What does a landlocked beachcomber do when she can’t get to the coast to satisfy that fossicking urge? She catches the train into our fair capital and heads to the Thames foreshore!
Last month I met up with artist Linn O’Carroll on the Millennium Bridge for an afternoon of urban beachcombing . I first met Linn on Twitter and after some exciting exchanges, we decided to meet for a day of exploration.
I am fascinated by places which are transitional and exist between two states, like a beach which is both land and sea. It was fitting that we should come to meet on a bridge between north and south London with the ancient waterway flowing beneath us in the perfect liminal zone.
The Thames is tidal up until Teddington Lock in Surrey so it was important to check we would be safe when clambering over the beach. Low tide was just after 1pm so having consulted the gravitational pull of the moon, we were ready to begin.
Legally, it is fine to walk along the foreshore and pick things up. The moment you start lifting up rocks, or moving things to look underneath then you need a permit. Obviously, if you were to find something exciting, the assumption is that you would inform the Museum of London (a similar principle to metal detecting, although there will always be unscrupulous people who don’t report finds).
You can apply for a Mudlark Permit from the Port of London Authority – this will allow you to move rocks and dig to a depth of 1.2m. An annual pass is £70 and a day pass is £30. Having become fascinated by the objects the Thames is offering to the shore, almost like the unconscious memories of our city, I think a permit would be a sound investment.
I found myself drawn to collecting many lengths of clay pipes. It is thought that these were discarded by sailors, thrown from the deck before heading out to sea on voyages. These were disposable items, perhaps suggesting that the the single-use culture we associate with plastics today is not a modern phenomena.
I was captivated by the variation on colour of these pieces of fired earth. Having spent some time flirting with ceramics, I could appreciate the warm range of tones which betray the firing process – consider the similar hues below in the flotsam pipes and my wood fired pottery.
Despite these being single-use everyday items, they are beautiful, all the more so when you consider some of them have been in the water since the 1600s. Each one was held and used by a different person – what was their story?
These pipes mark the equivalent of the domestic items I find on the beach. They obviously hold more of a historical legacy, but that isn’t to say that in years to come, the Smarties lids, toy soldiers and shot gun cartridges won’t hold the same cultural significance as an insight into our daily lives.
I appreciate that I run the risk of romanticising a very dangerous environmental problem. Archaeologists of the future may rely on the longevity of plastic to define our culture, consumer lifestyle and daily habits.
Looking further into the future, once the oil runs out, plastic will become a material of the past as production will simply become too expensive. In the meantime, these shards of daily life, either the plastics of my lifetime, or the ceramic remnants of centuries before, expose fragments of our lives.
The tide, whether coastal metronome to the beach or urban pulse from sea to city, holds these objects and their stories, acting as our curator of the subconscious.