Pipes Tell Tales of the Riverbank

By Natale, Terri | New Statesman (1996), November 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Pipes Tell Tales of the Riverbank


Natale, Terri, New Statesman (1996)


Hunt through the clay of the Thames for an alternative view of London's history

Some of my favourite weekends begin with a phone call to the Harbour Master's office early in the week, enquiring about tides. When the news is good, come Sunday I don my Wellingtons, take my special bag and head for the beach.

But this is not a beach in the ordinary sense of the word - my beach is along the Chelsea Embankment, a stretch of land submerged out of existence at high tide and beguiling at low tide.

It has two big attractions for me: it's not far from home and it's relatively private; I can walk at my leisure along the water's edge, eyes sharpened, alert with anticipation. I'm out scavenging.

I often encounter other mudlarks. We exchange greetings and quickly move on. The greeting establishes non-hostility: we're jealous of our beach and our search. Some have metal detectors and are hunting for jewellery and coins. Me, I just scavenge on the surface, since it's illegal to dig more than three inches below the surface without a permit, which I don't have. The Port of London Authority lists 199 mudlarking permit holders.

Sometimes a puzzled and enquiring voice is heard from the top of the Embankment wall, wondering what the fascination can be. The hours melt and often it is only the incoming tide that forces me home, my Wellies filled with water.

Whenever I descend the stairs to the sandy, stony beach, I'm always amazed by how low the tide gets and look backwards in disbelief at the high-water stains along the Embankment walls. I try to imagine the old width of the river before the Embankment was built and the private landings along the water's edge; the stairway to the old Ranelagh Gardens where Mozart performed - a pleasure garden that rivalled Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th century; the old Battersea Bridge painted by Whistler; the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, whose noise so irritated Thomas Carlyle; or the elderly Turner being rowed across the Thames to admire the sunset.

The landscape is always different: sometimes clean and dry, the stones baked hot by the sun; sometimes wet. Often it is overfull with the refuse of modernity: plastic straws or rusting supermarket trolleys. That's not so surprising because transportation and sewage are part of the history of the Thames. Indeed a 19th-century rubbish tip is part of the reason for my visits.

It all began a few years ago when a friend told me that she'd found old clay smokers' pipes and a Roman coin along the shore at Battersea Park. I'd walked along the river after that, but never found anything of interest until a summer's day three years ago, when I found my first whole clay-pipe bowl. It lay nestled against the sand and stones along the wall like a tiny white ship aground on the sand. …

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