Borough Market— London ’s oldest and biggest—seems like a natural film location, a jumble of stalls along a maze of lanes snuggled under the green girders of a railway bridge. London’s late-20th-century culinary renaissance has certainly helped to raise Borough Market’s profile as the place to go in the capital for topquality food shopping.
But it wasn’t always that way. Though Borough Market occupied the south end of London Bridge for centuries—some claim it was already an established site in Roman times—by the 13th century it was considered a nuisance because the food stalls blocked traffic across the bridge. The south side of the river was always more disreputable than the north bank, a neighborhood of taverns and inns (Chaucer’s pilgrims started their trip to Canterbury nearby) and playhouses (including Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Various monarchs over the years tried in vain to
control the market’s chaos and congestion. For the past 250 years, however, it has been respectably settled on its current site, just south of Southwark Cathedral, as a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable market run as a charity by a board of trustees whose members must live in the neighborhood.
Conveniently close to the river’s wharves, and later London Bridge railway station, Borough Market never was just about local produce; purveyors from all over the U.K.—and several from Europe—ship their goods here. Orkney Rose, for example, features fresh salmon, heatherfed lamb, Angus beef, and seafood from the Orkney Islands—products from small rural producers who individually could never afford to sell in London. The wholesale market is open 2am to 8am nightly except Saturday, and a retail arm of the market was launched with instant success in 1999 (only open Thurs 11am–5pm; Fri noon–6pm; and Sat 9am–4pm), as things got trendier south of the river. These retailers sell not only produce but meat, fish, baked goods, and gourmet delicacies such as chocolates, coffee, tea, and olive oil. Among the cafes, restaurants, and pubs in the Market area are Roast, known for its hearty breakfasts, and The Rake, a pub whose name recalls William Hogarth’s famous 18th-century engravings of the raffish Borough Market scene.
Unfortunately, several buildings on the surrounding streets may be demolished by the construction of a major train viaduct; what this will do to the market’s character remains to be seen. The main market buildings date from the mid–19th century; the Borough High Street entrance is an Art Deco addition from 1932, and the South Portico of the Floral Hall was moved here in 2004 from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden—an area also known for its street vendors (think Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady). It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, all right—but then, that’s what Borough Market has been all along.