Museums. Theatre. Pubs. Shopping. There are myriad ways to explore London and the many faces that the city presents, but pulling an amateur Indiana Jones and literally digging through the capital’s past is one of the most fun. Not to mention the muddiest.
The London stretch of the Thames River is one of the most storied spots on Earth, in fact and in fiction. More than 2,000 years of human habits - like dropping trash and throwing items overboard - mean visitors to the river's foreshore are in for a treat. If you are a lover of history, exploring London via the centuries of debris thrown up by the daily tidal surges is a true thrill, somewhere between archaeology and mudlarking (usually the pursuit of solitary diggers and metal-detectorists searching for valuable, historical items). Best of all, you can legally take home the treasures you find.
Before you pull on a pair of wellies spend a few hours at the Museum of London Docklands (www.museumindocklands.org.uk) in east London, whose exhibits explore two millennia of human settlement in London, from the Iron Age to Roman occupation to medieval London to Cool Britannia. Visitors can go from station to station where touch screens bring video guide Tony Robinson (host of the UK's most popular archaeology show Time Team) to life as he explains how the Thames carried London from a tidal backwater to the thriving capital it is today. Glass cases hold everything from Roman coins to naval officers' buttons found at various excavations. Do not miss the Rhinebeck Panorama, an exquisitely detailed painting of London, circa 1800, looking west from Tower Bridge toward the curve of the river at Westminster and the fields beyond Buckingham Palace. Daily life is drawn in Lilliputian detail, down to red-coated soldiers marching at the Tower and carriages trundling towards the Strand. A scale model of London Bridge in 1450 shows the different types of dwellings and shops that covered both sides, much like the medieval Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
Sign up with the Thames Explorer Trust, a group that supports educational and archaeological programs on the river, for Sunday walks on the foreshore led by Andy Hawkins (www.thames-explorer.org.uk; £8, £5 for kids). The walks, either in the heart of London near St Paul's Cathedral or in the leafy southwest by Kew Bridge, take place at midday when the tide is at its lowest ebb. The sticky mud has been known to swallow whole boots, so be sure to follow Hawkins' instruction closely. Wear wellies or rubber boots, old clothes and bring moist towelettes for wiping hands down after.
The central London walk starts off underneath the Millennium Bridge that joins St Paul's to the Tate Modern. Hawkins paces out just one square foot of foreshore and picks up Victorian plate, modern glass, oyster shell, medieval roof tile, granite ballast from merchant ships and clay pipe stems. "This is the best introduction to the science of archaeology," he says. "There are so many artefacts down here from thousands of years of human history and unlike on land, you can pick it up." Because it is covered and uncovered by the shifting tides, the items are not in situ, and it is safe to take them from the ground.
Your eye will quickly become trained to ignore the masses of Victorian terracotta and transferware and go for the fun stuff. Hawkins carries laminated sheets of pipe styles going back centuries, medieval and Tudor pot glazes, beer bottle shapes and more. You might find a clay pipe bowl from the 1600s (pipe stems simply litter the foreshore as they were highly disposable in their day). Look for potsherds with a green glaze on the inside; that means it is medieval. Tudor pots are usually glazed on the outside, and if you find a Victorian pot, turn it over and try to place your fingers in the impressions. If they do not fit an adult hand, it is because they were made by the child labourers of the day. It is even rarer to find an intact glass bottle (the older it is, the more completely frosted over) or Roman Samian ware, so it is a thrill when someone finds a piece. Oyster shells abound with square holes punched out of the centres, gone to make mother-of-pearl buttons.
The whole tale of how people use the river is all there, at your feet. At Kew, a pile of large iron nails rusted together show that boat building and repair went on, and pieces of 17th-century slipware mingle with Tudor pot handles. Hawkins is always ready to identify finds and explain modern mysteries. A cluster of red clay votive holders look vaguely Roman, but Hawkins explains they are from the Diwali celebrations, when Hindus send oil lamps afloat on a sacred river. In this modern era it is the Thames, not the Ganges. The river embraces it all.
After a hard day's dig, there is no better reward than a pub lunch and a pint. At Kew Bridge, you can choose from three historic pubs on the Strand on the Green footpath: The Bell & Crown, the City Barge and the Bull's Head. All serve up a traditional Sunday lunch with quiet views of the river flowing by; the Bell & Crown (www.fullers.co.uk) has a cozy fireplace and a large patio outside for fine weather.
On the Southwark side of the Millennium Bridge, you can choose to sit at the bar at the Tate Modern or dine at the Globe Theatre's The Swan bistro. And while the Anchor pub, where Samuel Pepys watched London burn during the Great Fire of 1666, has been renovated and enlarged into a tourist trap, you may just feel a whisper of the great diarist's spirit while you contemplate modern London passing by.