I suspect that my interest in markets was sparked at a young age when my father would take me to the livestock market and my mother would take me to the open-air market (Cheapside) and to the covered food market, all in the town centre (yes, including the livestock market, which is now a Tesco; the open-air market is a covered retail centre in which Mainstop was the original food anchor if anyone remembers them). I grew up in a market town and the surrounding places (Maesteg, Pontypridd, Swansea etc) and the big city (Cardiff) all had their own markets full of colour, life, smells, sounds and sights. A number of these markets still survive, albeit somewhat changed from my distant youth.
That interest in markets has never diminished – I almost wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the peripatetic markets and market traders of South Wales, before being seduced by sun and car parking – and I remain fascinated by the various forms and functions of markets.
A recent trip to London offered up opportunities to sample a few more market spaces and to reflect on their popularity and function. There was nothing scientific in my choice, but rather some random-ish visiting of spaces.
Leadenhall proved a disappointment in the lack of activity, though it was a weekend and this market space is in the heart of the City. The space struck me as rather forlorn and false, with too much form over function. Smithfield was also closed when we passed by, but here the function was all too clear and even when closed it had that sense of purpose that was lacking in Leadenhall. As an aside, it had somehow passed me by that Smithfield was the site of the execution (hanging, drawing and quartering – classic butchery skills) of William Wallace.
We gave Borough Market a miss this time (though I am still impressed by it) choosing instead to go a little further down river to Rope Walk and Maltby Street Market. This proved and inspired tip, with fabulous street food and drinking (alcoholic and otherwise) of high quality and difference. A great selection of artisan producers which is well worth seeking out.
Brixton was an interesting collection of street and covered markets, teeming with activity and life and clearly at the centre of the area. The covered market proved a great venue for dinner later as well, extending the life in the area until late hours. This sense of life was reinforced the following Sunday by a wander from Brick Lane to Boxpark. Brick Lane was heaving and the food and non-food stalls along the road and in the re-used buildings provided hours of interest. We were far from being alone as well, showing how the appetite for such places can be developed. Up near Boxpark we came across a street fruit and veg seller who was trading as a pound shop (look carefully at the photo); clearly channelling the current vogue for such retailing!
My recent exploration of markets was completed by a weekend in Krakow, looking in part at the Christmas market in the old square around the Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall itself was somewhat of a disappointment in my view, being overly touristy, but the Christmas market was the genuine article and put our efforts in this vein to shame. The range of stallholders, the interest and the ability to eat, drink and dwell were hugely attractive and the crowds were considerable. Why are so few of our Christmas markets of this quality or this authentic? The imported Christmas market in for example Edinburgh was nowhere near this standard. We have the range of produce and the spaces in which to hold such events, so why can we not do this as well as continental Europeans (how often do I end up thinking that?)
Retailing is often seen as being “too samey” and having limited excitement and interest. Yet, if you look at our markets this is far from the case, even today. They perform valuable functions for today’s consumers and the interest and engagement they generate, as well as the opportunities for small entrepreneurs and producers is an antidote to the similarities and blandness of much of our corporate retailing. The informal and unexpected, generating a sense of discovery and opportunity, is something we should be celebrating and supporting, both in policy and spending terms. Some 50+ years on, I still think markets are great.