July 1, 2012 by James Calbraith
London: a 2000-year-old thriving port in a tidal range of a major river. As far as I know, that’s a unique combination in Europe. The waters of the English Channel had been flowing into and out of the city day after day for countless millennia and, with every wave, they had been bringing more debris and flotsam to the river shores, creating beaches formed of detritus of London’s entire history.
When the tide ebbs, these beaches become a playground for amateur archaeologists, scavengers of shards and old nails. They are called by an ancient moniker of Mudlarks – a name once reserved for poor urchins diving into mud to recover lost coal lumps or coins.
We – me and my wife – have discovered mudlarking by pure chance, a few weeks ago on a trip to Greenwich. The tide was out and we were sitting among gravel, old bricks and roof tiles, enjoying the rare sun, when one of us found a bit of china, painted in what seemed like tiny blue flowers. Moments later we had a handful of such unidentified potsherds. It was obvious these were not just bits of crockery thrown out of a nearby Starbucks, but something much older and much more interesting.
We got back home and started investigating. We’ve discovered there’s a name for what we just did. We’ve learnt that the tiny long tubes which looked like bones of some ancient animal were actually clay tobacco pipes. That the colourful shards were a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years old. We’ve discovered a whole community of Mudlarkers, much more organized – equipped with metal detectors, shovels and proper licences. Of course, you don’t need a licence to just sit on the beach and scour through the rubble, which is what we’ve decided to do again as soon as the weather and tide times permitted.
Fast forward to today. Another trip to Greenwich. I misread the tide tables and we had to wait in a cafe until the waters started receding, but we were rewarded with a great haul. Looking at the photos you might think we’ve spent a whole day at that beach, but in reality this is the result of a little over an hour of moderately thorough scavenging.
Edit: I have now managed to find out that the clay shard marked “Marquis of G…” belonged to the Marquis of Granby Inn at the Iron Gate area near Tower Hill. It was owned by a family of Downings in the middle of 19th century, which also matches the signature. Fun!
Note: most of the source information for this post I took from the great mudlarking blog at