I’ve worked with books – selling, producing and editing them – all my working life and I’ve seen just how much blood sweat and tears goes into writing, which is why I never harboured any great ambitions to write one myself… until I met my very persuasive agent, Sarah Ballard. She contacted me out of the blue in 2016 through my Facebook page, which at the time I was running anonymously under the guise of London Mudlark.
She thought there was a book in what I did and asked if asked if I wanted to pop in to see her for a chat. I left as one of her new potential authors. I shed buckets of blood, sweat and tears writing Mudlarking, but it was well worth it. A Field Guide to Larking is a different beast altogether. I’ve always worked with illustrated books, so I was in my comfort zone, and I loved every second of creating it – only a bit of sweat, a few tears and no blood was shed this time!
There’s something for everyone in The Field Guide, obviously lots of mudlarking, but also fieldlarking, beachlarking, gardenlarking and even houselarking. There are hidden treasures and clues to the past all around us and I want to get people looking, wherever they are.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
Thanks to the wizardry of social media, I have a pretty good idea of my online demographics, so I suppose this must translate to my readers. They are basically me, 45 plus and female, but saying that I do hear from a very wide cross section of people who have enjoyed my book.
Your Twitter account (@LondonMudlark) is very popular – what draws people to mudlarking, do you think?
Interest has grown enormously since I started posting on Facebook in 2012. I now have almost 200k followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, which is incredible given that it’s a fairly obscure and niche subject. I think people are drawn to mudlarking for several reasons. It’s a simple connection to the past in turbulent and uncertain times, which I think a lot of people find comforting (I certainly do). Every time I go out, I find something new and interesting, so it’s also a constantly changing story. Mudlarking is a treasure hunt and a lucky dip all in one, who can resist that?
Who taught you to how to look for (and find!) hidden artifacts, and when?
I’ve always been a ‘looker for things’. I grew up on a farm and my mother would take me on nature walks across the fields, looking for caterpillars, mushrooms, snakeskins, bird’s nests and any other unusual things we could find. We hunted for bottles in the Victorian bottle dump at the side of the lane down to the farm, searched the old midden in the garden and fieldlarked when the abandoned medieval plague village at the top of the farm occasionally met the plough. She showed me how to slow down and to see the small things. It’s a skill I’ve kept with me through adulthood.
Do you think there’s a crossover between larking and foraging?
Yes, I do. Spotting a cluster of mushrooms and working out where to gather samphire involves very similar skills to finding a coin of the foreshore or knowing which field might contain a scatter of pottery. You need to research where you’re planning to go and know what you’re looking for. Both larking and foraging tap into our primitive urge to gather, which hasn’t really gone away.
The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?
The paperback of Mudlarking came out just a few weeks before Covid hit, so I had all my public events and publicity cancelled, which was disappointing. I managed well through lockdown though, the world needed to slow down and so did I. Home schooling (I have 9-year-old twins) was a challenge, but we worked our days around it and looking back I’m very grateful for the precious time we got to spend together. Through lockdown I couldn’t get to the river, but I live a 10-minute walk from the sea so that was my saviour and I got to beachlark instead.
Access to outdoor space is so important for people’s mental health, and lockdown has brought that home to so many of us. Would you encourage people to try mudlarking or fieldlarking as a way to get outside more?
Absolutely, I think lockdown has made many people think about what’s important and in many cases rediscover the simplicity of just being outside. I have always needed outside space and solitude for my own mental health, and I’d encourage everyone to get outside whenever they can. Anyone can lark, it gives you a reason to leave the house and it’s a form of meditation – you’re doing something and nothing, creating time for yourself and space to process your day/week/problems.
Virtual socialising in lockdown has been invaluable. Now that we’re allowed to meet up in person again, who would be on your fantasy party list and why?
Oh, my goodness, what a question! I’ve probably seen more of my friends and family virtually than I ever would have done in real time, so weirdly I’ve been way more social over lockdown. I’m not much of a party person, but I have three good friends I’d love to see in 3D again. (I’m really not as antisocial as I make out by the way)
Where would you most like to go, and where would you love to try mud (or field) larking?
I’d like to walk ploughed fields on the Western Front in France and I want to go to Texel, an island just off the Dutch coast, which is famous for the amount of stuff that washes up on its beaches – it even has three museums dedicated to the objects that have been found. I’d also like to be around the next time they drain a canal in Amsterdam. When they drained the Amstel River for a new train line a few years ago they recorded almost 700,000 objects (prehistoric to modern), so imagine what’s in the sludge!
If you were teaching children how to look for things, how would you begin, and where would you send them?
Children have a natural aptitude for larking, which many of us lose as we get older. You don’t have to teach them much, just send them off and tell them to bring back anything interesting. Be interested and let their imaginations do the rest.
What’s your view on metal detecting as a hobby?
Metal detecting is more invasive, it involves digging which larking doesn’t. It’s not for me, but whatever floats your boat. The most important thing for any type of searching is to do it responsibly. Always get permission from the landowner, don’t search on protected sites and report finds of archaeological interest or Treasure to the relevant people.
The Society of Mudlarks sounds fascinating – how did you learn about them?
I met people on the foreshore who were members. It’s well known about, but they don’t invite publicity or have a website or anything like that. It was created in the 1970s as a way of controlling the influx of invasive searching that came about with the introduction of affordable metal detectors. It’s not much more than a metal detecting club really, but because they limit numbers and don’t publicise themselves it’s gained a bit of a mythical reputation.
What’s the most unusual item you’ve ever found, and what would you absolutely love to discover?
I’ve found a human skull, several World War Two bombs, a rare 18th century pleasure garden token, a medieval pilgrim badge, bricks and masonry from one of Henry VIII’s palaces, love tokens, hundreds of clay pipes and scores of coins, but probably the most unusual is a glass eye. It’s beautiful, but you do wonder where it came from. My most spine tingling find is a complete Tudor child’s shoe. The mud is anaerobic, so it preserves organic material perfectly and I could see the little dips in the inside sole from the toes and heel of the original owner. I’ll never know who they were, but the moment I pulled the shoe out of the mud there was a magical connection with them.
What would your perfect day look like?
My perfect day is an early start to watch the mist clear and the sun come up over the Thames, then a good few hours of searching on an empty foreshore followed by lunch with my wife (without the twins).
Do you have a favourite genre or author? What books or authors would you say were significant influences on you?
The genres I gravitate to are nature and history. I like easy history books, ones that bring the past to life. Ian Mortimer is the master of this and I’m a huge fan of his Time Traveller books. I don’t have a favourite book (yet), but Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature had a profound effect on me in my 20s. He spoke from a place I understood and made me feel not so alone.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, which is beautifully written.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Borrowers! I was obsessed with the thought of sharing our house with little people who took our things. I read it over and over again (the film was awful).
Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.
You’re very welcome, thank you.
You can order your copy of A Field Guide to Larking HERE