Monday, April 11, 2011
"Nah, mate - turn around and head back to Canary Wharf. Cut through the shopping centre - the shops will be closed but it's open, if you know wot I mean - and on the other side is a road. Go left out the door and follow it until you get to an overbridge. You should see the market on the other side of the road. It's huge, you won't miss it. You'll know you're not far off when you see the seagulls hanging 'round. Ha, fucking seagulls, ha ha!".
The last part of his comment turned out to be an invaluable tip.
Thanking the security guard manning his barrier arm on this cold, far-too-early part of a Saturday morning, I walked back to the station to try out his directions. I was you see, a bit lost. I'd been up since well before the crack of dawn, travelling from Surrey to London with the aim of visiting the Billingsgate fish market, the largest of its kind in the UK. Getting here was the easy part; finding the market was anything but.
The problem was, I was looking for a 'market': acres of open air stalls, manned by traders engaged in witty banter with customers; piles of freshly caught fish on ice; gangs of organised feral cats making off with boxes of lobster. If I'd done my research, I'd have realised that it was an indoor venue. This is where the security guard's seagull tip came in handy. The area was awash with buildings but one in particular had seagulls hovering over it. A five minute walk along what appeared to be its front revealed paydirt: Billingsgate market.
So why visit Billingsgate? Well, this old and venerable seafood market has long played a part in feeding the local populace - can you imagine how much fish you'd need to feed London alone? Daily? Curiosity value alone was enough to get me interested. I wanted to see what sort of variety was offered up by the oceans here. Plus, it's good too to see the steps involved in the journey our food makes from source to dinner plate.
After finally working out how to actually enter the building (just follow the natives), I was gobsmacked to see the interior. It certainly lives up to its reputation as being the largest fish market. After all my faffing about, I didn't get there till 6:30am (it opens at 4:30am, closes at 8:30am), but it was still packed to the gunnels with both fish and folk.
Fish in its myriad forms lay out on ice; tentacled, clawed, gilled, all waiting to be picked up and taken off to be steamed, fried, battered or simply devoured raw. Dozens of traders cajoled, haggled and laughed with (and on occasion, at) customers. Snide remarks and friendly insults were directed back and forth between traders. The market is indicative of London's multicultural identity; all manner of races were here, buying food for work and home. It was a lively, hectic venue.
Most product is sold frozen, although there were plenty of still freshly-flopping examples to be had. Fish was largely sold whole, so if you're after prepped fillets, you'll be disappointed. If you're there to shop, bring large bags and a chilly bin; generally speaking, traders seemed only to deal in substantial amounts, but you might have more luck later on as they try to get rid of stock (check the quality though).
The market itself is a cool venue, so dress warmly. Oh, and don't wear your flash shoes - the floor is hosed down regularly. It's not slippy, though.
Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.
Billingsgate market is open for trading from 5.00am (you can go earlier, but the traders are still setting up shop) till about 8:30am, tuesday to saturday. I got there on the tube using the Jubilee line from Waterloo (my entry point to all-things London), getting off at Canary Wharf. It's not too much of a walk from the station if you know where you're going (which I clearly didn't). Alternatively, you could catch a bus, but I don't know the routes and timetables, but try looking here. By the way, if you time it right, you can visit Borough market straight after your visit here by taking the tube from Canary Wharf to London Bridge station (again, on the Jubilee line - tube map here).