Jason Goodwin: ‘Paris had a tideless Seine, but London’s river sinks and lunges, T. S. Eliot’s brown god breathing in the city’s heart’

Our spectator columnist fondly remembers his days of mudlarking, a practice he claims mostly unique to the rolling waters of our country's rivers and coastline, where tides are some of the fiercest in the world.

Sometimes, you really need to go away to remember what it is you love so much about home. Standing, this week, on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul, it came to me, quite out of the blue: an image of my younger self, in gumboots, stooped over the black ooze and whiskery rubble of the Thames foreshore, mudlarking.

They’ve dredged many remarkable things out of the sea in Istanbul: triremes and ingots, ambergris and jewels, plus a complete imperial harbour or two, but they have to do with caissons and pumps what I used to do by the semi-diurnal miracle of the tide.

It was only for a few years that I had that freedom of the Thames and I never found treasure. I found truck money, a Georgian penny, clay-pipe stems and, once, a pipe bowl fluted like a clamshell.

I found buttons aplenty and always dreaded uncovering a severed hand or even a body draped around the pilings of the Mayflower at Rotherhithe, where such things did, occasionally, wash up.

Paris had elegance, with a tideless Seine, green and smooth, protected by locks, always at a perfect level with the quays and bridges, but London’s river sinks and lunges, like a dog on a chain, something a little wild, T. S. Eliot’s brown god breathing in the city’s heart. It’s only by going away that you realise how uncommon that is.

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Bosham, in Chichester Harbour, is famous for having the only church in the Bayeux Tapestry and a claim to one of England’s most enduring tales, of Canute taking his throne to the beach and enjoining the tides to obey his commands. In our school, where we didn’t dwell much on the folly of kings, we were taught that he meant to shut up the flatterers in his Court. On the way, of course, he demonstrated the immutability of natural laws and one of the most mutable glories of his northern empire: the constant revelation and concealment of the tidal shore.

Sand patterns on the Goodwin Sands

Sand patterns on the Goodwin Sands

Tides around the British Isles are some of the fiercest in the world. In the Bristol Channel, they can rise and fall by almost 50ft, giving it the second largest tidal range in the world, pipped to the post by the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Much of the world is untouched by the tide, including Istanbul.

You might think that the water, drawn by the Moon, would surge across the surface of the globe in pursuit, but that’s not quite what happens.

I was with an engineer when I made my remark on Britain’s tides and he explained how land deflects and contains the movement of the water, so that the tiny, landlocked Mediterranean gets barely any tide at all and the northern and eastern Atlantic receive 50ft. In tidal zones, the water starts to move in a rotating pattern around a tideless central node called an amphidromic point. The further you are from that point, the bigger the tides.

That is why we have rock pools to discover and mud flats and the galloping waters of Morecambe Bay. It’s the treachery of Kent’s Goodwin Sands and the reliability of the Severn Bore. Like weather and the seasons, it’s what makes our islands so gloriously changeable.

Edward Ardizzone devoted one of his best stories to the tides. Tim and Ginger sit while the old boatman explains about the dangers of the cliffs, but only Tim really listens. Ginger inevitably slouches off, hands in pockets. ‘Poof,’ he says. ‘I know all about the silly old sea.’ No spoilers, but it doesn’t go well.