It is a little known fact that mudlarks must be licensed.
It is a little known fact, because very few know what the thoroughly modern mudlark is.
According to the Port of London Authority, a mudlark permit is awarded to any metal detector who wishes to dig in the mud on the foreshore of the River Thames for treasure- to a depth of up to 1.2 metres.
But not just anyone gets a mudlark permit.
You have to have had a standard permit – one which allows digging to 7.5cm – for two years, and to have had a proven record of reporting your finds to the Museum of London, before the PLA will even think about issuing one.
The river police are quite hot on this, it seems. They can arrest anyone digging enthusiastically without a license because the Museum of London guards the finds on the Thames, between Westminster to Wapping, zealously.
Take a look at the strange but wonderful website of the Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society and you will see immediately why.
Sword hilts, cannon balls, belt buckles and buttons, dandy clay wig curlers, bells, keys, knives and forks: the list is apparently endless, stretching from Roman times until the present day, a record of the social history of an ancient metropolis.
Mudlarks have been trawling the Thames mud forever, though it is a dangerous business, dicing with the tides and the quagmire. A mudlark could scavenge things to sell in the 18th and 19th centuries, making a spare living. The mudlarks were usually children or OAPs, mostly boys but a few girls.
The outspoken but highly engaging TFMDS site came to mind yesterday as we walked on the beach close to our holiday cottage in Folkestone.
We love to trawl for bits of old pottery and glass. Dover and Folkestone are ancient, if bawdy, settlements with histories stretching back past the Roman Portus Dubris to the Bronze Age. Ever since then,social artefacts have washed into the sea, and drifted aimlessly in the English Channel.
We sat waiting for my mother to finish talking to another dogwalker, in the baking sun, on a utilitarian concrete slipway, and my husband drifted off to comb the beach.
Five minutes later, he was back with a find.
It is a very thin spoon head, with the most delicate neck. Its bowl is an engaging ellipse bent by the tide.
Though Roman spoons have been found in the area, the join between the stem and bowl is fan-shaped, and we can find no other examples of this in Roman spoons.
If it hasn’t rusted we hazarded that it might be pewter, a common alloy between the 16th-18th centuries. Phil thinks it’s 1820s: we have found similar examples in our trawl of the internet.
But it’s so thin: so delicate, as you hold it in your hand, a puzzle from another time. There’s something about it that just feels earlier.
The children immediately disappeared, off down the beach, intense concentration on their foreheads. They were off to make their own finds.
I paused to wonder: should sandlarks be licensed?
Better not dig any deep holes.