Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to ... Borough Markets

The sprawling Borough Market is situated beneath the rumbling railway bridges which run over Borough High Street in Southwark, south London. The surrounding area is urban, dilapidated, grey. Even the most well-intentioned visitor would struggle to find much to commend about it. Even the harsh cast-iron and steel frames which provide shelter for the market stalls are uninviting. It is an unlikely setting for one of London’s most popular food markets.

Nevertheless, Borough Market has been attracting hoards of tourists and discerning food-lovers since it first opened in 2000. Immediately upon entering the market through the innocuous archway, visitors are transported to a world of sensory delights. As they wander from stall to stall they are almost disoriented by a dizzying intermingling of sights, smells and sounds. The senses are assaulted. The lingering pervasive scent of lavender lies heavily in the air, mixing with the perfumes of freshly cut flowers from the various florists. Take another few steps, and the heavy, warm smell of mulled wine, laden with spices such as cinnamon and star anise is enticing. The artisan bakers, chocolatiers, fish mongers and master butchers jostle for the visitor’s attention. Resistance is futile. One cannot help but succumb to the temptations which are all around – sausages from Boston, Germany or Poland, meltingly sweet chocolate and honey from an order of reclusive Italian monks, sickly sweet treats from Turkey, calorie-laden pâtés and creamy butter from Brittany. Every food vice is catered for.

Visit on a busy day, and the bustling crowd seems to take on a life of its own. The uninitiated tourist may find himself swept along by a sea of people, as the throngs of shoppers make their way to their favourite stalls. It’s every man for himself. On Friday afternoons the pavements along the fringes of the market are crowded. Jaded men in business suits, ties loosened, gather outside the various pubs, enjoying a lunchtime beer. They are visibly relaxing, knowing there is only a few hours of work standing between them and the weekend.

This lively, contemporary scene is set in stark contrast against the ancient grey stone of Southwark Cathedral which provides the backdrop to the market. There has been a church on this site since AD606, with the present incarnation dating back as far as the 13th century. Despite the fact that the market attracts a congregation dedicated to an altogether different religion, the worship of food, these two neighbours seem completely at ease in each others company. Hopefully, both institutions will continue to co-exist happily for some time to come.

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