Jul 05


Glastonbury mud, June 2016 (Source: Charlotte Roe)

The train from Newcastle going south is a post-stag-party nightmare which only (just) allows for concentration on the Sunday newspapers.  Out of the window the countryside is looking amazingly green as a result of the almost tropical mixture of warmth and rain in the past few weeks in the North East.  Billowing grey clouds threaten more of same. Scanning the newspaper today provides little on direct water-related issues, however one or two reports catch my attention.  The first is a striking image created by Jamal Penjweny, an Iraqi artist whose new project ‘Pink Dream’ is about his home landscape depicted in black and while and embellished with his own graphics overlain as pink comment.  The image that jumps out at me is of the dried up marshlands where abandoned boats lie amongst the dead reeds.  Superimposed with Penjweny’s pink fish this dried mudland landscape becomes a memorial to the loss of livelihood faced by local fisherman whose whole existence depends on water (Cooke, 2016 pp12-13).

As I read on, mud seems to be a particular theme today.  The next article is about the Glastonbury festival and its ankle-deep mud.  I wonder if people think about water when they are wading through the mud?  Water is important at Glastonbury. For example, certainly this year there has been much chat on the radio about the improvement in the toilet provision (in 2015 more than 3600 toilets were located on the licensed site - 1 toilet per 55 persons) (Glasto Sanitation Report, 2015).  More compost loos and long-drops have replaced the notorious chemical toilets which people hate so much, particularly when they are used to water closets (Rosseinsky, 2014).  My first introduction to long-drops was in a traditional chalet in the mountains of Norway some 30 years ago.  Glastonbury has been going for even longer (started in 1970).  It’s amazing to me that such low-tech solutions have taken so long to be properly adopted there.  However the sheer quantity of excrement produced at Glastonbury doesn’t really bear thinking about, what with 135,000 people over a five day festival.  This makes me consider the perception of ‘clean’ mud and ‘dirty’ mud.  The Glastonbury mud is generally regarded with affection and therefore is presumably generally regarded as ‘clean’.  Another kind of mud which comes to mind, particularly with the nearby centenary of the Battle of the Somme, is that of the First World War trenches – definitely regarded as ‘dirty’ mud; rat and blood mud.  The experience of flooding in the trenches hardly bears reflecting upon. This ‘no-man’s land’ mud landscape represents devastation and yet it was from this that the poppy fields bloomed, a symbol of remembrance and hope.  About 6 million men were mobilised during the First World War in the UK, and of those just over 700,000 were killed (about 11.5%). Das (2012) describes the mud as ‘not just churned up earth, but compounded of organic wastes, empty shells, iron scraps and rotting human flesh’.  He quotes Jack Dillon, a solider in the trenches, who described his experience of the mud:

Now the mud at Passchendaele was very viscous indeed, very tenacious, it stuck to you. The mud there wasn’t liquid, it wasn’t porridge, it was a curious kind of sucking kind of mud. When you got off this track with your load, it ‘drew’ at you, not like quicksand, but a real monster that sucked at you’ (see Das, 2012).

The landscape of the Western Front was always muddy - a 'mudscape' - even when the weather was dry because of the nature of the landscape which was flat with a water table near the surface (see Leonard, undated).


Man in the mud 

(Source: https://www.awm.gov.au/sites/default/files/visit/images/PAIU1989_140_01_

Mud, Ypres, October 1917. [AWM E00870] 

(Source: http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/zonnebeke/menin-road.php#)

As a child I seemed to spend a lot of time playing in mud of various kinds.  We played in farmyard mud creating whole worlds with model animals and toy farm vehicles. Hours were spent building dams and channels to divert water that sat in the ruts of tractor trails.  This was squishy mud, wet mud, mouldable mud.  There was definitely a discernment between the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’ mud in our engineering activities  Our games were not in the cow mud.  Many animals love to wallow in mud (think of pigs, elephants and hippos).  In hot countries mud helps animals cool the skin, acts as a sun-screen and keeps away flies.  They travel miles to seek out mud hollows. It is also an important habitat for many small creatures.   Worms are wonderful sculptors of mud, from mud casts to mud tunnels.  Amphibians such as newts often hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Mud is important, it's consistency and type. One of my favourite LPs of my childhood was ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ by Flanders and Swann.  The chorus of their ‘Hippopotamus Song’ captures the glory of mud:

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

So follow me, follow, down to the hollow

And there let us wallow in glorious mud…..


Humans put mud of their faces to draw out impurities; presumably this is ‘clean’ mud.  Whole tourist and beauty therapy industries have grown up around mud treatments and there is discernment between the mineral content and properties of such muds.  The ‘best’ cosmetic muds are often based on volcanic ash.

The engineering qualities of mud are of course well-known and used, not only by humans in traditional buildings and structures (flood defences, bunds, motte-and-bailey structures, wattle and daub, cob, adobe houses all come to mind) but by various creatures.  Bricks are really a sort of baked (mostly clay) mud and many houses in hot countries are plastered both inside and outside with mud, like a kind of skin – sometimes called a render or slurry.  Understanding the water-holding qualities and composition of the soil and how it dries out is of course critical in such constructions. Topsoil usually has too much humus or organic material to be of use for construction, so only subsoil (about 60cm down) is used.  Swallows and housemartins are experts when it comes to mud construction.  They twitter over the mud puddles in tractor ruts on farms.  In the past few weeks, despite the rain, I have been topping up a particular puddle with water for the swallows and housemartins.  The strange weather has not really provided enough mud for their nests.   I seem to be doing this increasingly frequently in the last few years and it is amazing how quickly the birds cotton on to the supply of fresh mud for nest building.  This year has been particularly difficult to have a consistent supply of mud, with swamp conditions alternating with cracked earth-like-concrete in the farm yard.  In a classic study of housemartin nests, McNeil and Clark (1977) identify different layers or types of mud (black and red) being used.  Nests take 12-14 days to build and in the study they found alternating bands of muds.  Birds were travelling about 1.25km to sources of mud.  The explanation for the banding seems to be that the birds understand the composition and elasticity of the mud and probably use one type as a kind of mortar to stick the other type of mud together to make their nests.


Housemartins in Nest (Photo: Claus Ableiter - commons.wikimedia.org).

Wrestling in mud has long been an attraction for some.  Mud runs seem to be growing in popularity with people slopping around in mud over anything from 3 to 10 miles.  Trail biking also seems to be a grow activity, particularly along bridle paths.  The problem with this is that the consequent muddy rut conditions make it impassable for walkers, and often for those on horseback as well.  The consideration of mud management is bread and butter to those involved in countryside management, particularly in relation to long-distance footpaths where routes can quickly become rivers–of-mud in conditions of heavy rain.   With such squishy, oozy, sucking and squelching mud lost wellies are not the only problem.  The compaction of soils and the resulting anaerobic conditions are a massive and increasing headache for managers.  Resurfacing may result in loss of character of the routes and sometimes exacerbate rather than relieve the problems.  Victoria Coren Mitchell’s piece in The Observer (26.6.16) suggests that inserting plastic grass or crazy-paving over Glastonbury would solve the problem there.  This would perhaps ‘sanitize’ the place, but is the mud really a problem?  Isn’t the mud of Glastonbury just a part of the English summer landscape experience? To be woken by thousands of squishing wellies and the smell of wet canvass (although no longer the smell of chemical loos) seems increasingly to be seen as a normal part of growing up in middle-England.  Some part of me feels that this is probably healthy in a world where the venturing into the great ‘outside’ and contact with earth of any kind in developed countries is vanishingly rare for many people. Perhaps those at Glastonbury could be described as contemporary mudlarks, in search of something in a muddy environment?  

Mudlark seems to me to be a strange word.  The mud part is obvious, the lark part less so.  Although there is an Australian bird called a mudlark  or magpie lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) it does not inhabit the UK.  ‘Larking’ around usually means ‘messing about’ which would seem a strange way of describing what mudlarks in former times did.  The work ‘larrikin’ derives from the term mudlark and refers to  ‘mischievous young person’, sometimes to thieves, vagabonds etc.    But this is an Australian term, not often used in the UK.  My father suggests that the term mudlark was probably used in the past to refer to mud-wading birds in general, and thus people wading about on the river mud were called after such birds, not because of their happy, messing about habits, but because of their activities which involved hopping in and out of the water on the river mud.  The general definition of a human mudlark is someone who scavenges in river mud.  It is particularly associated with the 18th and 19th century London and poor, unskilled people.  As the River Thames is tidal it is possible to walk out onto the mud at low tide.  Although mudlarks are often characterised as young boys in the literature, all kinds of people, including the elderly tried to make a living by scavenging the riverside.  Much of what Charles Dickens relates in ‘our Mutual Friend’ (1865) about the life on and around the River Thames was influenced by the descriptions of the London poor in Mahew’s (1851–1861) book.  There are two sections in this book relating to mudlarks.  One (‘Felonies on the River Thames’) describes mudlarks generally as children between the age of 8 and 15, usually accompanied by an older person.  In ‘Narrative of a Mudlark’ (pp.370-373) a 13 year old boy tells his story collecting pieces of coal, iron, copper, canvass and driftwood from the Thames mud.  His earnings from this was between 2d and 6d a day.  Mudlarking on the banks of the Thames has had a revival and now it has even become a tourist activity.  Steve Brooker and Nick Stevens have been mudlarking for a number of years.  They have become well-known through the TV series ‘Mud Men’ and have collected an amazing assortment of found objects. They belong to the Society of Thames Mudlarks which was formed in 1976 and has 51 members.  Finds are recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme and are displayed at the Museum of London (see Thames Museum website).


Mudlarks of Victorian London (Source: The Headington Magazine, 1871)

Although these days, riverside mud scavenging is fun, it was and is not always such a lark. Mud in saline conditions such as beside the sea and in tidal rivers can be very salty and it can also contain many unpleasant pollutants which are carried by the water and are deposited in the mud.  During a research project in Bangladesh funded by the British Council/DfID I investigated the impacts of the shrimp industry.  Bangladesh is mostly a vast flat delta landscape which the Ganges runs through.  Much of it is flooded annually by monsoon freshwater coming down the river; this flushes out the landscape and deposits new soil and nutrients. In this way extreme salinity of the soil is avoided and fertility retained. The shrimp industry creates lagoons to grow shrimps.  Women and children collect (or scavenge) wild shrimp fry from the saline mud of the many small rivers, to be grown on in the lagoons and then harvested to grace restaurant tables around the world.  The collectors suffer terrible skin problems from constant wading and sticking their hands and arms into the salty mud and water.  Over-collection of fry has an impact on the ecology, and intensification of the shrimp lagoons and management can cause problems because the natural water flushing is reduced resulting in increased salinity in the soil.  This affects the ability of the soil to grown other crops such as rice on a rotational basis in periods when the shrimps are not being cultured. 


Shrimp lagoons, Bangladesh

As with many aspects of our watery environment, a closer look at mud reveals many contradictions.  Quite apart from the wet mud pictures of Glastonbury, images of dried-up water holes in drought-ridden countries with acres of cracked mud caused by lack of water are powerful reminders of the importance of water as a constituent part of fertile soils.  There are also many important and interesting cultural connections with mud.  A few years ago while on my own mudlarking expedition wandering along the shores of Lake Baikal in western Siberia I picked up a small bone netsuke, presumably lost many years ago and worn by constant buffeting by the lake waters and pebbles.  The carving is of the traditional three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  Found objects in the mud like this one provide the potential for revealing powerful stories of the past, but it seems to me in light of recent events in the UK, this one in particular holds some kind of parable for our times. 


A Mudlark on the shores of Lake Baikal, Siberia.

 Bone Netsuke found on the shore of Lake Baikal: See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil

Sources Consulted:

Cooke, R. (2016) ‘Rose-Tinted Dreams from Iraq’, The New Review, The Observer, 26.06.16 pp.12-13

Coren Mitchell, V. (2016) ‘Give Glastonbury Some Fake Grass’, The Observer. 26.06.16.

Das, S. (2012-05-24 11:32:48) Slimescapes. Available at: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=851

Downton, P. (2013) Mud brick, YourHome (Australian Government) website: www.yourhome.gov.au

Flanders, M. and Swann, D. (1959) The Hippopotamus Song, Recorded at the Fortune Theatre, London, 2 May 1959.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjnOj9O16_I

Glasto Sanitation Report 2015. Sanitation - Licence Monitoring or Other Statutory Duty, Officer Report Glastonbury Festival 2015. Available at: http://www.mendip.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=11605&p=0

Mud Architecture – Construction Details and Techniques (2008-2014) www.archinomy.com (provides a really useful and straightforward  information sheet on mud construction).

Leonard, M. (undated) Muddy Hell: The realities of the Western Front conflict landscape during the Great War.  Modern Conflict Archaeology website Available: at https://modernconflictarchaeology.com/my-academic-work/ma/muddy-hell-the-realities-of-the-western-front-conflict-landscape-during-the-great-war/

McNeil, D. And Clark, F., (1977) ‘Nest Architecture of House Martins’, Bird Study, 24:2, 130-132 doi: 10.1080/00063657709476546

Mayhew, Henry (1851–1861). London Labour and the London Poor. (Researched and written with various others) London: Charles Griffin & Co.

Mudlarking tourism: https://sites.google.com/site/thamesandfield6/try-mudlarking

Rosseinsky, K. (2014) ‘Glastonbury toilets get £600,000 makeover’, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/10908863/Glastonbury-toilets-get-600000-makeover.html

Roe, Maggie and Hasan, Dr. Mahmudul (eds) (2004) Participatory Planning and Environmental Management for Salinity Affected Coastal Regions of Bangladesh (BCHWSD/British Council-DfID). ISBN 984-32-1099-9. pp.47-70

Who are the Mudlarks? Thames Museum website: http://www.thamesmuseum.org/


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