The London Dispatches: To Market, To Market

By Cadence Woodland.

London is absolutely stuffed with markets, and I’m finding
all of them glorious. From crafts to vintage goods, food to flowers there is a
good bet that there is a specialist market for almost any item in this city. In
this post I’m going to take you through my four favorite markets, a bit of
their history, and then muse a bit on why that history is significant. Grab
your grocery tote and come on a stroll with me!

Borough Market is, justifiably, famous. It’s one of the
oldest continuously operating in the city, mentioned in official records in the
1200’s but probably dates much further back than even that. Borough functions
entirely as a food market and the sheer scope of goods you can buy at it is
truly impressive. Bakers and cheesemongers are stalled next to artisanal oils
and truffles, farm shops next to butchers. My husband is particularly grateful
for one vendor who stocks the spices, chilies, and other items required for
Mexican cuisine (it’s literally the only place in London we have found so far
that even sells black beans!). Food wares come from all over the world…and I do
mean all over!

This may be one of my favorite stalls: exotic meats from ostrich to springbok!
Of course you come to Borough for the really fresh, seasonal produce!

Portobello Road Market is a much newer addition to the
London scene, operating only since the 19th century, but in the 1950’s
it became one of the top destinations for antiques – a ranking it has held onto
ever since. Though antiques very much remain the focus, the market has expanded
to include grocers, flower sellers, and streetfoods of every global region. I
only live one Tube station away from Borough but I’ve already found myself a
go-to cheese guy at Portobello who I visit on an almost weekly basis. A
delightful Frenchman, who also operates a charcuterie with handcrafted cured

Portobello is particularly famous for its offerings in antique silver wares

Covent Garden Market is another historical area. It was once
church land but Henry VIII snapped it up when he dissolved the
monasteries in the 16th century. In the 18th century it
became an area renowned for…shall we say…illicit entertainment, but Parliament
got involved to clean the area up and expand the local sellers there into a
proper market to make it an area for more respectable trades than what were
going on at the time. Today vendors sell a mix of original art and vintage
goods here, but the market really got its start as produce venue, and later
expanded to include flowers. It’s most famous fictional vendor is Eliza
Doolittle of Pygmalion, or its
musical version My Fair Lady, the
cockney flower girl.

The Victorian hall is still standing the the areas of what sorts of goods you could buy still in place.

Another favorite is the Columbia Road Flower Market,
which also has an interesting history. In the 19th century the area
had become a rather notorious slum but a Victorian philanthropist determined to
redevelop the area by turning it into a venue for legitimate grocery trade. She
built a large building, which unfortunately no longer stands, to house vendors.
The effort paid off and the area was transformed, but it was largely the
immigrant populations which made Columbia Road what it is. French Protestant (Hugenot)
immigrants brought a demand for freshly cut flowers to the area for the first
time, and even the market’s functioning day (Sunday) was decided upon to accommodate
the Jewish immigrant vendors and patrons who bought and sold there. Though WWII and its ravages put a halt to it for a while, Britain is a nation of gardeners and the market is thriving again. In addition to mountains of cut flowers, you can find potted plants, every variety of vine, pallets of flowers for gardeners to take home and grow, bulbs, seeds, shrubs, and trees.

Flowers: as far as the eye can see!

Truly, everywhere!

What I love about London market culture is how dynamic and
proactive a force it’s been in the city’s history. Whether as a political
action to change the dynamic of an area, or as a tool against poverty and
corruption, or as a method for new immigrants to carve out a space for
themselves, London markets are far from venues to simply exchange goods for
money. They are ways for governments, individuals, and people with a vested
interest in an area to get other people equally invested in it. I find the
story of Covent Garden particularly interesting as an example of replacing one
bad industry (prostitution wasn’t the only problem; gangs and thieves
patrolling and controlling some parts of the area are well documented in the 18th
century as well) with a better one which benefited the community at large.

These markets, in addition to purposeful use, also have a
very organic (pun!) way of evolving on their own to meet the needs and desires
of various communities. While a wealthy philanthropist may have decided to
create Columbia Road, Portobello Road turned into an antiques and vintage hub largely
by itself. Self-evolving supply and demand led it to become the center for
historic goods it is today. What I’ve seen of market culture in the US seems very
different. First of all, we admittedly don’t have a thousand years of history
and tradition on our side, but most of the farmers markets I’ve been to are
fairly recently created organizations. In that regard they have a lot in common
with the self developing niche markets of London, but I don’t think the US has
been able to harness the idea of using markets as a larger community force the way the UK has.

I’m curious as to your take on your local market culture. Is
there one in your area, and do you visit or sell at it regularly? And what are
your thoughts on how market culture might be used in the US to take on community
challenges – good idea or bad idea? Let me know in the comments!

Cadence Woodland is a freelance author’s assistant and writer. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.

1 thought on “The London Dispatches: To Market, To Market”

  1. I loved in Kingston upon Thames for a summer and they had an ancient market that was awesome! I loved the markets in London. Omaha NE has really been working on improving their markets and they have come a long way! The only problem is the markets stop in the winters in Nebraska.


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