Lara Maiklem

Bloomsbury, £9.99

“THERE are parts of the foreshore that sing with the voices of the past and have absorbed the richness of life: people’s toil, pain, hope, happiness and disappointment. Their ghostly essence is contained within the mud and thrown onto the shore with every lapping wave.”

Back in the late 18th century, mudlarks were the poorest of the poor, often teenagers or young children, who scoured the river mud along the River Thames to scavenge what had fallen or been dropped off ships anchored in the Pool of London. It was a difficult, dirty, dangerous and sometimes illegal job.

More than a century later, mudlarking has become a hobby. It can still be filthy, and now and again dangerous (you need to keep an eye on the tide), but it has become the activity of the obsessive, the amateur historian, the collector. Lara Maiklem, originally a country girl from Surrey, can lay claim to all of those epithets. She has spent the best part of two decades scouring the banks of the Thames, finding buttons and rings and shoes and coins that span the history of the city.

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In her book Mudlarking, she follows the river from Teddington to the estuary, discovering everything from bottle stoppers to animal bones to dead bodies along the way. In doing so she paints a picture of how nature can be found in the most urban of environments. “In the middle of my dirty, noisy, thrilling city,” she writes, “I had found something familiar – a wild brooding place with a wide open sky.”

The Thames, Maiklem suggests, is England’s “longest archaeological landscape” and in the pages of Mudlarking she takes a meandering journey through time and tide, one that takes in tree graveyards, prison hulks, Chinese mitten crabs and the detritus of history from Roman times to the present day. She wears her learning lightly, yet every page is full of historical detail, all set against a backdrop of fog and sun and the gloopy suck and pull of river mud.

Nature on TV

Cairngorms: A Year in the Wild, BBC4, Sunday, 8pm.

Another chance to see the last in this series of films about the people and landscape of Britain’s largest national park. This episode shows off the bleak and sometimes dangerous beauty of the Cairngorms in winter.