After two hours spent mudlarking on the Thames foreshore, I might be thought to be ready to return to the twenty-first century. Not so! Granted, I was ready to crash in my hotel room for a while, but as it happened, the hotel where I was staying was like stepping back in time.
Anyone of John Pickett’s day would have balked at reserving a room at any place calling itself the Rookery; in the nineteenth century, the word was synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, and general squalor. Today, however, it’s the name of a boutique hotel comprising three houses built in 1764 and still retaining a Georgian atmosphere. It’s located in Clerkenwell, a section of London due north of the City (“the City,” capitalized, refers to the portion of central London that was once enclosed within the old Roman wall) and a part of town I’d never visited before.
The hotel’s address—12 Peter’s Lane, Cowcross Street—gives a clue as to the area’s history. I discovered this on my first afternoon there, when I took an exploratory walk in search of the nearest Tube station. (It proved to be Farringdon, in quite the opposite direction.) I turned a corner and found myself facing the Smithfield Market, London’s stockyard and meat market since the Middle Ages, and possibly as early as Roman times. Regency readers may know it best from the disparaging term “Smithfield bargain,” meaning a marriage made as a financial transaction. Suddenly Cowcross Street’s curious name made sense; cattle would have been driven right up the street here on their way to the market. (Can you imagine living in one of these houses, and stepping out your front door just as a drover was coming past, herding cows to market?)
Turning back to the north, I soon came across a bit of still earlier history. St. John’s Gate, dating from 1504, is just about all that remains of the former headquarters of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries a few decades later, it was used for a number of different purposes, and in 1731 was the birthplace of the Gentleman’s Magazine, one of whose early writers—Dr. Johnson, no less—would later investigate the hoax known as the “Cock Lane Ghost,” which also took place nearby.
If any ghosts roam up and down the stairs or lurk about the corners of the Rookery hotel, I was blissfully unaware of them. I slept soundly until morning, when I checked out somewhat reluctantly, headed for the airport at Heathrow and twenty-first century life.
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
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
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.
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…
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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 . . .