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The Other Side Of Borough Market

Ben Norum finds out who is in the throes of the courts, controversy and competition

Published on October 19th 2011.


The Other Side Of Borough Market

WIDELY portrayed as an idealistic foodie hub of not just London but the UK generally, it’s only in the past year or so that Borough Market’s bubble has – in some small way – begun to burst.

Though few people are aware exactly what’s going on behind closed doors, reports of the market evicting traders, and others of traders suing the Market send a clear message of discontent.

Coupled with a fair few more stallholders who turned from chatty to silent when asked about their views of the market and its organisers, it can’t help but lead me to feel there’s an element of fear at the consequences of speaking out of turn. 

I headed down to the market on behalf of London Confidential in order to try and find out the real feelings of stallholders, away from market rhetoric and newspaper sensationalism. It was a sunny Friday morning, early enough that the space was not yet filled with hordes of tourists, and as traders were unpacking for another busy day, there was an undeniably buoyant atmosphere.

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Stallholders were delighted to speak with me as I enquired about their products. Many were favourites that I’ve previously tried and loved at the market and elsewhere over the years, such as some spreadable chorizo at Brindisa, earthily rich mushroom paté from Paté Moi, and some utterly delectable gluten-free-but-you-would-never-guess-it chocolate brownies from South London producer Sugargrain. Many of the others were completely new to me, which is interesting in itself. Partly as it drives home how much less frequently I visit the market than I used to – mainly due to the stop ‘n’ shoot camera wielding tourists who render the narrow passageways between stalls almost impassable – and partly as it reveals a fairly high turnaround of stalls, which certainly never used to be the case.

A woman tending to a cheese stall inadvertently explains the problem. “It’s a very small percentage of people passing through who actually buy”, she says. “If you’re a tourist, you don’t want cheese. Most people come up to the stall for tasters and freebies without any intention of buying anything. We have local customers, but many of them are put off by the crowds.” It sounds like the market is a victim of its own success. As its reputation has grown, it risks losing what made it great in the first place. As this friendly woman offers me tastes of her cheese, she makes some more interesting points. “The market charges too much. It’s not sustainable. Yes, it’s very busy, but that means nothing if people aren’t buying.” Unlike what certain articles have suggested, she has no animosity , instead conceding, “It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved.” Her insistence to remain anonymous tells a slightly different story, though. Coupled with a fair few more stallholders who turned from chatty to silent when asked about their views of the market and its organisers, it can’t help but lead me to feel there’s an element of fear at the consequences of speaking out of turn.

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This fits in with the stories being bandied around of traders being evicted as a result of their taking up stalls at nearby Maltby Street Market – though this is, of course, unconfirmed. Set under the arches of railway lines into London Bridge station, many of Borough’s traders have used these warehouse spaces as storage for a number of years. Having decided amongst themselves to now open up and sell directly to the public from these slots, it’s easy to see why the bigwigs at Borough Market could feel potentially threatened. After all, it was a similar turn of events that kick-started Borough itself, with Neil’s Yard Cheeses and a few other trade oriented shops in the vicinity deciding to co-ordinate opening hours and sell to the public. Though Maltby Street market is teeny tiny in comparison to Borough, and doesn’t get anywhere near the footfall, many locals have turned to it as an antidote to the tourist-oriented, food-to-go focused offerings at Borough. It’s less busy, less expensive and has more of a friendly local feel to it.

Surely there’s more than enough demand for the two to co-exist, though? For Borough to cater for the ‘day out shopping’ market, and for Maltby Street to service those who want to pick up a few ingredients without spending all day about it? The problem is, this is the fate that’s been thrust upon Borough rather than the one it chose, and word on the grapevine is that neither stallholders nor trustees are particularly happy about it. The coming months will be telling for both markets. As Maltby Street grows organically, and word of mouth spreads, so will the end of Thameslink works at London Bridge station mean Borough market has room to expand. A situation that’s currently akin to that of David and Goliath may well change. Watch this space, we know we will be.

Photo credit: Kate Berry
Video credit: Iain Coram

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