Like twelve-year-old Needle in Elsetime, I have a passion for treasure hunting – strolling along the foreshore, scanning the stones and mud for a glint of gold or the sparkle of water-tumbled glass. When I do happen upon a marble, a shard of a hand-painted teacup or a bent coin, I stare down at it in the palm of my hand and wonder about its history: How old are you? Who owned you? Did you witness something wild? Are you lost, or did someone throw you away?

Most call this hunting ‘mudlarking’, but Elsetime’s Needle calls it ‘schmocking’ – SCH-M-OCK! (Pop your lips open after the M bit, and that’s the sound Needle hears when he pulls treasure from the soggy mud!).

Back in 1864, Needle would not have been the only treasure hunter of his time – mudlarks were a common sight along the banks of the Thames during the 1800s. A visitor in 1873 described them as “a swarm of dirty boys and girls dressed in clothes that seemed to have been stolen from scarecrows, who used to sprawl about over the mud, just as you may have seen dark little crabs.” These mudlarks were searching for anything they could sell, be it rusty old nails or a chunk of coal. It was often their only means of survival.

Today, the items ‘schmocked’ from the mud of the Thames provide us with a snapshot of times past – a belt buckle, a thimble, a war medal – each item brings us closer to our ancestors. But we don’t need a trip to the Thames to feel the magic of the treasure hunt! As habit would have it, my eyes rarely leave the ground no matter where I am, and, on forest walks and city strolls, I am often rewarded with fine treasure! My favourites include super-rare purple sea-glass and a 450-million-year-old echinoid fossil (that’s 220-million-years before dinosaurs appeared!)

Painting of my twins’ treasure. They tell me it’s worth millions! Lucky things!
Book jacket design Holly Ovenden

In Elsetime, Needle can hear a treasure’s story by holding it in the palm of his hand: the ring that belonged to a six-fingered man with silver rings so heavy they stretched his arms and hunched his back; the rusted key that ended up between the teeth of a sewer rat; and the spider amulet, worn around the neck, that blessed or cursed its wearer with an irresistible urge to dance. A book-full of stories written into every bead and every twist of metal.

So, let’s see where your treasure brings you! Next time you find a curious shard of pottery, a bent button, a rusty bottle-top or even a feather, place it in the palm of your hand. Needle says the colder the treasure feels, the older it is, so let your mind go back in time until you find a place where you believe it once lived in someone’s pocket or on their mantlepiece.

Now close your eyes, clear your mind, and tell us its story!

Happy schmocking, everyone!

Eve McDonnell