Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, 2019)

[I don’t know why Tim insists on anonymous column that can only and obviously be written by one of two people, but here we are. Please welcome our mysterious book reviewer, the Contemporary Tree Sheep]

This is a delightful book, its narrative flowing with the tidal reaches of the Thames from Teddington all the way east to Tilbury, right out on the Estuary. The author descends to the foreshore at key places which enable her reflect on the changing nature of the river through her great passion: mudlarking. Her approach is non-intrusive, gathering objects which have been exposed by one tide and would be washed away with the next, and recording them with the Museum of London to permanently enhance our understanding of the Thames foreshore – the world’s longest archaeological site. Not everything she finds can be conserved outside a laboratory, but Lara Maiklem tries. As any antiquarian bookseller will tell you, not everything old belongs in a museum, and once fragile artefacts have been eroded from the foreshore the clock is ticking.

Lara Maiklem has an enviable historical imagination. She effortlessly evokes lost landscapes, both natural and manmade. Rotting timbers and associated debris are resurrected to become bustling wharves and jetties, or thriving shipyards where great vessels were built and broken-up in a cycle spanning centuries. Even the mud tells its own stories, for example ‘light, almost fluffy’ in patches at Rotherhithe, where saturated with wood shavings planed from countless ships’ timbers. And of course Maiklem is fascinated by the personal items discarded or lost by people working on the Thames or living alongside it over the last two thousand years or more: coins, pipes, crockery, toys, tools, jewellery… who last fastened that pin, ate from that plate or cursed and scrabbled fruitlessly in the mud after a prized possession? What was that coin last spent on, and did it slip from a pocket or was it tossed in the river for luck? I admire Lara Maiklem for being so engagingly frank. When cataloguing books and maps we have to stick to known facts: we can prove that this was owned by so-and-so; here’s a signature, here’s the appropriate bookplate, these are annotations in a known hand. Just because we stop writing at this point doesn’t mean that we stop speculating! Knowing that a book belonged to a particular person or sat in a particular library often makes it more tempting to daydream about who else might have idly flicked through its pages, or what conversations took place while it sat quietly on the shelves, but perhaps there is more of the relic-hunter in me than I would care to acknowledge.

I’m lucky to be able to travel on the Thames Clippers on my way to and from Cecil Court, so many of the places Maiklem describes are well known to me. By sheer chance I was reading her chapter on Greenwich, in which she describes leaping back from the wake thrown up by passing Clippers, just as I was passing the spot in a Clipper. Sorry about that. But leaving aside my commute and an interest in archaeology, there is plenty more here, including a map component. Full marks to publisher Bloomsbury for crediting the two maps at the beginning to the talented Emily Faccini (anonymous maps in books really do wind me up). But also Maiklem makes excellent use of early maps – principally the richly detailed Tudor map which is spuriously attributed to Ralph Agas, and John Rocque’s magnificent realisation of 18th century London – as she attempts to visualise the types of trades, people and craft once to to be found along the Thames. This isn’t a book about maps, but as a map dealer I found myself reversing Maiklem’s process. It is reassuring to be told that the lines on the maps I pore over daily have a sound basis in reality, and that even where parts of the capital have changed beyond recognition every generation of Londoners has left its mark in the Thames mud.


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