Lara Maiklem is a mudlark. That means she spends hours of her spare time crawling about in mud beside the Thames, getting cold and wet, in the hunt for treasure. Not gold or jewels but everyday items which the river gives up. It’s like being a detectorist only filthier and more dangerous. (There are mudlarks who use metal detectors, but you need a special licence for it.) Getting covered in mud and then bearing home a rucksack full of dirty, smelly items is not something which appeals to me, but I totally get the thrill of holding in your hand a Tudor shoe or even a humble clay pipe and feeling a connection to the unknown person who lost the item centuries ago.
The book is mainly about three things. 1) Personal history: how and why I became a mudlark. 2) The history of the Thames: its tides, bridges, wharves, pubs, steps, embankments, shipping. 3) How to be a mudlark and what to look for. That’s not how Maiklem has organised the book. She takes each stretch of the Thames in turn e.g. Vauxhall, Blackfriars, Bankside, then writes about what she finds there, other mudlarks she meets and the history of that particular part of the river. I could have done with a large map in front of me to trace all these journeys.
I was able to get a ‘read now’ extract from NetGalley for this Bloomsbury book. Either they sent me the whole thing or it’s a very long book, because it took me ages to read. I did find it fascinating, although I thought the history and the possible stories behind the found objects more interesting than the autobiographical elements. The story of the Doves Press is particularly good. I like the way each section begins with a quotation from an earlier work (e.g. Mayhew) about mudlarks of the past. This would be a very useful addition to the library of anyone interested in the Thames and London.