Lara Maiklem left the countryside for London in her twenties. At first enticed by the city, she soon found herself cut adrift, yearning for the solace she had known growing up among nature. Down on the banks of the River Thames, she discovered mudlarking: the act of scavenging in the mud for items discarded by past generations of Londoners. Moving from the river's tidal origins in the west of the city to the point where it reaches the sea in the east, Mudlarking is the story of the Thames and its people as seen through these objects. A search for peace through solitude and history, it brings the voices of long-forgotten Londoners to life.
Every drowned, unwanted or lost object is precious to Maiklem, who reveals, as she takes us downriver from Richmond to the Estuary, a preternatural sympathy for the broken, mud-caked and out of context ... A custodian of the past, Maiklem’s relation to the life of the river is personal rather than scientific ... Maiklem likes to kneel down with her nose inches from the foreshore: 'I breathe in the muddy aroma of silt and algae and listen to the sound of water drying on the stones: a barely discernible fizz-pop as it evaporates and the lacquered shine turns to a powdering of fine grey silt.' Her prose has none of the self-conscious sensibility that defines contemporary nature writing; her thoughtful sentences read as though she were talking to herself ... There is nothing that Maiklem does not know about the history of the river or the thingyness of things ... There is a great deal to learn from these pages, not least the insight that finding lost things is the best way of losing yourself. It is, above all, her wisdom that makes Lara Maiklem such restful company
Even river geeks will learn a lot from this book ... The picture Lara Maiklem paints of the Thames in her first book, Mudlarking, is...enchanting — even though the pastime it describes is rummaging around in the dirt at its edges ... The one element I felt the book lacked was people: who are the characters beside the river? I am also not convinced it will have wide appeal. It reminds me of that trend a few years ago for books about tree-climbing; most sank with poor sales. Yet I hope it does succeed: it made even a capsized cynic like me feel more sentimental about the Thames. In fact, I am quite tempted to join Maiklem on the riverbed looking for treasure.
There’s a certain coldness to this mudlark’s process of discovery and storytelling alike, as if the mud dulls the capacity for shock ... Maiklem’s attempts to describe her emotional connection to the river and to mudlarking remain rather vague, in sharp contrast to her ability to focus on, say, the carving on the head of a centuries-old ship’s nail. Perhaps a collector’s obsession is impossible ever to fully explain or share, but it means her narrative remains fragmentary—a cabinet of curiosities lacking the binding thread of a story. There’s only so much an object can reveal, and most of their stories inevitably end in speculation, the tantalizing uncertainty of what can’t be recovered. The foreshore, the mudlark’s domain, remains 'a muddle of refuse and casual losses.'