London in Fragments

by Ted Sandling, Frances Lincoln, £16.99

When the tides allow, visiting the Thames foreshore can, according to Ted Sandling, be like “stepping into a different London”. Sandling enjoys “passing through a portal” into the past, largely because he cherishes the little scraps of history that can be found on the other side.

You require licences to do any serious digging but there are apparently all manner of loose-lying treasures up for grabs, all just a few feet from the bustling city streets. I write “treasures”, but this may be misleading. For the most part, we are talking about bits of tile, shards of pottery and an awful lot of broken bottles (some of considerable age). Such finds “do not make one rich” and “they do not even sit well on the mantelpiece” but Sandling likes them all the same. They are, he rhapsodises, the “true fragments of London”, offering glimpses of ordinary life, and because anyone can grab them they represent “the democratisation of history”.

I struggle to see the appeal, I’m afraid. I can see virtue in some of the offerings: a millennia-old flint flake, say, but I would find it hard to get excited about a fully intact 19th-century clay pipe, let alone a shattered remnant.

Still, if the endeavour captures your imagination, Sandling provides you with all the tricks of the trade – where to go and when – and assures you that, whatever bothersome officials might say, you are perfectly entitled to explore large stretches of the foreshore as you please.

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