Bankside FROG Day2 March 2010


Below the iconic thatched roof of the Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, dozens of people, some wearing yellow jackets, are scrambling around in the mud at low tide. The survey equipment, the tapes stretched across the sludge and the huddled people around drawing boards, drew curious tourists. What where they doing?

The activity was part of the Thames Discovery Programme – a Lottery-funded project to engage volunteers in a survey of the river, updating a previous study last completed in 1997.

I was a new recruit to the programme so, armed with a certificate to show I had attended a day-long seminar on the basics of surveying, I pulled on my waterproof boots and joined them on the beach.

I was directed to a trio who were measuring, with maximum precision, an ancient wooden structure that stretched, half-submerged, out of the river and up the bank, where it stood proud to several metres.

What was it? Speculation continued throughout the morning as we plotted the width, depth and size of each part of the gnarled timber construction – part of an old causeway, perhaps, or even the ballast of another type of structure dating back centuries.

Fiona, our team leader, explained: ‘Last time this area was surveyed this was not recorded. It shows how much the river bank is subsiding.’

The work was painstaking – every new artifact was plotted on graph paper. But this was anything but mundane: I found I had to concentrate hard to count the squares and hold the tape steady in exactly the right place – always checking visually whether what I had recorded matched what I was looking at.

Like all these projects, our activities were curtailed by the return of the tide. We were so engrossed that we had almost forgotten about being cut off – rule number one, always make sure that you leave yourself time to pack up and leave the site in good time to avoid a mad scramble. Luckily for we volunteers, experienced hands shouted out to us to begin packing up in good time.

My first taster was an enjoyable day. I learnt quite a bit about the nuts and bolts of the job (though I can’t say I have mastered it yet) and found out not to jump to easy conclusions about the origins of these mystery finds. An added bonus was the friendly chat – anecdotes from others about the work they were doing on other sites opened my eyes to the wealth of discoveries to be found on the Thames.