Winter ploughing turns me into a mudlark of the fields, on the hunt for worthless objects of great value. The blades that buried 2020 have also unearthed human detritus of the ages, every mud-wrapped piece telling a story of loss or abandonment.
Nine months of daily litter picks have sharpened my eye to spotting the bright and not so beautiful down the lane. All along the verge are cans, bottles and wrappers, as well as the pandemic’s body intimate – the loops and cup of a face mask – tossed aside like a discarded bra.
The fields themselves make treasure out of yesteryear’s rubbish. In the aftermath of a wheat crop, off-white fragments glint as durable chaff. I need only stoop to scoop up one from the field corner. The nub end of a teacup handle, it appears to have a companion piece in the middle of the handle resting only a couple of metres away. How they have risen and sunk together over many decades of churn, for this land once satisfied London’s appetite for brussels sprouts and onions, and the capital fertilised the crops by sending its night soil. The contents of a million privies were raked across the fields and with the human waste came illicit extras. Broken china was the Victorian equivalent of today’s flushed wet wipes and dental floss.
On the ribbed concrete track laid for heavy combines when the fields converted to arable, I made my best find just a few weeks ago. What I first thought was a seaweed-green bottle top lacked those tell-tale serrations. This was a smooth-edged disc with a gritty feel that I imagine had probably peeled off the tread of a tractor wheel. I gave one face a spit and rub, and the head and shoulders of a thick-necked, tousle-headed monarch began to take shape. A proper rinse at home revealed its identity as a copper farthing of William IV from 1834, the infamous year when six farm labourers of Tolpuddle in Dorset were sentenced to transportation.
Did a poor Bedfordshire labourer on less than 18 shillings a week drop their precious coin here? Or did someone on a cockney toilet accidentally spend a quarter of a penny?