Caught by the River

Archaeological Scrumping

20th March 2008

Peter Kirby on ‘archaeological scrumping’ on the North Bank of the Thames

You might remember we ran Peter Kirby’s brilliant pieces on cycling from sea to source on the River Teifi a couple of months back (thanks to howies for that hook up). When we were talking to him about running it, he happened to mention that he’d built the steps to his house out of things he found in the Thames. We thought that it was worth buying him a pint and getting some kind of explanation…

“A while back I started to explore the Thames, just down past Blackfriars Bridge, where you can get onto the banks in low tide. There are certain things in the British Isles that aren’t owned, like the foreshore. I did a project for The Guardian about churches on beaches and I found out about a Catholic preacher in West Clare in Ireland who was outlawed from celebrating Mass, in an attempt to enforce conversion to Protestantism. This he got this little shack and wheeled it down to the foreshore and baptised people in the sea, then wheeled it back. The church was called “The Little Ark”, people would say Mass outside it every Sunday, whatever the weather.

Anyway, the Thames has got a massive tidal shift, so I spent time watching the tides. I’d go down when it was low for a period of about a month with two massive plastic bags, and I’d collect bits of pottery, glass, slate, clay pipes… for some reason there huge amounts of cream and coffee colour plates down on the banks, lots of clay pipes too, very rarely whole ones though. The tide shifts and it dumps these things on the North bank. Also, weather affects things, brings different things to the surface. By sifting through things, you’re kind of fulfilling a role of cleaning the riverbank as these things obviously aren’t natural to it.

So I’d get this stuff home (just near Guy’s Hospital by London Bridge) and I’d rearrange it with the intention of starting to build steps to my house out of whatever different materials I found. I set out a load of grey slate, about 10ft of it, and then took coloured pieces to run through it like the river. There was a lot of terracotta that came out which was quite flat – it must have at one time been roofing tiles. Certain pieces have holes in, certain pieces that are very defined shapes – oblongs, perfect triangles, squares. I’d set them aside into different classifications. I bleached all the scum off them then laid them down with grouting. My mate came round and said “What the fuck are you doing?” I was looking at it thinking that, if the worst came to the worst I could just tear it up and paint over it. In the end it took on this Spanish villa look. Oddly, having it there has made the house cooler, especially in the summer. Now people come round and are blown away by it, which is fantastic.

The great thing is, you don’t really know what you’ve got until you get it home and clean it up. I’m very interested in the idea of taking things from its seemingly natural habitat then reclassifying it somewhere else. It’s something that Richard Long does in his art, he arrives on a spot, there’s a bank of rocks or something that he’ll rearrange into an unnatural shape. When photographed it becomes poetically beautiful.

Whenever I’m giving talks to students about creativity, I’ll always tell them to forget trawling through the museums, just head down to the river for inspiration. At low tide, you can rummage about in front of the Tate Modern or somewhere and you’ll always find something down there that will get you going.

One odd thing about being down there is when the river police come past, half checking to see what you’re doing. If I had bags of stuff, I’d drop them and mosey about somewhere else until they sped off to do something more important. You can get a mudlark license from the authorities which means you don’t have to give anything you find over to the Museum Of London. They only cost about twenty pounds. It’s such a brilliant thing I think, mudlarking. I didn’t get one in the end though. I thought about it, I even downloaded the forms, but then I thought it was just too official, I wanted to be a bit covert about it.

I’ve stopped doing it now though, I think I’ve brought enough detritus back to the house. Building the entrance and steps was enough I think, I don’t need to do the whole house…”