A man in a dusty cloak and worn shoes is making his way through the dense crowds that fill the narrow road passing over London Bridge. He has just returned from a pilgrimage and leans heavily on the stout wooden stick that has seen him all the way to Salisbury and home again. He is tired, but before he returns to his little house and workshop on Cheapside there is one more thing he needs to do.
He spies a short and impossibly thin passageway between the tall buildings that line the bridge and cuts away from the crowd, stepping into the dark, his shoulders brushing the walls of the houses on each side. It stinks of rotten vegetables and urine and something, probably a rat, scuttles across his foot. He is relieved when he reaches the stone wall at the end of the alley and can see the Thames, wide and muddy brown, flowing away from him.
Standing on tiptoe, he looks down at the base of the bridge around which the water is rushing noisily, filling the air with wet river breath. This is the smell of home and he thanks God for his safe return. He breathes in the smell and closes his eyes, plucks a small diamond-shaped metal badge from his cloak and tosses it into the raging water.
Fast forward 600 years to a few weeks ago. It’s nearing dusk on a muggy summer evening and I’m on my hands and knees on the Thames foreshore, 100 yards from London Bridge, the latest incarnation in the 2,000-year history of London’s oldest crossing. I’m mudlarking, searching for evidence of London’s past, and tonight I’m in luck. Caught against a stone, in a low water-filled dip in the shingle, is a small diamond-shaped metal badge.
I recognise it at once as a medieval pewter pilgrim badge. The head and shoulders that rise out in relief are those of St Osmund, the patron saint of mental illness, paralysis and toothache, whose remains are enshrined at Salisbury Cathedral. Thousands of badges like this were sold at the shrines that pilgrims visited, cheap souvenirs to be pinned to cloaks, hats and bags.
Although they are rare finds today, more pilgrim badges have been found in the Thames than anywhere else in the country, leading some to speculate that they were thrown into the river as a kind of ritual offering. Whoever threw this badge into the water was continuing an age-old belief in a sacred river filled with gods, spirits and lost ancestors.
When the Victorians dredged the Thames and built embankments and bridges in the 19th century, they found thousands of prehistoric stone weapons and tools that had been offered to the river by some of the first humans to settle its banks. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, swords, spears, helmets and shields were added to the river’s trove. The value and beauty of these objects show just how important their riverine gods were to them and that these beliefs didn’t diminish with the coming of the Romans.
Victorian dredging also brought up Roman coins by the bucketful along with small votive statues. They may not have been honouring the river quite as ostentatiously, but by flicking in a low-denomination coin from the Roman bridge they too were acknowledging the river as a sacred place and pleasing the gods that dwelt within it. By the age of sail in the 18th century, the notion of river gods may have died out, but Georgian sailors were still paying the river for a fair wind on their travels by dropping pennies into it.
Even today, who hasn’t flicked a coin into water for luck? On an average day I can collect quite a handful of small change from under the bridges, proving that this ancient tradition is alive and well. I am also finding increasing numbers of religious objects on the foreshore: Wiccan spells, crucifixes, Islamic prayers, Taoist statues and all manner of Hindu offerings since the Thames was blessed in 1970 as a sacred river for Hindus. Every January for the past 20 years or so, a Christian procession from Southwark Cathedral on the south side of the river and St Magnus on the north side meets halfway across London Bridge to bless the Thames and to cast a wooden cross into it.
As I kneel on the foreshore with the light fading and storm clouds gathering above, I look into the face of St Osmund and consider all of this. The Thames has been my spiritual place for two decades; perhaps in these uncertain times, it will come to mean as much to others and resume its role, at least in part, as a sacred part of the city.
Lara Maiklem is the author of ‘Mudlarking’, available now. Follow Lara on Instagram @london.mudlark
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