The River Thames, long acknowledged as Britain’s longest archaeological site, is under attack by a new wave of heritage crime, DD maritime correspondent Riva Banks reports.
So-called ‘mudhawks’ often operating under the cover of darkness and at high tide, have been slipping into the dark waters unnoticed, using underwater metal detectors and dredging equipment alongside scuba gear to clandestinely recover artefacts from the river foreshore and bed illegally. This state of affairs has apparently been going on for some months, but was only recently uncovered fully last week when a dead mudhawk was pulled from the sea off Dover, still clad in his scuba gear with London trade tokens and pilgrim’s badges carefully packed away in his finds pouch. Since then, DD has managed to secure an exclusive interview with the so named King of the mudhawks, ‘Big Pete’, who only agreed to talk to our correspondent via withheld phone number.
‘So Pete, why mudhawking?’
‘Well if I’m honest Riva, it’s the thrill of it. Mudlarking is alright and all that, but mudhawking requires a different sort of person with a different level of enjoyment. Any twat can mince down to the river and pull out a couple of objects by eye, but I’ll warrant that going underwater at midnight, swimming against the high tide and battling the river eels is far more exciting. Plus, it pulls in some major wonga. Propa, innit.’
‘I see. But isn’t it frightfully dangerous?’
‘Oh terribly so. I mean, the eels for one, but also the rival gangs of mudhawkers. They’ll clobber you over the head and nick all your gear, leaving you naked and for dead on Tower Bridge. Luckily, that’s easy to explain away to the pigs as being too inebriated the previous night, though it does make for some awkward conversations with the wife and neighbours. The tides are pretty strong as well, usually I anchor myself in with a big steel stake and just hang off it with a rope, but that’s got its own perils too. One bloke’s rope snapped and he ended up off the coast of France, where the border force arrested him as an illegal immigrant attempting to reach Britain. Unfortunately they refused to believe his story and deported him to Albania, though none of us have heard of him since. Scrawny Jim (all mudlarks have their own imaginative nicknames- Ed.), a mate of mine, he was the victim of a sex attack by a horny dolphin in the estuary and had to undergo months of therapy to get rid of the flashbacks.’
‘Is it really worth it then?’
‘Probably not, considering that Jim’s arsehole is still four times its natural size. But you know, I’ve a wife and kids to feed, 2 GCSEs and a particularly nasty STD so I’m not exactly employment material.’
‘Thanks for your time, Pete.’
As the above interview indicates, mudhawking has evidently attracted the very dregs of society. But it has also attracted some bigger players. Last month, a twenty strong team was arrested on the foreshore, who were systematically digging out lumps of river mud to sell on Ebay at £20 a pound, while only a few days ago a JCB and driver sank into the foreshore at Bankside when Korean entrepreneur Sni Ki Pu attempted to remove an entire section of in-situ Medieval wooden jetty to preserve and exhibit in his Seoul home, claiming that it ‘brought eastern and western aesthetics together’ to museum curators who raged at him for his foolhardy actions.
The actions of mudhawks and those who would loot the river of its heritage have been strongly called out by a number of bodies, and police forces based on the river as well as the surrounding boroughs have undergone specialist training in order to adequately deal with the new threat. Several particularly vulnerable areas of river foreshore have already been systematically excavated and concreted over, in addition to a programme of drag-netting by fishing trawlers in areas often targeted by the adventurous heritage thieves, with the aim to snare them and their illegal hauls. Plans for stronger measures, such as the releasing of noxious substances into the river in order to kill or deter mudhawks, have sadly been condemned and scrapped by a number of conservation bodies, as has the suggestion made by the world famous yet fabulously overzealous ‘Londinium Mudmoocher’ Facebook page that those caught should be exhibited in a special tank within the London Aquarium. A number of mudlarks themselves are rumoured to have set up a special task force in order to patrol the riverside paths with spotlights, though attempts to ascertain this fact have thus far been unsuccessful.
The future seems uncertain for how exactly this new brand of heritage crime will affect the Thames foreshore, though for the moment it seems to have been brought under control by the vigilance of both its legal searchers and the police. Daily Detectorist will in the future be focusing far more on our sacred river, and looks forward to a new age of co-operation with a different side of the searching community.