Gillian Williams

Mersey Mudlarking

Gillian Williams

“Why, why?” I scream inside my head.

Why am I sitting on cold wet shingle on the banks of the River Mersey, its dark, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning in the middle of winter. Not a sound other than the waves lapping on the shore, the smell of damp mud and wet seaweed hanging in the air. I am retired, I should be relaxing on a sun lounger on a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea, taking in the rays of the sun not taking in the dank air of the Mersey. I look across at my friend, my best friend, my dear friend, my soul mate for over fifty years. Her grey hair and wrinkles have replaced the raven-coloured hair and velvet skin of her youth. Her unkempt hair is blowing across her face, laughter lines around her eyes showing her age but inside still as young as ever. Here we are, dressed in wellies, anoraks and woolly hats, when did we grow old, where did the last fifty years go? I smile remembering all the happy times we have shared over the years.

Jen had called me last night and said excitedly that we should go mudlarking on the banks of the Mersey. It hadn’t sounded like a good idea but her expeditions were always fun so I listened with interest. Jen explained that we should go to the shore and dig for treasure. She went on to justify that it had to be an early start because the tide was at its lowest and that the previous days storm meant the waves would have turned over the sand exposing any long-lost artifacts. She informed me that people had sailed on the Mersey for centuries going back as far as the monks who had operated a ferry crossing in the eleven hundreds. Just think, they must have lost all sorts of things in the river. She had caught my imagination and reeled me in.

Made in Wirral illustration by Gillian Williams. Collage of a brown bottle and silver coin on a beach, coming out of the sand. In the background we see the sea, a crescent moon and a seagull

When I was a young child I had lost a ring in the Mersey. On a day trip to New Brighton I had been bought a gold coloured skull ring with red sparkly eyes, which had been far too large for my small fingers. On the way back to the Liverpool bound ferry it had slipped off my finger and fallen through the wooden slats of the pier. I remember lying on the bare wooden boards, they felt warm and smooth, shiny from all the years of leather soled shoes treading to and from the ferry, I looked through the slats desperately trying to see it. Although it had no monetary value, it was the first ring I had ever owned, to me it was priceless, so perhaps Jen was correct there could be valuable possessions dropped into the river.

Jen is busy prodding and scraping in the shingle, totally engrossed, lost in a world of her own, shrieking in delight at anything that isn’t a discoloured pebble. Finding a coin she rubs it with her grubby fingers but fails to remove the years of ingrained dirt. Standing up she looks around for some water to clean it, glistening water attracts her attention, unfortunately not a clear blue rock pool full of crabs and seaweed but a murky smelly puddle.

Envious of all Jen’s finds and not yet found anything myself, I decide to put some more effort in to discovering something. Jen is finding an array of tiny items, buttons, coins and nails, perhaps I should have brought my glasses or maybe my heart just isn’t in it. Deciding that I have to go home with something I scrape vigorously through the grit with my trowel, it screeches like a knife on an empty plate, I shudder and wince at the sound it makes. Gently scraping around and out emerges a bottle and it is intact. At least I have something tangible to take home with me, or at the very least save the environment by putting it in the recycle bin.

A seagull squawking overhead breaks the night silence. I look up at the gull, its large white wings in stark contrast to the dark sky, its size is quite overwhelming as it flies low over our heads. The streetlights on the Liverpool side of the river suddenly fade into darkness and I notice that dawn is breaking, the sky starts to turn a beautiful mixture of cobalt blue merging into turquoise.

My back is aching and my fingers are numb with the cold, I rub them together to generate a modicum of heat. The need to stand up is overwhelming, leaning on my trowel to stand an involuntary sound emits from my mouth, these days I don’t seem to be able stand up without making an agonising grunt. Stretching my back in an arc I look skywards in hope that the warm rays of the dawn sun will appear. Breathing in deeply I am suddenly aware of the smell of bacon floating in the air and my mouth starts to water, looking around I see the lights of a café a short distance away. I look at Jen busily scraping with her trowel, she is unaware of my thoughts of desertion. The café looks so inviting the lights shimmering on the damp pavement, condensation on the windows blurring the silhouettes inside.

“That’s it,” I shriek, making Jen jump.

Startled by my outburst looks at me inquisitively.

“What have you found?” She asks, secretly hoping that what I had found wasn’t better than her cherished hoard.

“That’s it, I mean I’ve finished here, doing this mudlarking thing, enough is enough, I’m cold and I want to go, let’s go and get a coffee.” I growl.

Jen reluctantly agrees, so gathering our trowels and the bag of treasure we head up the shore to the café.

Walking through the door we are surprised to see a long queue, everyone standing silently, not fully awake and in desperate need of sustenance to start their working day. The queue is moving fast, staff barely looking up as the tops of their red and white checked caps bobbed back and forwards churning out orders at a fast pace, it’s obvious that everyone is having their regular order.

ancient faded silver coin sitting on pebbles and sand on a beach

Sitting down at a window table we devour our bacon butties and flat white coffees, which are our best finds of the day. My coffee cup now cold after transferring its heat to my hands, we now turn to look closely at our hoard. Jen opens her grubby bag and reveals its contents, carefully placing them on the crisp white paper napkin, an old coin, a button, an old clay pipe, new two pence piece, a lid from an old jar and nail, which Jen reliably informs me is a nail from an old wooden ship. Jen, focusing on the small dirty coin she has found, takes out her phone and searches the internet for information about the coin. With a grin from ear to ear she bounces in her chair.

“It’s a King Edward I coin from twelve hundreds, it says the King visited the Benedictine monks at Birkenhead Priory twice, once in the 1275 and again 1277, just think the coin must have been in the Mersey since then, it must be worth a fortune,” she proudly proclaims in great excitement.

Looking down at my solitary find, I am not disheartened, this little brown bottle which once held brown ale is treasure enough for me. I am instantly taken back to the carefree days of my early twenties, pale ale, bitter, cider and maybe a schooner of sherry at Christmas, simple and unadulterated, unlike the sophisticated cocktails and alcopops drunk today. Similar to a crystal

ball, I stare into the dark brown glass, unlike a crystal ball I don’t see the future I see my past, a night out on the party ferry, the Royal Iris. There was something exciting about going to a disco on a boat, whilst boarding there had been a buzz in the air, an electrifying energy within everyone, unlike the familiar nightclubs we visited in the city centre this had been a new experience full of uncertainties. Walking up the gangway and realising that the high heeled shoes had not been the best choice of footwear and that there was no way off after we had set sail.

We had been part of a group of workmates, young carefree and out to have a good time.  As a matter of course the bar was always our first port of call, we drank and chattered having to shout over the loudspeakers of the disco. The crowded dance floor speckled with darting light which cascaded down from the mirror ball, a smoky haze hung in the air, an untouchable blanket which swirled in waves whenever a door was opened. Choked by cigarette fumes we decided to go on the upper deck to get some fresh air.

The steep metal companionway steps to the upper deck was more like a ladder than stairs, obviously designed for surefooted seamen not young women in heels. Struggling to hold the handrail with one hand, bottle of beer in the other, handbag and the back of my skirt to keep a modicum of modesty from the party revellers climbing behind me. The bracing wind hit us as we sailed out into the darkness towards Liverpool Bay, the of sound metal creaked eerily as the waves crashed over the bow of the boat, coating everyone on deck in fine salty sea spray. We had looked at each other and burst into hysterical laughter after spending hours meticulously curling our hair the fine mist had restyled our hair into rats tails.

Engrossed in conversation our group had unconsciously shuffled from the starboard side to leaning on the port side handrail, the boat had veered off its straight course at the Bar light ship. As the ferry turned, we were hit side on by a very wet westerly wind, the watery assault soaked us from head to toe, we had now given up worrying how we looked.

A drunken rabble thought it funny to throw glasses overboard, herd mentality kicked in, and soon everyone emulated this bad behaviour. Totally out of character I had thrown my brown ale bottle overboard, not caring or concerned about the fate of this bottle as it fell silently into the darkness of the swirling river.

The lights of the Liver Buildings came into view, the two Liver Birds standing proud, welcomed us back to port as they had done for thousands of ships over the years. Pulling alongside the quayside the powerful engines roared, the ferry juddered and rumbled as it went into reverse thrust, the propellers sending a torrent of white foamy water in its wake, the smell of diesel fumes filled the air. The deck hand crew member released the gangway, the chains clanking as it lowered, the brave crew member walking up the virtually vertical gangway, his weight making it crash onto the landing stage. No one rushed to disembark, we hadn’t wanted the evening to end.

photograph by Gil Williams of a brown bottle on a pebble-sand beach

Jen notices that I am ardently polishing the bottle.

“Are you hoping a genie will come out of that?” She teases.

I give a her a look of disdain and give the bottle a hug.

“You’re not really going to keep that bottle are you, it’s not even old and won’t be worth anything.” She says mockingly.

“It’s a boomerang, a boomerang bottle, I threw it into the sea fifty years ago and it’s come back to me,” I laugh.

“Don’t be daft, it’s not the same one, it’s a shame you didn’t find anything valuable,” retorts Jen.

“It might be, I’m choosing to believe it is the same one, you’ve got your treasure I’ve got mine,” I say amiably, not wanting to upset our normal healthy rivalry.

I understand Jen is thrilled about her valuable coin and I am excited for her, but you can’t always measure objects by monetary value. This little brown bottle evokes so many lovely memories for me. I will clean it and place on a windowsill as reminder of a happy carefree time of my life.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum