Isle of Dogs was the site of a dumping ground for one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Dead people’s garbage dumps are a historian’s playground; so much can be learned by what people threw away, either by accident or deliberately. Which makes me wonder what historians will learn about us someday, but that’s a topic for another blog, written by another blogger.

THE PHOTOS:

My favorite out of all our haul: a Victorian penny, about the size of a US half-dollar.
The reverse side gives the date as 1900.
A clay pipe, the “cigarette butts” of their era and one of the most common of all mudlarking finds.
George V half-penny from 1934,
just a bit larger than a US quarter.
A “sea biscuit” fossil; some modern-day mudlarks search for them exclusively.
George VI half-penny from 1939. (If you’ve ever seen the film The King’s Speech, he was its subject.)
Fragments of garnet, although not gem quality. In fact, these are industrial waste; the “sand” on sandpaper is actually finely crushed garnet. All waste products should be so pretty!
This half-penny says “new penny” because the UK had just switched from the old pounds/shillings/pence monetary system to
100 pence = 1 pound. (The half-penny was not removed from circulation until 1984.)
Dress pin from the Tudor era. (Ink pen included to show scale.) We found three pins in all, and Steve seemed surprised/disappointed that there weren’t more. Apparently they’re usually very plentiful in the area, thanks to that Tudor-era garbage dump.
Not all of the coins we found were British. Here’s a 1 rupee coin from India, dated 1999.
WWII bullet & casing. We found a whole cache of these, and I told Steve, “Well, there was your problem: you were supposed to put the bullets into the guns and then fire them at the Germans!”
10-cent piece from West Germany, 1970.
A fragment of Blue Willow china. This stuff was all over the place! Most of it was blue, but there were a few shards of rose pink, too. And I wish so badly that I’d snagged a whole bagful of it! I’m sure I could have found something to do with it.
5-ruble coin from Russia, 2016.
We found several pieces of petrified wood. Here are two of them.

There was more, including modern coins from the UK as well as a US quarter, a small brass button, a number of 19th-century nails. . In fact, I haven’t yet got around to cleaning it all! We were on the foreshore for about two hours before the tide made it necessary for us to curtail our hunt. Here’s a photo of all our finds:

I can’t wait to go again! Hmm, I wonder what I’ll find next time…

Research Trip 2019: London to Holyhead to Dublin

The current ban on international travel makes me especially glad that I managed to visit the UK last year, although pleasure wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I made the trip. I’d been working on Into Thin Eire (aka John Pickett mystery #9), and I’d just finished the chase through England, Wales, and finally Ireland that makes up a good deal of the book. But when I read back through those chapters, I realized there was one big problem.

“This could be set anywhere in the world,” I complained to my husband, “and it wouldn’t matter! It needs detail to ground it in a particular place.” I looked online, but internet research has its limitations; I just wasn’t finding what I needed.

“Do you need to go?” my husband asked. “If you do, book a flight. I’ll see you when you get back.”

At Denver International Airport, waiting to board!

And so I did. Since my husband didn’t have enough vacation time to take a week off (we’d taken a South American cruise back in February, and he’d used most of it up on that trip), I went alone—my first solo trip out of the country. (Mom was convinced I was never coming back alive.) I’d bought a BritRail pass at the same time I’d booked my flight, and so after taking a day to recover from jet lag, I set out from my hotel to Euston Station. My objective: to follow the path of my characters, making notes on topographical changes along the way.

After boarding the train and finding a window seat with a good view, I pulled out a little notebook I’d bought for the trip. As the train traveled westward, I made notes on the landscape: the flat green fields of the Midlands, dotted with sheep and occasionally bisected by canals (the latter sometimes affording glimpses of brightly colored narrowboats) giving way to the steep slopes of Snowdonia, the peaks hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, until finally setting me down in Holyhead, Wales, where I’d booked a room for two nights at a quaint bed and breakfast called Witchingham.

Sheep seen from the window of the train.
Witchingham, the bed & breakfast where
I stayed in Holyhead, Wales.

Once in my room, I walked the short distance to the water and strolled along the Anglesey Coastal Path, stopping to eat dinner at the Yacht Club restaurant. From the water’s edge, I could see the ferries returning; this was the reason I’d come to Holyhead.

The view from the shore.
Boats near the Yacht Club.
Note the castle ruins in the background!

Early the next morning, I called for a taxi to take me to the port, and took the Swift ferry to Dublin. The name refers to Jonathan Swift, not to the boat’s speed, although that would fit, too: I made the Irish Sea crossing in just over three hours, whereas for John Pickett and his traveling companions, even a smooth crossing would have been seventeen hours or more. The boat itself was like a small cruise ship, with a buffet brunch included in the fare, along with comfortable seats and big picture windows along the bow and sides. But I wasn’t the only person making a work-related trip: one entire deck was reserved for commercial trucks (lorries), with lounges set aside specifically for their drivers.

The ferry returning to Holyhead.

When we arrived in Dublin, I realized that in one instance, at least, John Pickett would have had the advantage over me: his packet sailed right up the River Liffey into the heart of Dublin, whereas my ferry docked along a rather nondescript commercial waterfront, from which we walk-on passengers had to take a bus into the city proper. After a day in Dublin, it was back to the ferry for the return trip, arriving in Holyhead just after midnight. (And me, with my north-Alabama/Appalachian-foothills accent trying to communicate by telephone with a Welsh taxi driver was the only real problem I had on the whole trip!)

Courtyard of Dublin Castle

In the morning, I took the train back to London for my next adventure—mudlarking along the Thames foreshore! But that’s a subject for another blog . . .