The white dome of St. Paul’s looms modestly over London; the Tower of London sits in a grey huddle; the famous bridges of Westminster and the Tower Bridge cut across the river Thames as it snakes its way through the city; and a glittering icicle of glass, simply called The Shard, keeps a watchful eye on proceedings below. With its heady cocktail of history, art, architecture and literature, London offers to the discerning tourist a plethora of places-to-see and things-to-do. However, in between ticking off the touristy places on one’s to-do list, visiting some of the old and famous marketplaces present a rare opportunity to soak in the vibrancy of the city’s everyday life.
Located on Southwark Street and Borough High Street and occupying a sprawling site near the London Bridge is Borough Market, the food fanatic’s favourite and also London’s oldest. Walking in through the green grilled gates, a riot of sights, sounds and scents is sure to assault the senses. The area is redolent with the aroma of fresh food, spice and rice. For the sandwich lovers, there are the delectable Chorizo sandwiches, duck confit sandwiches and salt beef sandwiches, the chorizo and the salted beef bursting with flavour.
The Spanish stalls woo the bon viveur with their great cauldrons full of paellas, pinchitos and salmorejos. The ubiquitous cheese stalls sell varieties of fine English cheese, which one can often get free samples of. The sea food section with its array of crabs and lobsters, fish and scallops is a delight to watch.
The Borough market prides itself on fresh produce and its vegetables ranging from tomato and pepper to lettuce and mushrooms look freshly harvested. But perhaps the most delightful part of the market is the one housing the bakery stalls. As one heads outside to the market’s extended section, the smell of freshly baked products wafting through the air is sure to tease the olfactory organ. Everything ranging from the cheese and olive sticks, egg tarts and croissants to walnut brownies, muffins and apple pies is wonderfully crunchy, crusty and savoury.
Borough Market, best enjoyed with a big shopping bag and an empty stomach, is indeed a delight for all the senses.
For a truly exciting experience in street shopping, the point de destination is Portobello market. Located in West London, the best way to reach Portobello market is to go to Notting Hill Gate underground and simply follow the crowd from there! Cutting across the heart of the swanky Notting Hill area is the Portobello Road, stretching for around two miles and housing an astonishing collection of goods, both new and second hand. The vibrancy of the place is palpable, and the wares on sale truly eclectic. There are stalls selling second hand books and old film cameras, exquisite silverware and ornate silver tureens, vintage bags, vintage lace and vintage fur coats and wheelbarrows overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables.
On Saturdays, the atmosphere is almost carnivalesque with live music bands pounding out old rock and roll numbers, magicians showing off their tricks and a sea of humanity milling around. The late Victorian white stucco buildings with their front doors opening on to the pavements add to the quaint charm of the area. On one of these small terraced houses situated clandestinely behind a tree is a blue plaque with “George Orwell…lived here” inscribed in white (the house at number 22 Portobello Road was the first London home where George Orwell lodged with Mrs Craig after resigning from the Indian Imperial Police in Burma). Last but not the least, there is the entire adventure of locating the various set locations of the film Notting Hill. So whether it is finding out the blue door, the garden fence or the travel bookshop, sauntering through Portobello makes for a remarkably delightful experience.
Nestled in the charming neighbourhood of Camden Town and brushing the banks of Regent’s Canal is one of London’s most unusual markets. Camden Market is actually a cluster of several markets that make up the northern end of Camden Town, each market having a character of its own.
The Stables Market offers the latest in adventurous alternative fashion as well as the best in vintage clothing. The Camden Lock Village Market abounds in crafts, clothes, trinkets and small curios. The Inverness Street Market has been the location for a small but popular fruits and vegetables market. And then there is the Camden Lock Market, the original and perhaps the most famous. It has a mélange of goods on offer, though its pièce de résistance is fine artwork. The entire place lends a great choice of stalls, from the usual tourist paraphernalia to eccentric clothing and shoes, jewellery and hats, art and crafts.
Camden abounds in oddness and eccentricities and is a veritable paradise for the quirky fashionista hunting for novelty shirts, neon clothing, retro glasses, hemp-hippie clothes or Goth club clothes. For the dragon tattoo at the back or the piercing on the tongue, Camden is the place to be in for its plentiful piercing parlours. A little footsore and there are so many places to sit down and relax and let the world go by; a little piggish and there are a clutch of food trucks doling out Chinese, Mexican, Thai, African and other ethnic and savoury dishes. A little droughty and there are some great watering holes, ranging from traditional taverns to gastropubs.
Camden’s cosmopolitan character is its drawing card and makes it the capital’s subculture hangout in its truest sense.
Covent Garden Market
The last one on the list is a place that lives and breathes creativity, the most favoured habitat for artists, designers and performers. Brought to life by Eliza Dolittle in the film My Fair Lady, Covent Garden is a delightful mix of music, food, street entertainment, fashion and the arts.
The Covent Garden area has long been associated with entertainment and shopping and this continues unabated. With 13 theatres and over 60 pubs and bars nestled in the main shopping area, there is something for everyone in it. The Piazza abounds in some great places to have a coffee, grab some lunch or just sit back and soak up the atmosphere.
The huge umbrellas offer adequate shade on a warm summer day. The street entertainers are never too far away and one can hear the cheers of the crowds, or the raised voices of the artists drawing the crowds in for their shows. Covent Garden is licensed for street entertainment, and performers are known to audition for slots in a number of venues around the market. The magicians have many a trick up their sleeves, the drummers and rappers never fail to get the crowd on their feet, the jugglers enthral the hordes with their innuendos and the Jazz guitarists hold the audiences captivated with their emphatic chords. The area is home to many theatres as well, including The Royal Opera House, renowned for its opera and ballet performances.
Covent Garden has some great shops and many iconic brands choose this location as one of their windows to the world. The Apple Market sells a variety of antiques, craft items, pictures and handmade clothing and is the perfect place to find gifts. Long Acre Street has a clutch of quaint boutiques and Seven Dials in Neal Street is known for its fabulous collection of shoe shops. The Apple store in the Piazza is one of the largest in the world and gives the opportunity to drool over the latest in technology.
Tourists or locals, Covent Garden’s unique character enthrals one and all, making it the most favourite meeting place in the heart of the great city.
In the words of Samuel Johnson, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. And it is in the market places, the trading centres and the metropolis that one can find life at its purest and most vibrant state.