Perceptive Travel - The Fish That Made London

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The Fish That Made London
By Donald Strachan



Something fishy is going on at Billingsgate Market in London—no matter where the powerful odor is located.


London fish market
© Virginia Powell

Getting up at 5.30 in the morning, and on a Saturday morning at that, isn't usually my idea of a good time. My drive through the empty streets of the East End is eerie and somber. A hoary drunk props up a bus stop. The last of the morning mist clings to the Limehouse canal known, with Ripperesque undercurrent, as The Cut. A gull squawks and hovers overhead; the city, at the cusp of day and night, is taking a breather.

As I step out of the car, a bitter spring wind howls straight from Norway, over the flyover on the A1261 and up my sweater. Small sacrifices. I'm hunting the freshest fish in London, at Billingsgate Market, which has already closed by the time any advanced civilization is eating breakfast.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation
The market has only been out east for a fraction of its history. It moved from the heart of the financial district in 1982, the first major business to build a new home in the Docklands development. Before that, Lower Thames Street in London's Square Mile had for centuries been the center of the fish–trading world.

London 1870s fish market

That original site was already occupied when the Romans invaded. Traders from France and Holland came in the tenth century; whalers landed their catch from the wild seas off Greenland and Newfoundland through the 1700s. But last time I checked, the market didn't even warrant a mention in the Cadogan Guide to London Markets. This would have been unthinkable to early Londoners: Billingsgate was London before London ever was.

The street names surrounding the original site—Friday Street and Fish Street Hill are two that survive—testify how firmly Billingsgate was knitted into the fabric of a swelling city. But it wasn't until an Act of Parliament in 1698, thirty years after the Great Fire of London began its apocalypse in Billingsgate Ward, that a "free and open market for all sorts of fish" was officially recognized.

Traders had to wait a further 200 years for a proper home. Their Victorian building on Lower Thames Street was the work of Horace Jones, City Architect. He designed the postcard favorite, Tower Bridge, and rebuilt London's other great food markets: Smithfield (still a meat market) and Leadenhall (now a collection of chi–chi stores and bars). Not everyone was impressed with Jones' work. By 1883, six years after the new fish market had opened, the local press wrote: "The deficiencies of Billingsgate and its surrounds are a great scandal to London."

vapour trail
Flickr photo by Vapour trail

British actor Michael Caine would probably agree; he remembers going along with his dad, who worked there in the 1930s, as "an unbelievably cold and bleak experience." Fishy grotesques still guard the northern entrance to Old Billingsgate. Golden dolphins adorn the weather vanes on the roof of what is now an events space offering Christmas parties and "experts in lighting, sound systems, security, logistics, IT."

Billingsgate's famous bell, once rung to announce an imminent high tide, was ceremoniously carried east to Poplar, where a functional, mustard–colored canopy now sits incongruously in the shadow of London's newest skyscrapers. The logos of Barclays, HSBC and Citibank, part of a newer, glass London now tarnished by hypercapitalism, dwarf the old. Ironically, this proximity might someday force yet another move. The ground below London's fish shop is once again worth a fortune.

A Place to Work
Walking in the door, I brace myself for an assault on the senses. I can taste the air, dense with salt. Scales crackle and crunch underfoot. And there's the smell, more enveloping stench than aroma.

Virginia Powell market
© Virginia Powell

It clearly didn't trouble artist and printmaker Virginia Powell, who spent four years drawing, etching and painting working life in Billingsgate. Collected regularly by a fishmonger friend at 5.45, she would pick a spot amid the market's chaos to work for an hour or two.

fish vendor
Flickr photo by Nic0

"Sometimes I couldn't choose where to sit—and always had to be careful not to be knocked down by a porter," she explains. "But I love the light and the buzz of the market. It's a completely different world." Powell has drawn in smokehouses, delis, even operating theatres, and is fascinated by people working with their hands, with trades. No shortage of that here.

Until fairly recent times, the market was staffed entirely with women. These fishwives, as they were known, became instantly recognizable, all tousled hair, sharp tongues and a liking for neat gin. One London writer noticed that, "If they drink out their whole stock, it's but a pawning of a petticoat in Long Lane or themselves in Turnbull Street for to set up again." Their enduring legacy to London is in the Cockney saying, "to shriek like a fishwife," that I'm sure I don't need to translate for you. Now they're gone, long replaced by (male) porters in gore–stained overalls and (mostly male) traders wielding long, sharp knives.

Down Among the Fish
Wandering their stalls is a picaresque underwater adventure. Flying fish and blue runner; milkfish and parrot fish; yellow croakers, whole sharks and smoked barracuda. Eels from New Zealand, halibut caught yesterday off Iceland, snapper and tilapia landed less than 48 hours ago in the Caribbean. Sole from Cornwall, plaice and monkfish from Scotland; ribbon fish and doctor fish, and squid the size of a newborn baby. Fresh or frozen, whole or filleted, shelled or live. There's even a headless, limpid cod. I wonder if he's sustainable.

fish market
Flickr photo by Nic0

Though the market's main function is the wholesale business, there are plenty of ordinary shoppers too. Restaurateurs haul away forty–pound boxes of sea bass. I've bought a couple of fearsome–looking hake for tonight's dinner.

"We've never actively encouraged people to shop here," David Butcher, the market's long–time Superintendant, told me a few years ago. "But they come anyway." And why not?

"A trip to a food market can be the highlight of a continental European city," says Powell. Think of Barcelona's Boqueria or Campo de' Fiori in Rome. "London is no different."

Billingsgate certainly buzzes. Business takes its purest form here: there's raw commerce hollered from every corner of its compact space. The aisles are spattered with blood and what it does to your nose at this time in the morning is nasty. But I'll guarantee there's no better place to grab a gritty coffee, or even one of the café's full fish breakfasts, and watch London wake up. Just don't wear your favorite shoes.


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Billingsgate Fish Market, Trafalgar Way, West India Dock, London E14, is open Tuesday through Saturday 5:00 - 8:30 a.m.

Virginia Powell, Printmaker, showcases (and sells) her work at www.virginiapowell.com.





Donald Strachan is a travel journalist and guidebook writer from Hackney, in East London. His recent iPhone apps, Instant Florence and Instant Turin (www.instantcities.com), are on sale now in the iTunes App Store. His latest guidebook is Frommer's Florence and Tuscany Day by Day. See www.donaldstrachan.com.




Related articles:

The Metamorphosis: Carefree World Traveler, then Mother by Laurie Gough
Where Queens Come for a Fight by Donald Strachan

Other Europe travel stories from the archives




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