Mark's tile collection

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Mark's tile collection

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Oral History Transcript

Interviewee: Mark Paros
Date: 22nd August 2019
Interviewer: Ashley Fisk

Q: Okay, so this is an oral history interview with Ashleigh Fisk and…

Q1: Eva Tausig.

Q: And we're at Mark Paros' house in Edgware. This is an interview for Foragers of the Foreshore Heritage Project by Thames Festival Trust. Hello.

A: Hello.

Q: How are you?

A: Oh, very well, thank you.

Q: Very good. So, if you could just tell us when you were born, and where you were born, and if you grew up in London.

A: I was born on 7th of July 1962 in this very house, upstairs. So, I've lived here all my life.

Q: So, have you enjoyed growing up in London?

A: Yes, yes. It's--, been an enjoyable experience and there's so much to offer in London that I feel that it’s--, well one lifetime isn't enough to see it all in London.

Q: Has the river been a big part of that?

A: It has, from about 1983. Lately, in the last few months I've been going almost obsessively to the Thames. I had a period in the ‘80s when I went quite a lot digging with other mudlarks and we would dig deep holes, sometimes as deep as, believe it or not, three meters.

Q: Gosh.

A: Where there would be three of us and we’d bail out the hole and come back over a period of three days, going deeper each day. Bailing out the silt that would fill up the hole slightly and--, but averagely, we would dig about six feet in those days. We would still need two of us. It was very hard work, but we would find very interesting things, large things that you wouldn’t find on the surface. And then there was a period when I used to only go to the foreshore just by myself for the extreme low tides and just look on the surface. And it was then that I soon discovered that it was more pottery that I would find and perhaps stone objects on those occasions. And I found that a lot of people were not picking up or showing interest in tiles. And few people seem to be turning over upside down decorated tiles. I could recognise a medieval floor tile when it was upside down, despite the beveling and the [sandy 0:03:25] back it would have. But I found that on these extreme low tides, I was--, I would only be going to the Thames maybe 20 times a year, for quite a number of years, but then more recently, I've been going a lot more than that. Maybe averaging three times a week now.

Q: Gosh. So, what does a regular week look like for you in relation to your work outside of mudlarking and your--, mudlarking as a hobby, would you say or…?

A: I fit it in with my antique dealing, which is what I do for a living. The two are intertwined. I do sell some of the lesser things like the clay pipes and the musket balls, and certain other things to pay for my travel costs and other things. But being self-employed enables me to shift my hours around and so I don't have a nine-to-five job, so I find that quite easy. Which--, so I'm lucky in that respect and I've taken advantage of it.

Q: Do you remember the first time you went mudlarking?

A: I think it was at Custom House, yes. And I think I found a clay pipe or… And, it was in about 1981 or 2, possibly.

Q: And have you had any most--, what's the most memorable experience from being on the foreshore mudlarking? Is it because of a find or is it because something happened to you down there or a feeling? Maybe that’s a hard question because you do it so much.

A: I think one of the most memorable experiences was when I used to dig at Dowgate, which is the part by Cannon Street Bridge, I would be digging about two and a half feet deep, averagely, and it was a great thrill that I saw a nearly complete medieval jug in the side of the hole and I swished water around it. And so I was very terrified to break it, so I would--, I dug it out very carefully but that was one of my most exciting feelings I've had at the Thames, finding this nearly complete jug in one piece. It was just missing a small part of the rim, the base rim. And I was so excited that I remember I did something wrong driving home. I got hooted very badly by--, I think it was a taxi driver. But I was--, my mind was on the jug, I think that time.

Q: Were you part of the Mudlark Society at this point?

A: Yes, yes. I needed a licence to dig a hole that deep.

Q: So, did you take the artifact to them and show--, did you show anyone?

A: I took it to the Museum of London and they recorded it. But in those days they looked at things for a much shorter length of time. I think some of the time they would take things away for photographing there and then, give them back to me there and then. And then as time went on, they would take longer and longer. They might have things for a week or so and then give them back. But nowadays, they have things for usually about four months. But in the case of my treasure trove item they’ve still got, it is getting on for three and a half years.

Q: Gosh. So, has being part of the Society of Mudlarks changed the way that you--, the way that you look at mudlarking or taught you anything? Have you met anyone particular through that?

A: I've made several friends on the foreshore, meeting people there and it's been very enjoyable the companionship there, but I think we learn from each other. I've learned a lot from the Mudlark Society. A lot of skills are developed. Well, I needed to know--, a lot of skills I needed to know about digging were taught to me, in a matter of fact way by the more experienced mudlarks.

Q: Could you expand on those skills?

A: I think in those days when we dug deeper, you would need to break up the hard pack with a pick or a fork. It will be very compacted. It would often be just be--, it would be compacted because of the barges, the boats having compacted the foreshore in certain areas and it would be like concrete, a bit like rock, really hard. And you'd have to break through that, so a fork I was told was the best. And then bailing out the hole and also how to manage the next day about putting a board with rocks on top of it to stop people falling in the for next day. But various small tips and they were very, very useful at the time. But nowadays due to erosion, there's been perhaps five feet of erosion in places, we don't need to dig that deep. So, those skills are not needed generally now.

Q: So, what is it that you take down to the foreshore with you, or what do you do to prepare before you mudlark?

A: I have a small sieve now. I’ve tired of bringing a large sieve and a metal detector and a shovel, and I found that sieving small areas where there's small aggregations of metal is very productive for me. Because I find that where there's a lot of pins and nails there's also a lot of other metal. The tide seems to wash it--, sort things out by weight and it tends to be very, very good for me to find very small coins in those circumstances. I have quite a large collection of pottery, so I'm quite happy to find smaller things now.

Q: So what's the method with using the sieve in particular?

A: Well, to sieve the silt, to sieve these areas of high concentrations of metal like iron nails, the sieve would be very small, about eight inches across. Surprisingly small compared to how deep we used to dig in the past, but it works quite well for me.

Q: Do you have any particular areas that you like to return to?

A: I like some areas of the south side. I like Cannon Street where I've always--, I've dug a lot, where I’ve found pottery and medieval shoes. It has turned up some amazing things over the years. And it has a lot of memories for me because that's where I concentrated my digging for a long time, near Cannon Street Bridge.

Q: And what do you do when you’ve found an object? What's the process after you take it from the foreshore?

A: I usually just clean it. I take it home and clean it on the day. I know some people would be able to wait but I'm quite impatient. So, I like to clean the things on the day and leave them to dry. In the case of medieval shoes, that's a different story. They require much more lengthy cleaning and drying.

Q: So, do you keep them in your house or do you--, have you exhibited them anywhere? Or shown them anywhere? Or do the museums have any of your artifacts?

A: Museum of London have two objects that they bought from me and a few that they've--, I think I've given them the odd item but I keep them in my collection. I’ve got quite a large collection and some I have sold. But I haven't exhibited anything except in St. Stephen's Church where I go. For half a day, I had a little exhibition there of Christian medieval Thames finds. That’s at Stephen’s at Walbrook. It’s Christopher Wren’s masterpiece church, which he designed the dome there and rebuilt it after it burned down in the Fire of London. He lived in that road. So, that was his local church as well. And that's the church I go to at the moment.

Q: Wonderful. So, you've already mentioned that the way that you've been mudlarking has changed and you're sieving now. Has the river changed or have you seen London change in the time that you've been mudlarking from the foreshore?

A: I've seen the foreshore erode a lot. That--, the change has been the continued erosion, the quite rapid erosion compared to how it used to be. Erosion didn't used to take place very much. So, perhaps between 1980 and 1990 there’d be virtually no change in the foreshore, the height. But now there seems to be, almost yearly it seems to be perhaps six inches lower than it was the previous year, which is quite astonishing, really. In fact, there's a lot of places where, for example, a ladder that used to be at the foreshore, now there's quite a drop when you climb down the ladder and you have to get on the foreshore, it’s quite a drop now. And also it's apparent in posts that would have been sort of flush with the foreshore level, they are now as high as I am, well almost, which is quite astonishing. I think it’s the Thames Clippers that are doing it but it must also be some other factor. Perhaps it has to do with volumes of water, speeds of water. Perhaps due to the southeast sinking, possibly.

Q: So, how's your personal relationship changed with mudlarking do you think, over the years?

A: I think I've become much more successful. My knowledge of identifying artifacts is very good. I can identify objects that are very difficult to see, like a coin on its side. And as I mentioned earlier medieval tiles that are upside down, but also other objects which are partially buried I could recognise, but that's through experience. Anyone would get better at their profession with experience and I dare say bird watchers are very good at spotting a particular bird in among the bushes.

Q: So, how's your--, when you are on the foreshore, how does it make you feel? And how does the river influence you?

A: I find the river has a great healing effect for me. And I do find that my experience gives me confidence that wherever I go, I can find objects. I--, people often say to me, oh, do you ever find anything? And I think that's an incredible question because I always find things. It’s just a question of how many I find. For example, one day I found 30 coins, I think 15 were ancient and about 15 were sort of relatively modern, for example, like 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s. But the rest were sort of medieval to 1700s. So, I found 30 coins in one day and I also found huge numbers, I think I found 30 Georgian buttons in one day. So, it always surprises me when people say, have you ever found anything--, do you do ever find anything when you go down there? It's more a question of I can't ever remember now finding nothing. But that's only due to experience I think. I know where to look, I know where not to waste my time.

Q: Can you tell us more about the healing experience you feel from the foreshore?

A: Yeah. I think--, well, there are a lot of healing springs throughout England. There's one local--, there’s a few locally to me, in Edgware by Brockley Hill, which feeds streams that link up to larger streams and they feed into the little rivers that feed the Thames. So, really the Thames is made up of water probably predominantly from healing springs, which I think a lot of people don't realise and it's difficult to visualise because London is so built up. But it's marvelous to think that it has such a healing aspect and I think that there are so many streams and springs that feed it that we're quite lucky then in London to have such a beneficial water source.

Q: I mean, it's been such a huge thing in all of the generations that have lived here for food source and a source of spiritual offering and all of these things. So, how do you think in our modern times we relate to the river?

A: I think people nowadays are more materialistic and less spiritual. I think people nowadays regard it more in a materialistic way, like enjoyment they might derive would be from a boat trip or a disco boat or a sightseeing boat trip. They might just look at it from that point of view or how pretty it looks, but I think the ancient peoples were more sensitive to realise it's healing aspects. But also, they threw things in votively. But I've noticed that in general life, that sort of if you give you receive is an aspect that does seem to work. If you're generous, you seem to prosper. They seemed to work that out. But I think nowadays people are further away from that aspect. Although Eastern people seem more still in tune with that.

Q: So, I've heard that mostly what you collect, well you said you have an eye for medieval tiles and medieval pottery. Is there anything that you'd like to specifically talk about from your collection?

A: There's a number of medieval floor tiles that have--, that I particularly like. There's one with a lion that was made in about 1340 in Penn in Buckinghamshire. And I remember finding that, being thrilled to see that on the Thames foreshore and a couple of weeks later, or even less than that, I was in a completely different part of London, looking at spoil heaps that had been--, from excavations in central London and dumped in I think it was Dagenham, where they were dumping the spoil, and I found an identical tile to the one I found on the foreshore. Then I realised it was three quarters complete. But to find two with a lion like that, is very unusual in the space of two weeks. And I feel that there does seem to be a link there and I've never since found a medieval floor tile with a lion on it. And that kind of repetition with the duality has cropped up time and again. And there is another tile which was also from spoil heaps dumped from, I think it was Custom House and the spoil was dumped at Dagenham Dock. And I was very thrilled to find that tile with a fleur-de-lys and it’s 13th or 14th century and it's made in France. That was particularly clear. There's another tile which I found at Battersea and I understood that some of the dumpings from the dredgings of the London Bridge, when they were dredging to build another London Bridge, were dumped at Battersea. So, I found that interesting to have found a tile there that had come from further upstream, I mean downstream. There is a very good medieval floor tile that I found on the south side, the very same day that part of the foreshore had temporarily been cordoned off because sadly there had been a suicide and the police had retrieved the body. And so temporarily we were not allowed there but when we were, I found it, so it has a sad memory to it. And another medieval floor tile I found at Dowgate, my favourite place for digging, and that has been abundant for pottery and leather finds from the medieval period.

Q: Could you describe what they look like and what they're made out of, and maybe the process of making medieval tiles?

A: Most of the decorated tiles that I have are made by the encaustic method, which is where they have the wet tile, clay tile, and the potter would have a decorated wooden stamp with the design and he would stamp it down onto the tile, hammer it down. And then the crevices would be filled with a different coloured clay. The body of the tile would be a red clay, but they would get from possibly Devon, a white clay and use that to fill in the crevices. There would be several methods of doing it. Sometimes by hand, sometimes by squeezing, a bit like with icing sugar and then they would finish it off with a knife, tidy up the tile with a knife. And then when that was dry, they would glaze the tile with a lead glaze and with the contrasting red and white clays would produce yellow and brown after firing. The tile would then be put into a kiln and fired. The fleur-de-lys tile I mentioned was made in a slightly different way. I think where the design already had the I think the clay on the wooden stamp and it was pressed on to the wet body of the tile, it's a much shallower, weaker method of making a tile. And it is very unusual to find one in good condition, but mine is in very good condition.

Q: Lucky you. So, how would these have been used during the--, what century did you say?

A: 13th to 14th century.

Q: So, how would they have been used?

A: Just on floors in ecclesiastical or rich merchants’ houses. Churches, abbeys and monasteries and rich people's houses. They were not available generally to the general people due to the cost, I imagine.

Q: So, how do you think they ended up in the Thames?

A: I think with rebuilding, knocking down of old buildings they would take out floors and they would go into the Thames along with other rubble. And a lot of this would have happened in the-, just after the Great Fire of London. So, a lot of tiles I find are actually burnt and…

Q: From that point?

A: Yes. And so, they probably have been in the Great Fire of London.

Q: So, what do you look for when you're looking for these tiles on the foreshore? What are the signals that you are saying that you can identify these as?

A: Well, quite obviously the right way up they're quite easy to see, quite easy to spot. But upside down I think the size of them, I can tell from the--, roughly the thickness of them upside down. There is a limit to how many things they could be. It's not too great an effort to flip them over and so quite a lot of the time I might flip over one or two, and they'd be completely worn and there would be no design at all on them. But I've had some very nice surprises in the past with flipping them over.

Q: What is it that you particularly like about the tiles? Why do you think you're so--, why do you think you have the biggest collection of them?

A: I think I like them because they're quite large and they display well. Quite early on in mudlarking I began to get frustrated by how small a lot of the things were. I know a lot of the mudlarks are very keen and excited to see their tokens, and medlets, and various decorated belt fittings, and coins, and jetons. And to me, I couldn't see much excitement there, because they all seem relatively small and in those days I was--, I wanted things you could put on a shelf or see at a distance. And I also felt in the antique business in general, there was a great shortage of larger objects. And so I wanted to address that problem, partly.

Q: You mentioned earlier the word like ‘duality’ of finding a pair of objects at a similar time or a similar place. Could you expand on that a little bit? Because that's really interesting.

A: Well, there was another extremely unusual experience of that where there was quite a low tide and I'd found a 1950s brass Chubb key, very low down. And I don't think I'd ever found a brass Chubb key ever before. And so, this was on the south side and I thought nothing of it. Then I--, as the tide came back in, there was a part of the foreshore a few hundred feet further away, where I'd been right at the back, actually touching the back wall of the foreshore and I'd been having--, making some finds there and I thought before I go, I wanted to have a look there at the back wall. And this was a few, about 200 feet, maybe 100 feet from where I found the other key low down. Now, at this back wall was the most enormous rock. When I got down I did a bit of sieving, I got down maybe six inches and I found this most enormous rock. I think one of the most enormous rocks I've ever shifted, and I came across it and I was determined to find what was underneath the rock. So, using a type of a crowbar I'd found on the Thames foreshore. It was more like rungs from a Victorian ladder that would be nailed into the river wall, but it was a crowbar would have broken. I think I needed one of these like ladder rungs. So, I gripped this stone, it was like an immense block. So, I actually managed to move this block. So, then I'm very proud of myself at having moved this block and so I started sieving what was underneath it. To my astonishment was another brass Chubb key, very similar to one I’d found about an hour previously and I’d never before or since found brass Chubb keys on the foreshore. It could have actually been its twin, but you can understand if it was just further up or downstream on the surface, but not under this rock. This was showing the link with--, of duality that you get is not defined by physics, as we know it.

Q: Yes. Have you got anything else--, other objects you'd like to talk about? I think next to you you've got an amazing collection of medieval leather shoes. And you were telling us earlier that you restore them by hand and sew them together by hand. Could you tell us some more about that process and where you found them?

A: The shoes were found at Dowgate, which is by Cannon Street Bridge. And I found a number of them in a relatively small area, and the leather is very soft. And it's a very, very tricky process to dig out the shoes without tearing the leather, but I find that when I have cleaned the leather very carefully, the soles come away from the tops and I need to sew them together again, which is a very tricky process. And then I would need to dry them very, very, very slowly otherwise they shrivel. Freeze drying at the Museum of London would be the best option, but they only occasionally freeze dried for me, so I was left to myself usually. And what I would do was then stuff the shoe with plastic, scrunched up plastic like bags and then I would leave them in plastic bags, that I would put the shoe in a plastic bag with small holes in it and just dry it out very slowly. Enlarging the holes and checking for mold, brushing off mold and this I would do for up to a year depending on how good the shoe was. If the shoe wasn't terribly good, I would shorten it to about six months. So, towards the end of that period, I would gradually open the mouth of the bag to let more and more air in. And this was not a perfect method but it significantly reduced the shriveling that would have otherwise taken place.

Q: Why had the shoes not degraded over time in the river?

A: Because the river mud is an airless environment. So, the bacteria and the organisms that would have eaten them away were not able to due to the lack of air in the mud.

Q: So, how are we doing for time, do you know?

Q1: Fine, yeah. We could have a few more questions, I reckon. Yeah, about five minutes, maybe.

Q: Is there any other stories that you want to talk about? Any other maybe surreal experiences that you’ve had on the foreshore? Or amazing finds that you want to talk about?

A: With my large pot that appears in the Treasure Hunting magazine, I used to be quite lazy when I was digging at Dowgate. I had waders and instead of bailing out the water from my hole, I would instead think I would be better off just digging and I could get down quicker and more deeply just without bailing out as well. And the mudlarks used to tell me that I should bail out because one day I could be breaking something really big. And then there came a time when I kept hearing a crunching sound when I was digging and I thought I'd come across some stones or concrete. And so it was irritating me because normally in this area, the stilt is extremely soft, so I actually chopped with my shovel to make it easier. And I was sieving and not finding anything that I could recognise much that looked worth keeping. But then it suddenly occurred to me that as I was digging, a certain type of pottery kept appearing, just tiny fragments, just kept appearing and I was throwing out these fragments with the stones each time. Then I realised with a shock that this was a pot that I’d broken. So, then I went and gathered up a number of sherds I’d thrown away and then I started bailing out and retrieving as much as I could. And the pot is pictured in the Treasure Hunting magazine for January 2019.

Q: Oh, dear [laughs]. So, did you--, the picture in the magazine that you showed us previously, it's all together. So, did you put it back together on your own?

A: Yes, yeah.

Q: Gosh.

A: It's still two thirds complete, about three quarters complete anyway, but that's--, that one piece that would have been two thirds or three quarters complete is now in 87 pieces. But I did manage to glue it together but it was a very difficult job.

Q: What kind of pot was it?

A: Late 14th century pitcher, water pitcher, with red decoration on top of green, a green lead glaze.

Q: And how long did it take you?

A: I think probably a whole week, but I use various glues and fillers but it was extremely difficult. But on the other hand, at least I retrieved most of it. So, have to look on the bright side.

Q: How do you store all of your objects then?

A: I have cabinets, generally to keep the dust off them, of cabinets and drawers of various sizes in my house.

Q: Do you do them chronologically and by type and…?

A: To a certain extent. Also, for convenience, I have various places for various types of things. But that often changes, but the tiles I tend to keep all together. It's very important to keep dust off these things.

Q: When do you think you’ll next be going mudlarking? Do have anything in the diary?

A: It could be possibly next week, I think. There’s some morning tides.

Q: You were saying about you get out what you give. So, from the Thames, if the Thames gifts you anything, is there anything in particular that you do to ask the Thames for any particular finds? Or what do you give Thames to get things back?

A: Sometimes I throw in pennies for luck and if I find a relatively modern coin, I throw it back. Something I'm not very interested in, just like a votive offering in a way.

Q: So, next week is the next time you will be on the foreshore?

A: Probably, yeah.

Q: I hope Father Thames is very generous and gifts you lots of lovely things.

A: Thanks very much.

Q: I think we should stop the interview there. Thank you very much, Mark.

A: Thank you for your interview.

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