At the end of this week I will be embarking on the final stretch of a Thames Walk. I have already walked from the sea to Putney, and on Friday I will walk from Putney to the source in the Cotswolds, a distance of about 170 or so miles. This particular endeavour has come about from a mildly obsessive, geeky interest in the River Thames, a river, which was called “liquid history” by the 19th / 20th century politician John Burns. His wonderfully astute turn of phrase effortlessly captures the tidal nature of the dark river and the simple fact that each and every day, with the changing tides, its waters offer up gifts from the past. Like a cat bringing in from the garden, a dead mouse or a frog for the pleasure (or displeasure) of its owners, the River Thames, leaves strewn about its banks and beaches, glimpses of our own history for us to find, or not, as the case may be.
It was through my own interest in this remarkable open archaeological site that curls like a giant ribbon through London that I came across a lady called Nicola White, a mudlark (amongst other things) who enjoys nothing more than walking her dog through the quieter reaches of the Thames estuary and picking up these treasures as she goes. Some of her finds she turns in to pieces of art, others items she keeps and in 2011 she found a message in a bottle, which for her marked the beginning of a new journey.
Since that first message, Nicola, has over the last few years, found over 30 messages and it was these I found particularly interesting. Some are from children just intrigued to see if anyone finds their message, some are cries for help, or desperation with the world. Others are from lovers declaring their undying love for each other, whilst many are quite enigmatic or simply pearls of wisdom the writers wished to share. Nicola has managed to track down many of those people who left the message and when I discovered that she was presenting a large number of them at a temporary exhibition in Greenwich, I knew I had to go and see them and meet her.
Nicola has mounted about 33 of her ‘words from the water’ on one wall of the gallery, which will take you through a whole gambit of emotions. Some are sad, some poignant, others obtuse and some will bring a smile to your face. One of my favourites was from a boy called Jack from Kent, who simply wrote on his message “I wish I could be a dino thunder power ranger the red ranger”. Through Twitter, Nicola managed to track Jack down and cordially sent him the requested Power Ranger costume, and in turn Jack (or Jack’s parents) sent Nicola a couple of photos of Jack proudly wearing his new Power Ranger outfit. Brilliant.
Filling the rest of the compact ‘Made in Greenwich’ gallery are an amazing array of curiosities that Nicola has found, mostly courtesy of the Thames. She has a great collection of clay pipes from throughout the centuries, buckles, children’s toys, bottle stops, coins, trinkets, religious offerings, ceramics, watches, bullets and in fact a whole cabinet dedicated to war paraphernalia. In one glass case was a 17th century jaw-bone, complete with a few teeth. I asked her how she knew it was from the 17th century. It turns out that she found the entire skeleton, so obviously called the police and it was taken away for examination. The forensic report concluded that the skeleton belonged to a 24 year old man who died in the mid 17th century, and she was permitted to keep a bit. She also told me that she found a hand grenade with the pin still in it, which was swiftly whisked away by the Police and detonated in a controlled environment.
The thing that really struck me about seeing both the ‘words from the water’, Nicola’s collection of stuff and meeting her in person, is that although she’s not a historian, but has provided a few bits of contextual information, the objects are there purely because Nicola wishes to share them. Her interest in them and her passion for the river, is much the same as mine, which is rather than these finds being displayed in a dry historical setting, the thing that really draws you in, are the untold stories behind each and every object, the human element, the questions that remain unanswered. Who did this bracelet belong to? How did this man die here? How did this Victorian child feel when they dropped their beloved toy in the river? Who was the woman that this declaration of love was made to? As Nicola said of a coin she found that dates back to the late 17th century, it’s incredible to think that the last person to touch that coin before she did was the person who dropped it 300 or so years ago. You can’t help but wonder who that person was, what their life entailed and so on.
So, all in all, if you find yourself in Greenwich (or even go especially) anytime between now and 12th August, Nicola’s fascinating exhibition and her mudlarking finds, plus some of her art are all there for you to marvel at, inside the ‘Made In Greenwich’ Gallery (324 Creek Rd, SE10 9SW) each day from 11am. It’s small, it’s compact and it’s free, but Nicola has managed in the space of a few years to collect a quite astounding array of trinkets, oddities and mysteries from the banks of the river that offer you a unique glimpse in to our own very human history and connection with the river from the present day, all the way back to the medieval period … and beyond. Well worth a visit.
Anita Carey (Nicola's Mum)
3/8/2015 10:51:23 pm
Nicola's journey from collecting shells on the beaches of Cornwall as a child has progressed along with her enthusiasm for finding treasures in the mud with a mostly unknown history. This now includes poignant and heart-rending messages in bottles washed up by the tide. I love the empathy she has with the people who write their message and what joy she brings into their lives when she is able to contact them.
4/8/2015 12:20:05 am
Thanks Anita. I hope I enjoy the walk too. So ... Nicola had an early start in finding stuff on beaches. All the best.
4/8/2015 07:10:57 am
Really appreciated this show at Made In Greenwich - and your response to it in wriitng the appreciation and blogging these pics. We fish in the same pond- in the sense that I too run (occasional) walks along the river and feel that Nicola has provided us with an inspiring collection of fragments that hint at 1,000 stories and help to convey such a rich part of Greenwich and London's history.
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Bowl Of Chalk
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