From Portobello to Peckham Rye: A Guide to London’s Markets

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in November 2014 (p20)

Vibrant local markets are a stock-in-trade of guidebook writing and no trip to Bangkok or Brindisi would be complete without sampling street food and attempting to engage a surly stallholder (who we readily interpret as a “character”) in lively repartee. London is no exception, and punches above its weight in world-famous names – Covent Garden for tourist trinkets, Spitalfields for dubious art and, of course, Camden Lock for international food and the evergreen pastime of Goth-watching. Venturing outside this narrow orbit you hit neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Brick Lane, now firmly hauled out of the economic doldrums by young creatives and bankers, but if this scene starts to pall it’s probably time to cast your net wider.

For a slice of echt South London life, for example, head to East Street (nearest tube Elephant and Castle) where the staunchly un-gentrified daily market (closed Mondays) does a roaring trade in cheap veg, bric-a-brac and household goods. Lining the street you’ll find Afro-Caribbean grocers and halal butchers and for a dazzling range of spices, pick any of the shops at the Walworth Road end. Otherwise expected the unexpected – bargain deals on a mattress announced through a microphone, perhaps, or you may catch the Serbian Roma singing duo (“Like someone strangling a cat” as I heard a disgruntled stallholder describe them).

Staying south, why not check out Peckham (nearest station Peckham Rye) once a byword for gang crime but now yielding to an unstoppable tide of soda bread and soya lattes. Stick to Rye Lane, however, and you can enjoy a scene as absorbing as any London has to offer. Frequently cited as one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the UK, the West African presence is easy to spot here – Sierra Leonean restaurants, Nigerian churches and stalls piled with cassava, plantain and all those other vegetables you wanted to know about but were afraid to ask. Chicken feet go for a reasonable £1.99 and, if that’s not enough, a fiver can get you a “Big Hard Chicken”.

If strange fruit and crossing the Thames aren’t your thing, Clerkenwell’s frightfully hip Exmouth Market may appeal. It’s the kind of place where people sit outside pubs in hand-knitted jumpers drinking craft beers while tapping film reviews into their Macs. If that’s not blatant enough, the presence of Gail’s Artisan Bakery should convince you you’re a far cry from Dalston Junction (for the uninitiated, Gail’s is a wayside shrine to sourdough and German rye bread, whose libations of organic milk can be sampled in all the capital’s chi-chiest neighbourhoods – Hampstead, Dulwich, Notting Hill…).

Indeed, the street is mostly about food, be it the excellent English fare at Medcalf restaurant, razor clams at Bonnie Gull Seafood Café or Moorish classics at Moro, where ladies like to lunch on pumpkin salads and slow cooked rabbit. On weekdays there are food stalls at the Farringdon Road end (a brisk 15 minute walk from campus), some run by the street’s restaurants, others including burritos, pulled pork and an incongruous-sounding “German BBQ”. Meanwhile, if you do want to branch out into the non-edible you could always get a tattoo at “The Family Business” or pick up a present at Bookends childrens’ book store before popping round the corner to The Old China Hand to sample their fabulous range of real ales.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve been to all the above and time hangs heavy then consider heading south to Deptford High Street, a gem of a traditional shopping street with markets stalls on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, or west to Goldborne Road (market every day except Sunday) a quirky extension to the more famous Portobello Road and informal hub to London’s Moroccan community. (S)he who is tired of London, as they say…

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