A modern mudlarker finds treasures washed up on the River Thames banks

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mudlarks were people who sifted through the mud on the banks of the River Thames to find things of value. Ted Sandling keeps the dream alive. He compiled his curious collection in a book, London in Fragments: A Mudlark's Treasures, and you can also follow his finds on Instagram. If you're inspired to dig yourself, new laws require mudlarkers (and metal detector users) to apply for a permit first and then report any treasures you uncover to the authorities.

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A couple of days ago I found this spoon, standing straight up in the gravel like a very small and shapely monolith. There was a symbolic significance to its position, as if it had been placed with deliberate purpose, probably to do with britishness, and tea. I picked it up (how could one not?) and brought it home for someone who is six and a half years old and likes spoons. The reverse tells all manner of stories to those who can decode the hallmarks (I can’t, but I know a google who can). It’s silver plate, made by James Deakin & Sons in the late nineteenth century and has what sophisticates know as ‘rather a lot of dings’ in the bowl. Also, for some ceremonial reason, most of the silver has come unplated. It’s their Sidney Silver brand, so called because it was made at the Sidney Works on Sidney Street, quite possibly by a man named Sidney. Its sister is in the @vamuseum, which gave me a great thrill to discover. It’s worth noting, though, that the V&A’s is a dessert spoon and had no ritual significance. In a wonderful and rather deterministic quirk, that one was donated by a Mrs Ena Eatwell.

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I’ll be honest, I never expected to find a glass bottle stopper all wrapped up for winter in its little cap. I thought such things would invariably have been torn away by time and the tide, but the Thames is always surprising. If you can’t quite see what it reads because of the perspective, it says ‘CASTLE UP (or U-P? You tell me) UNSWEETENED GIN W&A GILBEY’. It was the gin that caught my eye first of course, and only later was I glad to decipher unsweetened - for a long time I was afraid it read ‘sparkling’ or something, and I’d misread gin after all, but no: W&A Gilbey sold all their gins either sweetened or un, and thankfully whoever had the ill grace to chuck this in the river had the good taste not to buy sweetened gin. Gin should taste of nothing but botanicals, and I’d be a traditionalist about those too except I’m drinking a gin right now (not right now, it’s not even nine o’clock in the morning), Achroous, which has Sichuan pepper for one, and that mouth numb feel is such an unbelievably perfect elevation of the flavour that I’d like to drink nothing else. So although whomever threw this perfect glass stopper into the river didn’t sweeten their gin, they did go for the cheapest variety. A bottle of UP was only 2/0 in the 1870s, which, I guess, could have been when this lid was popped. Gibley’s gins went up from UP, to OE, to Proof, in order of strength. Proof was proof (or 50% in today’s language, in the UK at least - I understand in the States you still have proof?) and UP was 33 below (i.e. 67, or 33.5%: what were they thinking?). W&A Gilbey sold just about everything, whiskies, both Scotch and Irish; brandies, both cognac and not; rum; port; sherry; marsala and Hollands - my favourite, for reasons see page 71 of a certain book I know well. W himself made baronet. A fine spirit indeed.

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Favourite photos from the book - I absolutely love this animal head, mainly because no-one can agree what it is. Is it a teddy bear? A real bear? A dog, a cat, a monkey? You tell me. On Tuesday 20th September I’ll be talking at the really lovely Notting Hill bookshop Lutyens & Rubinstein. You can get tickets from their website. It’s a beautiful shop and I hope I will see some of you there!

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There’s something mournful about posting this flower on a morning that is unquestionably autumn. The leaves on the little euonymous outside my window are as red as pomegranate seeds; the hazelnuts almost exhausted on the street tree up the road. I slip them in my pockets when I pass by on my way to the tube, commuters behind me thinking I’m touched, perhaps. The two hornbeam hedges that hide the sheds have lost their richness, become the shade Crayola terms grass green. Soon they’ll be crisp and brown, but they’ll hang on all winter. This is the simplest of flowers, four smudges of a brush around a pitted yellow disk. Beneath it, glorious leaves, x-ray leaves, their veins and capillaries revealed as if autumn hit them first, their covering stripped from them, while somehow the crown of delicate purples petals lives on.

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