Updated July 13, 2020. I’d been to London half a dozen times before I made my way across the nondescript London Bridge to Borough Market. How it took me so long, I can’t explain.
With a free day before my onward journey to Prague, I signed up for a 4-hour “secret food tour” of the market. It was pricey for me–about $100–but the description on Viator, an online tour clearinghouse, promised I’d be thrilled. It also warned me to come hungry. Thankfully, I did. There were seven stops on the tour, with generous portions.
Eddie Weaver, a professional guide who’s lived all over the world, gathered our group of ten for quick introductions and guidelines for our walk. As the only solo traveler on the day’s tour, he and I became pals. He’s a fascinating storyteller with an encyclopedic knowledge of London. I may have fallen in love a little bit…
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.
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?
1998: Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay change the vibe
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.
If you go
Borough Market is now an independent institution, owned by a charitable trust and run by a board of volunteer trustees.
Food vendors are ready to serve you at early hours. Eddie Weaver suggests a “quick English breakfast” of a Bacon Butty or a Bacon Toasty. Just know that “bacon” in England is closer to what Americans call Canadian Bacon or back bacon.
Feeling nostalgic for a hot dog? Borough Market has you covered…sort of. If you prefer a more “authentic” sandwich or a grilled beef lunch from 800-year-old Smithfield’s, just wander till something strikes your fancy.
The market is open Monday through Saturday, although there are fewer traders on Monday and Tuesday. Closed Sundays and holidays. The nearest Tube stop is London Bridge.
Final note: The tour I took was by Essor, Ltd, a London company that hosts Secret Food Tours in 50 spots around the world. When you take a tour, always remember to tip your guide–they work hard to make sure your day is wonderful!
More markets? You bet!