As you get oriented with London on a map while planning your trip, you’ve probably noticed that big, beautiful, meandering river cutting right through the city. The Thames is the lifeblood of London, and in fact is the primary reason a city sprung up here at all, way back in the days of Roman settlement and when the area was called Londinium.
The Thames has carried ships and stuff – people, goods, you name it – in and out of London for millennia at this point, and as you might expect, some of that stuff has ended up in the river over that time. (Some of the ships, too!) Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find that old stuff on the banks of the river, when the level drops due to the Thames’s natural tides; this is called mudlarking, but there’s more to it than a whimsical name.
Mudlarking is a fascinating and someone uniquely London activity if you’re visiting; you can go mudlarking on other rivers, by definition, but mudlarking in London is a really exciting prospect. It is entirely possible to find Roman tiles, Victorian coins, and everything in between.
If you’re curious about mudlarking in London and you’re not a local familiar with the ins and outs of this activity, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find a guide to mudlarking in London written specifically for visitors who are curious about the activity – maybe you spotted someone doing it on your first day exploring the city, or are looking for a unique thing to do on a return trip. In either case, read on.
Note: All of my photos in this post were taken in the past, when mudlarking on the foreshore was permitted.
What is Mudlarking?
I’m guessing if you’ve ended up on this article, you’ve already heard of the term “mudlarking,” but just in case you’re not familiar with the official definition:
Mudlarking is “the activity of searching the mud near rivers trying to find valuable or interesting objects.” (source)
The term dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, referring to the people – “mudlarks” – who used to search the river for salvageable items that could be of value.
In more modern times, mudlarking is a hobby that many people enjoy during their time in London – and that includes some London locals, so it’s not just some gimmicky thing just for tourists. In fact, some of the most popular and well-known mudlarks are long-time Londoners and lifelong Brits. If you decide to spend part of your time in London mudlarking, you’ll be in good company.
Mudlarking in London: Essential Info
Before jumping into how to go mudlarking in London, I thought it might help to cover some basics of mudlarking in general:
- The Thames is a tidal river, which means that the level of the river rises and falls throughout the day. At certain times of day and of the month, the tides are especially low and this makes for the best times to mudlark.
- As a tidal river, tides can change fast and this means you must research tide times and depth changes to understand and keep yourself safe.
- The Thames foreshore is covered with rocks of all sizes, as well as lots of other debris (glass, nails, metal objects, etc.). It can be quite hazardous to walk and you should definitely have good, closed shoes or boots (“wellies”) on if you plan to try mudlarking.
- Additionally, you should wear gloves and maintain sanitary conditions when mudlarking anywhere – there are several known viruses and bacteria you can be exposed to while mudlarking, including the one that causes Leptospirosis. Bring rubber gloves and separate bags into which you might place anything you find. (But I’ll come back to “keeping what you find” in a moment, stick with me!)
All this to say, it’s not simply a matter of finding access and walking along the banks of the Thames in whatever shoes and clothes you happen to wear, looking for treasure – mudlarking is quite serious business, and there are lots of rules on top of these practicalities!
Where to Go Mudlarking in London
Okay, stick with me here, but I’m actually not going to tell you where to go mudlarking in London – at least not in Central London. I have a good reason though…
Can Visitors Go Mudlarking?
As I’ve just suggested, visitors can go mudlarking in London, but I don’t currently recommend doing so because mudlarking in London is currently not legal.
Now this illegality isn’t just for visitors; in the past, anyone who wanted to legally go mudlarking was required to pay for a Thames Foreshore Permit. These weren’t cheap, but they were good for one year. Unfortunately, due to changes in the river and people who are mudlarking illegally, the Port of London Authority (PLA) has paused issuing new permits.
Technically, the Thames is closed for mudlarking between Teddington (far west and upstream of London) and the Thames Barrier; this means that mudlarking in Central London is a no-no. Unlike in North America though, you probably won’t get a ticket or citation for going onto the foreshore – but you do so at your own risk, cannot dig, scrape, or use metal detectors, or keep anything you find.
Can I Go Mudlarking Anyway?
As I’ve mentioned, you can still climb down and walk along the “foreshore” of the Thames in Central London (the foreshore being the exposed banks of the river at lower tides). However, it’s entirely at your own risk, and not something I encourage. In fact, I wrote this post specifically to point out that the rules have changed and you shouldn’t go mudlarking in Central London – though you may certainly see people doing it (illegally) when you’re there.
Now, should you vs. will you is a personal decision, but I am respecting the fact that the Thames is a delicate ecosystem and won’t be mudlarking until the PLA starts issuing permits again, signaling that it’s both safe and sustainable to go mudlarking that section of the river.
Can I Keep What I Find while Mudlarking?
As you’ve probably guessed based on the fact that mudlarking is not currently legal since permits are not being issued, no, you can’t keep anything you find while mudlarking if you decide to go mudlarking along the Thames in London.
Now, in the event that permits are issued again before I have a chance to come back and re-update this post or you decide to go mudlarking east of the Thames Barrier where it’s permitted, you can keep items you find, provided they do not have historical importance and/or are not treasure.
- If you believe an item you have found has historical significance (usually 300+ years old), you must report it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London within one month. Most items are returned within one month unless they have special significance in which case they may be kept for a museum (and you might be compensated!).
- If you believe you have found treasure (gold and silver objects or groups of coins), that must be reported to the coroner in the district where you found it, per The Treasure Act of 1996.
- Additionally, non-British nationals are required to file for an export license to take home any archaeological items (aka anything you find on the Thames) that are 50 years or older.
- Lastly, in the event you find human bones or remains of any kind, those must be reported to the police immediately.
That’s a lot of rules, right? Honestly, it’s better to have a guide to help you identify anything you find and determine its significance, which brings me to…
Mudlarking Tours in London
If you have your heart set on mudlarking in London, how about doing it responsibly as part of a tour? I found several that are good options to try this activity in a legal, safe way:
- Thames Discovery Program offers guided tours with an archaeologist guide.
- The Thames Explorer Trust offers guided mudlarking activities along different parts of the river.
- You can book a tour with the self-proclaimed “Mud God” Steve Brooker on his site, Thames and Field.
- Thames 21 offers river clean-ups; this is a great chance to get down and go mudlarking while you help clean up the river from trash and debris.
All of these activities are a better alternative than heading out on your own if you’re not a seasoned mudlark – and you’ll be more likely to find something cool if you have a guide to help you.
While she doesn’t lead tours, one of my favorite mudlarks is Lara Maiklem, who also wrote a great book on the subject. Her Facebook page is a bit like mudlarking digitally – she posts videos of finds as well as fun “can you spot it?” videos where you try to see what she found as she zooms in… it’s a lot harder than it looks!
Have any other questions about mudlarking in London? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help or point you toward the official resource if needed.