Mudlarking about: Why treasure-hunting is Britain's latest hobby

·3 min read

Watch: Mudlarks unearth the past on London's riverbanks

The mudlarks of Victorian London were poor scavengers, scouring the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide for items of value which they could sell to survive. 

Little could they have predicted that in 2021, 'larking' of all kinds (not just in mud) would be seen as a trendy, 'mindful' and socially-conscious pastime. 

It's no longer just the preserve of hardcore history geeks. Nowadays, countless modern larkers are spending their spare time pottering with their noses to the ground on river banks, or swinging metal detectors across fields, in the hope of discovering either modern trinkets and curios or historical artefacts. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20: Tower Bridge is seen in the distance as Mudlark Jason Sandy searches the shoreline of the River Thames for historical items on October 20, 2018 in London, England. Moving to London eleven years ago, US-born Jason Sandy fell in love with the history that was available to explore on his doorstep and now has over 35,000 followers on his instagram feed
A mudlarker searching the Thames shoreline at sunset (Getty Images)

“All these people who used these things haven’t got a place in the history books," Lara Maiklem, the author of Mudlarking and the forthcoming new book A Field Guide to Larking (with nearly 90K followers on Instagram), told the Guardian. "Down there, it’s real history," she said, explaining the magical appeal of poking around in the mud. "The foreshore is the closest thing to a time machine that I can imagine.”

While traditional mudlarkers were looking for profit, today's larkers are usually motivated by curiosity and an interest in history - but sometimes, they're also on a mission to help save the world. 

Flora Blathwayt, from South London, combs UK beaches at low tide for tiny pieces of waste microplastics which she then uses to create her Washed Up Cards. Featuring cute drawings and clever puns, they transform wildlife-threatening trash into treasure (and help raise awareness against plastic pollution along the way).

Close up of objects found while mudlarking on the River Thames
A mudlarker's finds on the River Thames (Getty Images)

"Technically speaking I'm a beach and river cleaner, my job is to pick up plastic, but I often bump into mudlarkers and they say that what I'm finding is in some ways just a different kind of treasure," she told Yahoo. 

"Mudlarkers are obviously looking for things of value, and the irony of what I'm doing - cliched as it sounds, is that I'm looking for the beauty in things that have been discarded (although I pick up all rubbish I find, too!)" 

Flora larking for plastic (McGivern Photography)
Flora larking for plastic (McGivern Photography)

Flora was inspired to start her business after she became furloughed from her job during the first lockdown, and went to a beach clean up event on the Thames. 

She was amazed and horrified at the levels of plastic she found. 

"The mental health aspect for me has been massive this past year," she said. 

"I was feeling so spare, but going out to the Thames and walking along the beach and doing something positive for the environment has really helped. 

"As weird as it seems, it was meditative, it was soothing, it was calming. I meet lots of mudlarkers along the way and they all seem to be beautiful, eccentric souls." 

To mudlark on the Thames you will need a licence from the Port of London Authority

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