'It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find and was covered in crust': An afternoon with Britain's mudlarkers

·7-min read
Mudlarking is enjoying a boom in the current drought, as the lack of rain dries the land and causes the water levels of some non-tidal rivers to recede - Tony Buckingham
Mudlarking is enjoying a boom in the current drought, as the lack of rain dries the land and causes the water levels of some non-tidal rivers to recede - Tony Buckingham

“Help, it’s a big one.”

I turn around quickly, hopeful for treasure, to see mudlarker Monika Buttling-Smith wrestling with a leech on her arm. She pulls it off in good humour and tosses it back into the still, cool water of the River Stour, in north-east Essex.

For a second, I experience the surge of excitement that brings mudlarkers back to the foreshore and murky depths of UK streams, rivers and coastlines time and again.

Mudlarking, the alluring practice – to some – of hunting through river mud for lost items of value or historical significance, has been around since the late eighteenth century. But the activity - now more of a hobby than a desperate way to earn money - is enjoying a boom in the current drought, as the lack of rain dries the land and causes the water levels of some non-tidal rivers to recede.

This has been the driest eight-month spell since 1976. A drought was declared across half of England on Friday and the source of the Thames has dried up to more than five miles downstream, a first according to river experts. But where some see disaster, others see opportunity - at least in part - as dry conditions are unearthing some startling new finds.

Jane Eastman, a jeweller and “stream-larker” living near Whitchurch, in Hampshire, acknowledges that while undeniably troubling, the recent weather led her to find a silver Spanish coin more than 500 years old - a Ferdinand and Isabella 1474-1504 quarter real, currently selling for more than £200 online - from a location in the crystal-clear chalk streams, usually inaccessible due to the streams’ depth and the current, around where she lives.

“It’s a once in a lifetime find and was covered in crust,” says Eastman, who has nearly 50,000 Instagram followers (@myordinarytreasure) and has pulled up Victorian boot heels, a 1920s Garrard 18ct watch face, a Georgian lamp and a Charles Horner Suffragette brooch.

Jane Eastman
Jane Eastman

“I put [the coin] in lemon juice for an hour to dissolve the chalky cruddy outer layer. I knew straight away it was something other than what you would usually find.”

Eastman hunts using a Heath Robinson-style glass-bottomed plastic bucket. Wading in rivers is, she says, more challenging than mudlarking on foreshores as you have currents, weeds and fish to contend with. Sometimes, she snorkels – although with fast currents she urges caution.

The Treasure Act 1996 has it that any silver or gold object, other than a coin, that is more than 300 years old must be reported to your local Finds Liaison Officer within 14 days – meaning Eastman does not have to declare hers. If she had found more than one, she would do.

Two weeks ago, she found a First World War King’s Royal Rifle Corps cap badge, in waters usually too fast-flowing for chest waders, and a Georgian clay wig curler.

A First World War King’s Royal Rifle Corps cap badge found by Eastman
A First World War King’s Royal Rifle Corps cap badge found by Eastman

Eastman is not alone in rare finds. Earlier this month, a 15-year-old boy accidentally found a cache of 11 dumped firearms including a revolver and Uzi submachine gun while out paddling on a fishing trip in the Pool River near Catford, south-east London.

Abroad, the findings have been even more macabre.

Twenty miles east of Las Vegas at Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir, four sets of human remains and a number of sunken boats have been found since May, as water levels drop to historic lows amid a severe drought. In Rome, too, dry conditions have caused the Tiber River’s level to drop to reveal an ancient Roman bridge built by Emperor Nero.

“The low water levels have opened up opportunities for exploring new areas that were previously harder to get to,” says Eastman. “Rivers have been used as dumps since Roman times. Anywhere there has been human activity, you’ll find things.”

It’s this sense of optimism that has brought me to the banks of the Stour near the village of Dedham, which originated as a cloth-making village in the later Middle Ages. This is where Neolithic axes have been found as well as Bronze-Age bits and pieces from before the Georgians dug in and the area became John Constable country. It should be a rich seam of historic sludge.

Moniker Buttling-Smith (@mudika.thames - mudlarkers are all on Instagram nowadays) has agreed to accompany me. Her finds include a Roman oil lamp from AD 70, a Tudor sewing bone bodkin (with earwax scraper) and a Norman arrow head. From her necklace hangs a medieval chest key, a gift from her mentor, mudlarking veteran Graham Du Heaume who found it in the Thames, and which she wears for luck. She lives in north London and normally goes mudlarking twice a week, usually in the Thames, which requires a permit from the Port of London Authority.

Journalist India Sturgis with registered mudlarker Monika Buttling-Smith in The River Stour at Dedham, Essex - Tony Buckingham
Journalist India Sturgis with registered mudlarker Monika Buttling-Smith in The River Stour at Dedham, Essex - Tony Buckingham

“I have got it down to a manageable addiction,” she says.

Today the roasting riverbank crunches under foot and the water line looks in places a good 2ft below where it might usually be. We wade in, scraping and lifting tools at the ready, and I’m told to look for anything with straight or perfect round edges, a sign it is man-made. Flint, apparently, is often mistaken for an exciting artefact because silt readily shapes it as it washes over. We see all sorts of wildlife: sea snails, freshwater mussels, duck, dragonfly, fish, and the aformentioned leech. The treasure haul is, well, not really treasure: the rubber tread of a man’s shoe, shards of Victorian transferware pottery, a 1970s hair comb, a bit of a car and various broken bottles. I point to a chain.

“It’s always worth pulling on it and seeing what’s at the end, sometimes you’ll get an old padlock,” says Buttling-Smith, enthusiastically.

I can see the attraction of dredging up discarded and broken chunks of history. It’s the thrill of the find and the sleuth-work to learn more about it.

Journalist India Sturgis ( white top) with registered mudlarker Monika Buttling-Smith under a bridge on The River Stour at Dedham, Essex - Tony Buckingham
Journalist India Sturgis ( white top) with registered mudlarker Monika Buttling-Smith under a bridge on The River Stour at Dedham, Essex - Tony Buckingham

Buttling-Smith agrees. “I have a patchwork quilt of knowledge from finds. It puts you in someone else’s shoes, from centuries ago, for a fraction of a second. Everyone looks for a gold coin, I don’t know why; I’d much rather have a Tudor shoe beautifully preserved because of anaerobic [oxygen-free] mud.”

For those thinking of mudlarking, if the river or coastline is not public, you must get the landowner’s permission to search there, as with metal detecting. The Thames has more specific rules and requires a permit. Safety precautions include having an up-to-date tetanus jab, gloves to protect against “tough rusties”, a phone (in case an emergency call has to be made) and good wellington boots. It’s also wise to keep a look-out for deep mud that acts like quicksand – Buttling-Smith explains that spots where old boats have sat can be dangerous as silt collects there like an invisible booby trap. While she has never got into difficulties, she recently helped a woman carry her dogs to safety in thigh-high water after the tide came in and cut the woman off.

Despite finding nothing of note today, I leave feeling richer. It’s easy to forget recent history, so wrapped up are we in today, and ignore the traces that others have left behind (traces that we, too, are leaving in our wake). As well as chipped clay pipes, used by smokers since the sixteenth century, Buttling-Smith now sees carpets of discarded plastic vapes.

“You can’t be too demanding of the river,” says Buttling-Smith, from the dusty riverbank. “Sometimes you will find something when you are not looking, sometimes you won’t find anything when you are.”