Really got back to my roots last Thursday. I’m down in London a lot now, on business and researching my new series that is set in and around the modern London Borough of Newham. This is my home borough and so I feel very strongly about it. My hope is that I can make other people feel that way about it too. Newham, after all, isn’t just for the 2012 Olympics – or at least it shouldn’t be.
So for the past two weeks I’ve been out and about on the highways and byways of east London, revisiting familiar spots, finding new places and generally immersing myself back into the old manor. One of the most enjoyable things that I did was get back down on the mud. This is the River Thames mud or ‘beach’ as we used to call it as kids which can be accessed via old sets of stone stairs which pepper the shore line from the City of London right down the river to Dagenham. Just east of the City, at Wapping, my friend Sarah and I went down onto the mud via a set of stairs beside the Prospect of Whitby pub. Wapping is old smugglers London and the Prospect stairs are suitably wet, slimy and forbidding. Clad in monstrous rubber boots, Sarah and I inched forward carefully. Breaking a leg or an ankle down on the mud is no joke even today and, as one who has already broken a leg in the past, I was not up for any of that sort of action. So it was a tense descent towards the low lying river but it was, as always, well worth it.
Down on the mud you can fully appreciate just how impressive structures like Tower Bridge and London City Hall really are. For a native like myself it also brings home just how much the city has changed during my lifetime. When I was a child in the 1960s the view from the mud was of derelict, rotting warehouses and of old buildings rendered black by over a century of dirty coal soot. Now the shore is covered with smart apartments, some of which have been developed from older grain stores and wharves. Both the old and the new views have and had their points. Personally I just wish that the posh apartments were more affordable. The shore has always been, until recently, a diverse place to live. Now it is very much the preserve of the wealthy.
One constant is the river itself. We went down to where it lapped the mud and I was pleased when I saw that it was the same grey/brown colour that it had always been. There’s an old London legend that states that Londoners whose eyes are the same grey tinged with brown as the river, are actually part London rat. Now minus the actual rats, both alive and dead, as well as the fear of cholera that haunted my youth, the Thames is really quite clean. It also still throws up amazing things.
As well as the old ubiquitous crisp and cigarette packets, the Thames also continues to throw up artefacts from other times, both distant and fairly recent. Little bits of blue, green and patterned pottery dot the mud like jewels and stems from 18th century clay pipes (sometimes complete with the bowl too!) are very, very common. However amazingly really, really common are fragments of Roman roof tiles. Thick terracotta pancakes, sometimes with holes where nails held them to structures long since crumbled to dust require only a cursory scan of the mud to come to light. Not only does this make me astonished at how industrious our Roman forebears were but also at the miraculous preservative qualities of river and of mud. As we trudged about contentedly, even small pieces of patterned Roman Samian pottery came to light.
For the first time in a long time I actually felt rooted, calm and totally at my ease. This year is not proving an easy one thus far and I had not felt as good as I did down on the mud for months. Of course care has to be taken when going down on the mud and tide times must be checked and patches of quicksand have to be noted and avoided, but with some care the mud is a liberating place to be. When Sarah and I did eventually walk back onto dry land again, I actually felt a little sad. But I’ll be back. The mud will always draw me.