Wednesday, August 28, 2013
From Surrey Docks Farm to Nelson Dock along the foreshore
The easiest way to check the tide level is to look at the Tide Tables page on the Port of London Authority's website and use the North Woolwich low tide as a reasonable estimate. Today it was at ll48, and when I arrived at the stairs next to the Surrey Docks Farm, the tide was still on its way out.
I wasn't sure how far I could get upriver without being up to the knees in mud, so I went to find out. At low tide that took me as far as Nelson Dock, and my trainers were un-mudied. I would have been wary at crossing in front of Nelson Dock because it was pure mud and no matter how safe people tell me it is, I've experienced that mud when wearing wellies and it has a lot of suction.
I didn't go with a view to finding anything in particular - I was just there for a stroll. But having been involved in the Surrey Docks Farm survey (still working on documentary stuff) I was fascinated by all the odds and ends that are kicking around on the foreshore. None of them have financial value (unless you spend a lot of time rummaging in the mud, and get lucky), but many are really interesting just as a random sample of what washes up.
The stone-covered beaches are full of small objects that have washed up over the decades, some easily identifiable, others a complete mystery (at least to me). The bricks, stock bricks from the construction of may nineteenth century buildings, were bulldozed into the river after the bombings of the Second World War, a small reminder of the destruction and bits of our lost heritage. The mud is full of timbers, chains, nails, bolts, all sorts of odds and ends from wrecked, broken up and damaged ships including surprising numbers of anchor parts that were apparently used to moor small boats and barges at low tide. Some of the steel cables, a piece of which I picked up, were rock solid. There was a simply staggering amount of bone. There were numerous oyster shells, presumably from the Victorian period when oysters were gathered off the English coast and consumed in large numbers.
Today I saw dozens of white pieces of clay tobacco pipe shaft. Clay pipes consist of a long tube of white clay, which makes up the shaft, finishing in a bowl, which often has a small heel to keep it upright when placed on a table. They were mass produced by the end of the 16th century (see the Museum of London's web page on the subject for more information), and as they were prone to snapping and could be easily replaced their remains are littered throughout the country, turning up in handfuls in fields, gardens, and of course rivers. There must be many thousands of fragments along the entire length of the Thames alone. Some of these were marked with stamps, enabling their manufacturer to be identified and a date to be assigned. Pricier models were elaborated with little embellishments and sculptural features. A far greater number are unmarked, but all are remarkable, if only for the sheer volume of them remaining in fragmentary form. Most of the bits I've found in the past have been completely unmarked, but today I found two which had been marked - one with a little line of decoration on the shaft, and one with a stamp on the base of its heel.
I was unable to identify many of the items that I found. A number of identical tiny silvery bottles, for example, may have been pharmaceutical jars but are round-bottomed and I suspect actually belonged to machines, partially because the glass or glass-like fabric is so very strong. They are very vaguely familiar, but I am not at all sure where from (see photo right).
Overall, there was a lot of ceramic and coarse pottery - everything from willow-pattern china to bits of flower pot, chimney and coarse ware. There were also a lot big fragments of thick clay jars and bottles, probably Edwardian and Victorian, judging from the stuff I used to dig when clearing down to the Roman layers on town sites.
So much of what I picked up had been heavily rolled by the Thames and fragments of glass, stone pipe and pottery, which must have very sharp edges when first broken, were now rounded and smooth to the touch.
There were, of course, the usual selection of items tossed unwanted into the river - lots of bits of bicycle, for example, a plastic chair, and the ruined remains of a Blackberry mobile phone. But it was surprising how little ordinary rubbish there was. The usual detritus of human living, plastic bottles, tin cans, crisp packets and the like, must be washing up somewhere else.
I was only there for a random hour's stroll, but there was so much to see. A couple of words of warning to those thinking of heading down to the foreshore, if you haven't been before. Wellies are essential if you are getting off the stones and pebbles and going into the mud. Even if you stick to the stones and pebbles, you need sensible footwear because the stones shift a lot beneath your feet and the bricks are slippery. In addition, there is a lot of broken glass, not just little bits but big broken bottles. Importantly, the tide comes in very, very quickly, so it is essential to check the tide tables. Finally, the mud can be nasty stuff, with all sorts of things decaying invisibly beneath it, so you if you are intent on picking up objects with your bare hands (waterproof gloves, like those used by the Thames Discovery people and other professionals, are a much, much better idea) then you absolutely must have tetanus shots. These days they last for 10 years, and I never miss mine.