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26 September 2018

Leaving the familiar city behind, I descend on to the Thames foreshore, a very different place

There is sand and pebbles and shells, but also the detritus of hundreds of years, stuff that has been chucked carelessly over the river wall.

By Tracey Thorn

Something keeps drawing me down to the river at the moment. Early on Sunday mornings, I’ve been marching through the deserted city and down to Embankment, walking over the Golden Jubilee Bridge with hedonistic dance anthems such as Powerline’s “Double Journey”, and Virgo’s “Free Yourself” in my headphones, feeling trippy and euphoric in the rising sunshine.

I was training for the Thames Bridges Trek, a 25km walk crossing 16 bridges, which I completed last Saturday. Now here I am two days later, early on a Monday morning, taking part in a guided tour of the foreshore. It’s organised by the Thames Discovery Programme, a group of archaeologists seeking to study and preserve the rich history to be found on the banks of the Thames.

Our guide, Elliot, is a bearded Brummie, wearing black shorts, a black T-shirt, heavy duty workmen’s wellies, and a huge pair of wraparound Chanel sunglasses. I like him immediately. Which is just as well, because he’s about to lead us down Trig Lane stairs beside the Millennium Bridge. A steep and vertiginous set of concrete steps, with no handrail, they tell me in no uncertain terms that we are descending into a different place. We leave the familiar city behind, all the concrete and towering glass, and down we go to the beach.

Like any beach, there is sand and pebbles and shells, but also the detritus of hundreds of years, stuff that has been chucked carelessly over the river wall, sifted and re-sifted by the changing tides. We make our way along an uneven surface made up of bricks, pottery, broken china, bottle necks, green glass and blue glass – and bones, everywhere you look, bones. They’re mostly the leftovers from Victorian butchers, but you can’t help feeling that you are treading on the dead.

Mudlarking holes – where people have already dug down looking for treasure – are marked with sticks, which poke out of the ground at all angles, jagged and random, like tumble-down headstones. Green slime on the river wall marks the high tide point, way above our heads, reminding me that we are walking on the riverbed.

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We pass under the very bridges I crossed on Saturday, and from down here they look different. The city looms above, while the caves beneath the bridges drip with water. We’re told what an incendiary bomb looks like, and not to pick one up. We are warned about Weil’s disease and advised to wash our hands.

And Elliot knows everything about every stone we step on, and everyone who stepped on them before us. We hear tales of Romans and Saxons and Victorians, and my favourite new fact is that the Strand takes its name from the Saxons who built a settlement there. It’s the German word for beach, telling us that the foreshore was once way further back, the river wider and shallower.

We stand on the Walbrook river, one of the Thames’s ancient tributaries, which is now just a trickle, and as we near the end of our walk, the tide starts to come in. Waves lap, then lap more vigorously. Into my head comes the Randy Newman lyric, “I’m looking at the river but I’m thinking of the sea”, and it strikes me with the force it always does.

The very next day, I’m looking at the actual sea, in Whitstable. I’ve come to the seaside for a couple of days, bringing with me a book I’ve just bought, The Pebbles on the Beach. As its name suggests, it’s a guide to the geology of the coastline, full of facts about what makes up a shingle beach, like this one here. I’m peering at the ground and wondering how you tell the difference between limestone and sandstone, onyx or amber, just as the day before I’d peered ignorantly down at my feet, hoping that a Roman coin or medieval shoe buckle might suddenly appear before my eyes, realising I wouldn’t know even if they did.

In both these places, I’ve had the feeling that everything beneath me tells a story, but one I don’t know how to read. And it’s all got me wondering. Could I become the sort of person who knows the names of pebbles? Or goes mudlarking and can authoritatively identify shards of 18th-century pottery? I’m honestly not certain.

I’m looking for something, though, that’s for sure.

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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis