Postcards from the Borough

Before last week I had not been to the Borough for at least 30 years — possibly more. Back then it was just called the Borough, the market was superfluous. It was strictly wholesale fruit and vegetables, opening at just before two in the morning. By half past six most of the wholesalers had shut up shop, either going straight home (often local) or more often than not stopping for a pint in the Market Porter, one of few London pubs licensed to open that early in the morning. Several greasy spoons catered to those who wanted a full English.

Photo of Borough past from the South London Club

Borough back then was rough as fuck. A wrong word, a wrong look and you could be on the end of a verbal or even physical cuffing. Traders who didn’t pay their bills were quite literally kicked out. It was no place for the delicate, nor, really, was it for kids. To think that there are guided tours of the place now is almost crazy.

And yet during school holidays my dad — a costermonger who bought most of his produce at Borough— took me. He took me because I begged him. I loved it. I loved the swearing, the bacon rolls, the whole otherworldliness of this nocturnal domain which had closed and gone home for the day before most of London was awake.

The last remnants of the wholesale market: Stoney Street, 1997

Founded as early as the 11th century — it was close to the wharves of the City of London and provided easy access to wholesalers— Borough survived a number of threats to its existence over the centuries (fire and German bombs not being the least of them. It was also moved a few hundred yards south in 1756), but by the time I was regularly visiting (mid-1980s) it was already in steady decline. The relocation of Covent Garden to the modern, purpose built wholesale market at Nine Elms in the 1970s saw many Borough wholesalers relocate with it. By the end of the 1980s Borough was all but dead, only a few traders remaining. (Ironically, part of the old Covent Garden market — the facade of the Floral Hall — was later re-erected at Borough).

What changed Borough’s fortunes — some will say for the better — was the gentrification of the surrounding area in the early 1990s. Like anywhere this close to the city, it became highly desirable, both for residential and commercial developments, not least as those frightful market traders had been cleared out.

The film Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, much of which was filmed in the area around the market in 1998, is a reminder of what Borough on the cusp looked like. A few tentative attempts at regeneration had taken place: the odd restaurant had opened, and the first specialist food stores had moved into spaces long vacated by the wholesalers. Borough was in the movies again a couple of years later, this time in Bridget Jones’s Diary (she lives in the flat above The Globe pub). By now it was one of the most trendy areas in London, the food and farmers’ markets now major attractions. (In that sense it remains a mystery as to how Bridget could have possibly afforded the rent).

Bridget’s place, now with added viaduct

Partly because of my emotional attachment to Borough as was, I had long resisted the charms of the modern market, refusing, despite the wife’s many suggestions, to even go anywhere near the place. Not entirely without reason I had convinced myself that it was new London at its worst, a place where blokes with affected cockney accents sold poncey produce to Jamie Oliver, naive tourists or the kind of locals who are prepared to pay an extra tenner if something is described on a menu as ‘pan fried’. You know the kind: they expect their chips to come in a basket and their fruit and vegetables to be locally-sourced. Even lemons.

The lemons.

This summer though, I finally caved in, possibly spurred on by the violent attacks which took place here in June.

What did I think?

Well, for a start, Borough today is unrecognisable to the place I used to go to with dad. But that’s not because of its change from wholesale to retail. In fact, the reason it looks so different is because it actually is an entirely different place.

As served at the Royal Wedding

The ongoing redevelopment of London Bridge station and the construction of a new train viaduct has seen more than 20 listed buildings destroyed in recent years (if you ever thought listed buildings couldn’t be pulled down, think again). Most were part of the old market, and all were either Victorian or older. Even those buildings which have survived have seen much change: The Globe (and Bridget’s flat with it) is now almost hidden from view by supports for the viaduct, while The Wheatsheaf over the road had part of its top floor quite literally chopped off.

With a clear head and without prejudice, today’s Borough is great. It is a bit poncey, yes, but if you love your food then there are few places in London which can match it.

All culinary life is here, either cooked and ready to eat or sold as ingredients to take home and try yourself. Fish, seafood, meat, cheese, olive oil, vinegar, wine, spices, jams, honeys: everything on sale is the best that Britain — and many points beyond — has to offer. Prices for most things are not as exaggerated as we had thought they might be, not least as quality is so high. You might want to avoid The Rake pub however, and its now notorious £13.40 pint. Proof that Borough is at once the best and worst of London.

Two conclusions:

  1. Gentrification did not kill off the old Borough. New Covent Garden, and the demise of the independent greengrocer, did.
  2. Today’s Borough is not the old Borough, and comparisons are pointless.

Yes, it would be great if Borough still housed hundreds of wholesalers selling fresh produce to independent greengrocers. But then it would also be great if there were still independent greengrocers too. There aren’t. The world has changed.

Given that the alternative to today’s Borough is yet another development of luxury one and two-bedroom apartments, we’ll take the fabulous food — and the odd memory of what once was — any day of the week.

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