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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'The Thames is liquid history'

27 December 2021

Managing to make a perfect connection between bus and train, we arrive at the historic London Bridge station in record time - apparently. We have plans to visit the Sky Garden in Fenchurch Street in London's city centre. A three-storey landscaped glass dome filled with exotic plants and several eateries provides magnificent views over London.

Unfortunately for us, however, we didn't access timed tickets before our arrival and were therefore unable to visit this iconic building. Never mind!

We walk back towards the river through almost deserted streets. The combination of public holidays and COVID has meant that London streets are uncharacteristically empty. There are tourists, but certainly not the numbers that one would expect at this time of the year.

There is plenty for us to do on this dreary day; we have a list of attractions that we should visit in the vicinity. I haven't yet visited the Tate Modern, and over coffee, Natasha secures tickets online. There is an exhibition inside the Turbine Hall, which was once part of the Bankside Power Station; strange objects floating in the air high above our heads. Upon entry into the gallery, I watch the octopus and mushroom-shaped sculptures floating noiselessly and gently in the large space. Called aerobes, the exhibition encourages us to think about new ways machines may inhabit the world. Climbing the stairs to stand on the gantry, it becomes evident that these strange forms are controlled by central software that prompts tiny propellers to stop and start to keep them airborne. I don't often appreciate elements of modern art, but these objects that are floating almost seamlessly, avoiding the other forms are quite fascinating.

We can only watch these for so long, so Natasha suggests we go up and view the city from one of the upper floors. COVID has been instrumental in curtailing many of our activities and again, we find that the balcony is currently closed. However, the security person advised that we can get a wonderful view of St. Paul's from a lower balcony overlooking the Thames.

From our position on the outdoor balcony, we can see up and down the river; floating Uber boats zoom under bridges carrying people from one place on the river to another. Although there is plenty of activity on and around the Thames, there are no crowds, just a handful of tourists and probably locals getting out and about. Perhaps it is an opportunity for me to better explore the streets without being jostled by large crowds of people. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting to see firsthand the devastating effects of the pandemic on this city.

Mudlarking is an old term, which is probably not used in Australia anymore. Perhaps we've never really appreciated exactly what it is, but today, I find out the origins of the word when I try to find out why so many people are scratching around on the muddy shores of the Thames. Twice a day, the Thames rises with tidal water - sometimes as much as seven metres. As the water tumbles through the ancient channel, it carries centuries-old junk. In the old days, the river was a repository for everything that needed to be flushed away. However, what goes around comes around; the river taketh and the river giveth back. As the tide recedes, it leaves behind newly exposed detritus, even treasures from a long-past era. Mudlarks, tourists and locals alike, descend upon the muddy shores to look through the silt and mud for gifts from the river. There are, however, some strict rules that mudlarks must follow. Nobody is permitted to dig, scrape, or use a metal detector. Only objects that are on the surface may be picked up and removed. Most astoundingly is that whatever one picks up from the surface of the mud, they can keep. Imagine picking up a part of a roof tile blackened by the Great Fire in 1666 or a Roman coin or a shard of medieval pottery. I love the idea of finding stuff, but despite my lack of enthusiasm for actually mudlarking myself, I do add it to a list of possible things to do whilst I'm here.

Leaving the Tate Modern, we walk across the Millennium Bridge that links the gallery and Shakespeare's Globe with St Paul's Cathedral on the north bank. We linger for a few minutes and watch the mudlarks below us, bent over almost double as they scrutinise the mud below their feet. As we approach the magnificent St Paul's; the iconic dome poking between buildings, I am particularly happy that this area is devoid of the tall buildings that may obstruct this wonderful cathedral, which was the tallest building in London from 1710 until 1963. We are not going to enter the Cathedral today as we need to pre-purchase tickets, but as I skirt the building, another sight is added to my list of things to do when Natasha returns to work.

As we walk away from the Cathedral, we arrive at the bus stop seconds before our bus arrives; the hour-long ride on the top of the iconic red double-decker bus provides a birds-eye view of the city as I rest my weary feet that have tramped many kilometres along the hard London streets.

Title Quote: John Burns

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