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On the shores of the Thames I got down and dirty

EMILY FLAKE/The Globe and Mail

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As I stepped onto the muddy banks of the River Thames, I couldn't think of a better place to be.

I am hopelessly in love with London and its free museums, its pie and mash, flea markets and theatres, and especially its history. But instead of going to a museum and looking at artifacts behind glass, I had decided to experience history hands-on and become a mudlark for a day.

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Mudlarks are people who dig through London's 2,000 years worth of historic garbage washed up by tides on the shores of the Thames. Amid rocks, discarded crisp packets and plastic bottles, they dig patiently through tidal mud to unlock the city's social history, sifting through what everyone else would call junk.

The original mudlarks were Victorian London's poorest children, who would scavenge for anything of value. Modern mudlarks are pencil pushers, artists, families and tourists who enjoy spending some free time consumed with the city's material past.

I heard about mudlarking through a television documentary, and was fascinated by the possibility of having direct contact with my favourite city's rich history. I bought a London Port Authority foreshore licence (the day permit costs £20 ($34), checked the tidal schedule and picked a time when the tide was lowest.

As I headed over to the river, I looked more like a garbage collector than a tourist. Gone were the ever-present map, Oyster card and camera: my look now consisted of Wellington boots and rubber gloves.

Anything from Roman pottery to medieval beer bottles can be found on London's smelly shores. The anaerobic mud does not let oxygen pass through, preserving objects for centuries.

Mudlarks usually look for old coins, clay hair curlers, combs, pipes and personal items that offer detailed information about people's everyday lives.

Being a first-timer, I initially hoped to find a rare artifact from Roman London or the Tudor era, but common objects can be just as meaningful as a gold coin.

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When I stepped onto the north bank of the river, the first things I found were small clay tubes. These were the broken stems of clay pipes used from the 16th to the 19th century by every class of Londoner. Scattered along the shoreline, they are like early versions of cigarette butts. But I didn't want to just collect clay tubes: I decided then and there that I was going to find an intact clay pipe.

After a couple hours of searching I had a bag of oyster shells (the chosen snack of Samuel Pepys), two rusty nails, some broken bits of pottery, several clay pipe bowls and countless pipe stems, but no intact pipe. I worried that I had aimed too high, and the tide was starting to come in.

I had nearly given up, and was roaming the shore, when I saw a pipe stem sticking out at an odd angle in the mud. After digging around the uncooperative sludge for 10 minutes with one of my oyster shells (having forgotten a trowel), a pipe with both stem and bowl attached began to emerge. Later, I learned that completely intact pipes are not rare, and experienced mudlarks have whole collections of them, but it was my first real find.

I was beaming from ear to ear and keen to show off my pipe to passers-by. As I talked to more and more people along the shore, I realized that the pipe was not my only discovery that day. In many other places, mudlarking is a solitary pastime that brings to mind images of loners with metal detectors. But in this large and impersonal city, I discovered it's a surprisingly social affair. Many of those who explore London's shoreline are regulars who are eager to approach fellow mudlarks, otherwise complete strangers, to show each other their finds.

I met a woman on her daily walk along the shore, a Hungarian man who goes mudlarking on his lunch break, two artists, some young couples, and a family of mudlarks who were in London for the weekend. The Hungarian proudly showed me pictures of five musket balls and a small dagger he'd found earlier in the week. The artists were busy painting scenes of the Thames, but were more than willing to talk about mudlarking. A local man came up to me and suggested my pipe was more than 150 years old.

Exhausted and muddy, I returned to my friends' flat to clean and sort my finds. Most of my pipe pieces were quite battered, but upon closer inspection I saw that a couple of pipe bowls had distinct vertical marks around their rims. I was surprised to learn that pipes with these markings can date as far back as the 17th or even 16th century. Could my pipes have been smoked by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries?

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While I did not find precious jewels or gold coins on my first mudlarking adventure, I saw my favourite city with new eyes. I was able to be part of an active subculture that draws history lovers from all walks of life to the muddy banks of the Thames.

But best of all, the experience gave me a new definition of the phrase "London underground."

Gemma Johnson lives in Guelph, Ont.

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