I found myself wandering around Portobello Market on Sunday, through antiques, vintage clothing, old books and records.  Much bigger on Fridays and Saturdays – winding through the long road – it is unique and one of London’s oldest markets, full of character. Sometimes when looking around at all the building, modern high streets, the gentrification, skyscrapers and blotting out of our skyline it’s easy to forget about  London’s many traditions. Street markets are a huge part of London’s history. Portobello has some lovely old shop fronts too – probably from the 1950’s, that are intact, and still some unique shops, not the usual boring chains. Once being a poor area, uniting Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, but now very expensive, the  market has managed to stay and maintain its uniqueness. But for how much longer?

I love the hustle and bustle of a street market. The excitement of what you might find, different stalls, 2nd hand bargains, vintage clothing, antiques, cheap fruit,  crazy copy perfumes (it’s exactly the same I swear!), knick knacks you won’t find anywhere else and food smells. 

In my youth we loved going to markets,  every Sunday rushing to Wembley Market – full of fruit and veg and cockney boys selling crockery and linen, our friends blasting out music on radios, and a huge array of trendy clothing and shoes – all much cheaper –  and that’s what drew us in. Petticoat Lane and Leather Lane were similar – in fact it was the same in markets all over London. Wembley market is long concreted over – making room for the ever expanding Wembley Stadium and Arena. Shepherds Bush –  another famous market – has just had a mammoth fight to resist being replaced by a development of flats which local people couldn’t afford anyway.

The building of more and more ridiculously expensive properties on land that was once cheap housing, cinemas, markets, hospitals and anything a community needs to survive, is common, but what occurred to me at Portobello was how precarious things look for our traditional markets.  What some councils hate is they attract poorer shoppers who don’t fit in with the gentrification and expensive redevelopment that councils plan. Wealthier tastes prefer upmarket ‘farmers markets’ etc selling expensive cheese and bespoke goods, not the 2nd hand clothing or bric-a-brac we all like to rummage through. Plus many markets are on vast pieces of land that could become a huge money spinning entertainment venue, another tiresome shopping village or  ‘fake market’ with fake buskers (Covent Garden).

The complete eviction of poorer people from London is coming ever faster!

It’s not just shoppers that lose out. Stalls are often family run,  passing down generations. Every time I hear of a market under threat I also hear stallholders not just bemoaning the loss of livelihoods but how sad they are at the way London is changing so fast, with many new stallholders not even bothering to speak English. Doing a few car boots myself I know what hard work it is, early rising,  carrying heavy stuff, setting up, dealing with hagglers (and the odd thief) while smiling and chatting, and the same to go home! Imagine doing it full time! Queuing so early was horrid but the laughs and banter were priceless, the excitement of waiting for the dealers, the calm before the storm when ‘normal’ bargain hunters crowd in,  searching for anything they fancy, maybe a chance to buy something wonderful 2nd hand. Hard work, but extremely social for everyone.

Across London markets provide a huge service, some even specialising in things like carpets and wigs (!), anything in fact, and are communities in themselves – stallholders and regular customers all know each other. And are often in fresh air! They are important for those on lower incomes. If we lose them we lose another chunk of what used to be thriving and working class communities. My grandmother went to Burnt Oak market on Saturdays to look for buttons, thread, curtain hooks, linen, socks, everything! And she knew everyone too.  

Areas have to be regenerated and improved, no one wants to live in  substandard accommodation. But we are in danger of wiping out the very heart of London life in so many ways and  old markets are another casualty, having grown wherever there were people, under arches and bridges, by railways, along  streets, alleyways, underground, by rivers and industrial areas, like wild flowers springing up wherever there was a gap to squeeze into, providing a livelihood, a lifeline and sociability for working class communities. Must all of London be slabbed over for investment properties or unbelievably boring high streets full of repetitive chain stores? Who doesn’t love a rummage at a market, so many a part of the history of the area.

Interestingly, as markets are changing,  car-boot sales are increasing, often more like the old markets in what they sell. Surely selling 2nd hand goods is the very best recycling? I am so sick of our throwaway society, I don’t blame people for wanting good quality 2nd hand compared to cheap new versions! Rummaging, bartering, searching, having a laugh and banter, and paying in cash – another thing that the state wants to abolish. Councils are increasing market rents, refusing licences, controlling what is sold and how, and making it difficult for old markets to survive. Why? To build over or replace them with  upmarket versions that exclude poorer people and stallholders to enable the area’s redevelopment. The market name may remain, but it will be very different in character.

I hate what is happening to London and the threat to our markets is symbolic of our struggle to maintain any part of our traditions and way of life for ordinary people. How long before it is all gone?   

A street of slick global high street brands and an overpriced sickly coffee? No thanks. Give me an old market on a sunny day (or a rainy one) and some cheeky banter anytime! I like my London with a heart and a soul.  

[Photo credits: Janice North]


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