In today’s episode of “Meet the Londoner” I have a very special guest: London Mudlark – Lara Maiklem – who is one of my mudlarking heroes. I’ve been following her online for years and I am super happy that she answered some questions for me. Enjoy the interview and learn more about her, mudlarking and her first book.
Welcome Lara – the London Mudlark
Hi Lara, please tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in Surrey, on a dairy farm, just 30 miles as the crow flies from Westminster. The London to Brighton railway skirted the edge of the farm and Gatwick planes roared overhead, but it was a rural oasis, a green valley at the end of a concrete road. My father’s family are farmers, and always have been, my mother’s family came from London and she made sure I knew the city as well as the countryside. So I grew up with a foot in both camps, a child of two very different worlds.
I went to university in Newcastle and by the time I’d finished I was desperate to get to London. I blagged my way into a badly paid job at a publishing house in Covent Garden and moved into a flat share in Muswell Hill with my best mate from school. It was the early 90s and I threw myself onto the club scene. I’d go straight from the clubs to work on Monday morning, it’s amazing what you can do into your 20s! Eventually I calmed down, focussed on my career and worked my way up in the publishing world as an editor for illustrated books. In 2000 I decided I’d had enough of office politics and stepped off the career ladder. I went freelance, which was honestly the best thing I’ve ever done.
I did a lot of travelling and in 2008 I got married – well civil partnered, we’re married now. We had twins in 2012 and that’s when I started the London Mudlark Facebook page. It was the first online mudlarking page, lots of people are doing it now, but back then it was somewhere to share the objects I’d been finding on the foreshore and the research I was doing. It was also a connection to the outside world at a time I was home alone most of the time with babies. I never expected it to grow, but London Mudlark now has over 100k followers spread over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it’s the largest online mudlarking community and it spawned my book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the Thames Foreshore.
When did you develop an interest into mudlarking?
I started walking along the banks of the Thames soon after I moved to London in the 90s. Although I loved being in London I also missed the peace and quiet of the countryside and I discovered an oasis of peace by the river. It was a while before I discovered the foreshore, but one day it was low tide and I decided to go down the river stairs to take a look around. I found a clay pipe stem and that was that, I was hooked. I’d always enjoyed collecting and looking for things.
As a child I went on nature walks and fossil hunting with my mother, we brought things back and I collected them in an old chest of drawers I called my ‘museum’. There was also an old kitchen dump in the garden of the farmhouse that I used to dig through, which is how I knew what the clay pipe was, and bottles used to surface in some of the fields when they were ploughed over. I’ve always been a magpie and I’ve always been on the lookout for unusual objects.
What do you like most about being on the foreshore?
Mostly it’s the peace and quiet, it’s another world down there, a completely different London. I go to be alone, so even if I come back empty handed, I feel better, more relaxed, happier.
How often do you go onto treasure hunts nowadays?
I lived in Greenwich for nearly 20 years, right by the river. Back then I’d pop down for 20 minutes at a time, sometimes on both tides. Now I’ve moved out of London to the Kent coast I have a very different relationship with the river. I try to get down once a week and I’m exploring new parts of the river. I mudlark for 5-6 hours at a time now, it’s far more intense.
Do you have a favourite spot to go to?
I have several favourite spots. I love the Estuary, it’s wild and brooding, but I also like mudlarking in central London where you can almost feel the lives that have been poured into the mud beneath your feet. Each part of the river has character and I generally choose my spot depending on how I’m feeling – I need to be in a sociable mood to mudlark in central London because that’s the busiest part!
What is the most precious item you have ever found?
It depends what you define as precious. I have found gold and rare coins that are probably worth a bit, but to me the most precious objects are the personal ones. I have a Tudor child’s shoe that came out of the mud as if it has been lost yesterday. The creases across the top, the worn hole in the end and the soft imprint of its original owner’s footprint are more precious to me than gold because they are a direct link to the past. They bring history to life and that’s priceless.
Potential treasures need to be reported to the Museum of London where experts will check the item.
What is the process when finding a potential treasure?
Under UK law, certain ownerless objects are defined as ‘Treasure’ and as such have to be reported to the local coroner since they belong not to the finder but the Crown, or other franchises such as the City of London. In order to qualify as Treasure a find needs to be over three hundred years old and made of at least 10 per cent precious metal by weight; a group of two or more base metal coins over three hundred years old, or two or more base metal prehistoric objects from the same spot; prehistoric objects containing any amount of precious metal; and any material found alongside objects that qualify as Treasure (this would include bags, boxes, pots and loose gemstones).
Local and national museums are given the chance to express an interest in buying the object, but if nobody wants it the Crown disclaims their interest and it is returned to the finder. If a museum wants to purchase the object there is an official inquiry to declare the item Treasure and its value is determined by an independent Treasure Valuation Committee and this is paid as a reward to the finder and the landowner (in the case of the Thames this is the PLA) who split it 50/50. They can also opt to donate the find to a museum.
Have you ever donated an item to the museum?
Yes I have. It’s a decorated gold lace end from the 16th century. It’s part of a mini hoard that’s eroding from a particular area of the foreshore. Hundreds of little bits of gold have been recovered by mudlarks, but most are broken or squashed, which has led to speculation that they are scrap gold, perhaps from a bag that was dropped into the river. The Museum of London is collecting as much of the hoard as they can and I donated my piece to the collection.
Do you keep everything that you find on the foreshore? What happens to your finds?
I curate my collection carefully. I don’t take home everything I find, only objects I don’t have or better examples to swap with ones I have. I leave a lot there for others to find and I give stuff away to reenactors, small museums and good homes. What I keep goes in my 18-drawer printer’s chest, which is perfectly suited for the job – I’ve lined each drawer with a different colour felt. If an object doesn’t fit it has to be really special for me to keep it.
Do you offer guided tours for those who never went mudlarking before?
I don’t do guided tours, the PLA (Port of London Authority) are very strict on who does and I’d rather spend my mudlarking time by myself.
Mudlarking – Lara’s first book
In August 2019 you published your first book “Mudlarking” which is a bestseller already. Congrats on that!
What was your motivation to write the book?
Thank you! I have a very persuasive agent. Working in publishing I decided long ago that I never wanted to write a book, but in 2015 Sarah Ballard from United Agents contacted me through my Facebook page and persuaded me to write a proposal. I did and there was a bidding war! I was in an incredible position and pretty much got to choose my publisher. I went with Bloomsbury, who I knew would have the creative freedom and foresight to do the book justice and hit the jackpot with my amazing editor, Alexis Kirschbaum.
It took three years to write and at times I hated it, but I’m very proud of what I produced in the end. Ian Mortimer (historian and author of the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval and Elizabethan England), who I admire hugely, has described it as ‘a love letter to my subject’, which is exactly what I wanted it to be.
It was really hard. I wrote the book three times and gradually whittled it down to the stories that meant the most to me and those that told the tale of the river and the city itself.
Why no pics from the objects you found?
Quite a lot of people have asked this. It was a conscious decision by both myself and my publisher. I didn’t want a ‘shiny paper’ section in the middle of the book, which I felt would be large enough or do the objects justice, and my editor wanted the words do the work of pictures. I hope my descriptions conjure images in people’s minds, but the book also works well with my Instagram gallery (@London.Mudlark). All the objects I’ve written about are there, and lots more.
Do you plan a translation into German as well?
I hope so! I hope it will be translated into many languages; my agent is certainly working hard to make that happen.
Will we see more books from you in the future?
Ha! Maybe. Watch this space.
Lara about London
What’s a must-see sight in London?
The view from the top of Monument. Built to commemorate the Great Fire, it might not be a tall as the Shard (which I hate), but there’s a lot to be said for actually being outside admiring the views over the river and the City and not being stuck behind glass.
3 words to describe London
Fascinating, exhausting, home (even though I’ve left, for the time being)
Where do you go for a good breakfast?
Maria’s Market Café in Borough Market after a cold early morning on the foreshore is heaven. Bacon, bubble and squeak, fried eggs and a mug of tea – mmmmm!
The best museum in London is…?
I love Dennis Servers’ House although that’s not strictly a museum, as the Museum of London I think. I spend a lot of time there gazing at the objects I hope to find on the foreshore one day.
Your favourite part of London?
Greenwich, my heart will always be in Greenwich.
London Mudlark Lara Maiklem on Social Media
Thanks so much for taking your time, Lara! I enjoyed reading your book a lot! It really felt like being on the foreshore with you. Hopefully we can go for a tea together one day!