London’s Borough Market is…well, it’s a lot of things. Historic. Vibrant. Delicious.
I needed to know more about a place that celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2014. So, I signed up for the *Viator Borough Market Food Walk. For over four hours, I ate my way through the market, walked along the Thames, and learned more about London with handsome and knowledgeable guide Eddie Weaver. I’m not a London novice, but know that ancient cities have layers and layers of history. Best to tackle one layer at a time.
Borough Market’s history starts with a tale of Viking heroics against the Danish conquerors of London, described by Snorri Sturluson in 1014: “First they made their way to London, and so up into the Thames, but the Danes held the city. On the other side of the river is a great market town called Southwark…”
The Bridge Means Business for Traders
The tour started at the Southwark (pronounced “Suth-erk“) end of the London Bridge, near the Oh-So-British-named pub, The Barrowboy and Banker. Today the London Bridge structure is unremarkable–most people confuse it with the impressive Tower Bridge–but until about 1700, it was the only bridge across the Thames River, connecting London with “remote” Southwark.
Built about 990, as a defense against the Viking marauders who loved to bully the locals, London Bridge was tightly controlled by authorities who resisted any effort to build another bridge. Just like today, it was all about taxes and revenue: One bridge meant all the tolls went straight to the King and his pals. Traffic over the bridge developed into a natural marketplace; travelers wanted to buy from Southwark vendors as they came and went.
It also meant business opportunities for small traders who wanted to avoid the hassle of being sanctioned and handing over a percentage of profits to London authorities.
The Borough undersells the City…
Here’s where history gets interesting. The Southwark merchants undercut prices. In the 1270s the City of London passed laws forbidding its citizens to go to Southwark to buy “corn, cattle, or other merchandise there.” Buying bread there and reselling it across the river was especially bad. Same with wine and ale–the King was losing revenue when entrepreneurs took things into their own hands. They simply went to the Borough during the night, bought goods and resold them in London…for a profit.
Skipping ahead a few hundred years, after a series of king-imposed charters (1406, 1444, 1462) Southwark eventually became an awkward extension of London. In 1550, for a price of just over £1,000, Southwark–and Borough Market–were sold to London. On the upside, the purchase allowed the market to be open four days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. There was also a riotous–literally–three day Southward Festival every year.
Naturally, other businesses became part of the landscape. Pubs, brothels and theatres added to the merriment. Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 in Southwark, on the shores of the Thames. Good times!
Borough Market gets regulated, then and now…
The market itself has gone through many phases and growth spurts. Since the 16th century, rules and regulations tried to maintain sanitary conditions by establishing where vendors could be located: fishmongers near the water, grain sellers farther away. Goods were inspected and weighed in public. Even today, shops must be a little different from others–competition is fierce to get a stall at Borough Market. Traders must show a strong commitment to sustainability, and their products have to pass a rigorous taste test.
Staying prosperous for a thousand years isn’t easy. The market had its challenges, including being wiped out by a fire in 1676. And as London sprawled, getting to the market–for both buyers and sellers–was an ordeal. Growing pains, for sure.
It wasn’t until 1756 that the market was relocated and started to become the Borough Market we know today. Still, at times it faltered. There was an unsuccessful attempt to go fruit and vegetable wholesale, then a dark period when supermarkets took hold. Why go all the way to Borough Market when you can bop over to Tesco or Sainsbury’s?
Finally, in the 1990s, authentic food and local emphasis returned the market to to its rightful place. A Food Lovers Fair in 1998 worked magic. Having Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay shop there helped, too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more interesting market–it quickly became one of my favorites. Sample your way around or choose something new and find a spot to enjoy before continuing to explore the labyrinth layout.
Borough Market is now an independent institution, owned by a charitable trust and run by a board of volunteer trustees.
It’s open Monday through Saturday, although there are fewer traders on Monday and Tuesday. Closed Sundays and holidays. The nearest Tube stop is London Bridge. Find this tour–and others for London–at Viator.
More markets? You bet!
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