Lara Maiklem. Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames. London: Bloomsbury, 2019. RRP £9.99 paperback.
I have always been curious about Mudlarks. Once a way of scraping together a living for some of London’s poorest residents, modern Mudlarks are more likely to be hobbyists and amateur archaeologists. They search the Thames foreshore at low tide, searching for historical objects revealed or washed up by the river. So when Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames was published, I was keen to give it a read. I was not disappointed; Mudlarking is a fascinating book, and a joy to read.
For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people, and their relationship with a natural force…As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tell the greatest stories.Maiklem, 2019; p. 5.
Mudlarking is not easy to categorise. It’s not a history book, a memoir, or a travel book, but it has elements of all 3. Lara describes the process and experience of mudlarking; explores what mudlarking, and the Thames more generally, means to her; and investigates and speculates on the origins and history of a huge range of objects that she has found over the years, from the mundane to the extraordinary.
The book is structured geographically, beginning at Teddington, where the tidal Thames begins, and finishing in the Estuary. The narrative winds and curves however, much like the river itself. Sometimes it jumps back Lara’s childhood, pauses on a particularly memorable trip to the river, or stops to reflect on a different types of object such as pins, buttons, or clay pipes. Mudlarking always comes back to the river however, and its relationship to London.
London is a city where the past is never far from the surface; simply turning a corner can catapult you back hundreds of years. There is just so much history there, so many lives and stories, most of which are irrevocably lost to us. The objects Lara finds on the Thames foreshore are a way for her to connect with those lost stories, to imagine Londoners long gone and conjure the city as it used to be in her mind. This struck a chord with me; I also find myself daydreaming about past people and places when presented with an archival document or running my hand along the walls of an ancient church.
Not only is Mudlarking well written, it is also well put together. It is full of special touches, from the illustrations on the inside cover, lovingly drawn by one of Lara’s fellow mudlarkers, to the font used for the front cover and chapter epigraphs, the type of which was consigned to the river by its’ creator in the early twentieth century. There are also two lovely maps of the river (there are few books that couldn’t be improved without the inclusion of a map or two, in my opinion!), and images of many of the finds Lara discusses.
Thanks to the Coronavirus lockdown, I haven’t been to London in five months. Reading Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames was a wonderful way for me to reconnect with a city that I miss. There are so many books about London, it isn’t easy to find a fresh angle. In Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem has done this, and then some.