I must confess that since starting this blog, there have been a number of places I have promised myself I would visit but never get around to going. One of these destinations is Billingsgate Market, the oldest and the largest inland fish retailer in the United Kingdom.
Billingsgate market has a fascinating history, the Markets origins lay in the granting of a charter to the City of London by Edward III in 1327. In 1400 King Henry IV granted to the citizens the right, by charter, to collect tolls and customs at Billingsgate, Cheap and Smithfield. Since then, various Acts have asserted the City’s role as the Market Authority and laid down its responsibilities and rights, including the making of regulations, the collection of tolls, rents and other charges.
Billingsgate was originally a general market, only associated exclusively with the fish trade from the sixteenth century. Until the mid-nineteenth century, fish and seafood were sold from stalls around the dock at Billingsgate. However as trade flourished a purpose-built market was built. In 1850 the first Billingsgate Market building was constructed on Lower Thames Street but it proved to be inadequate and was demolished in 1873 to make way for the fine building that still stands in Lower Thames Street today. It was 1982 the Market relocated to Docklands but is still under the City of London authority.
In spite of this history, the fact the market starts and finishes so early has tempered my curiosity and a couple of weeks ago, an Islander offered me a way out of my dilemma by offering to send me her memories of a visit to the Market. Dawn’s visit was undertaken in the winter, so she deserves a lot of credit for getting out of a nice warm bed to undertake the visit.
Billingsgate Market is situated within an area synonymous with London’s city bankers, financiers and high fliers located just ten minutes walk from Canary Wharf in east London. The juxtaposition of these two different ‘worlds’ intrigued me. I gazed up at the impressive array of tall sleek office buildings as the car whizzed by, even in the early hours when the sky resembled dark velvet the spectacle of that place managed to grab my attention. In my mind’s eye I could see smartly dressed men in pin stripped suits talking on their iphones and women in posh frocks power walking as they approached work. Where I was heading I imagined it was more about white overalls, physical grafting and fishy tales.
When I arrived I hurried inside wrapping my coat up a little tighter anticipating a cool reception. The ground was wet with water. I was grateful to be wearing sensible shoes. Business appeared to be brisk. The crowds were plentiful. A lively roar of chatter filled the atmosphere. People moved busily around the stands and shops selecting what was on offer. Porters wheeled goods from one part of the market to another. Merchants got on with trading. By seven some of them had already finished their selling and were packing up. I was amazed by the scale of everything including the vast array of fish and sea food on display. Fish of every description priced and presented for a variety of different pallets and ethnic groups. The smell of fish although clearly evident, surprisingly didn’t bother me too much, perhaps this was because much of what was being sold was so fresh. Some sea creatures were still alive and wriggling about in polystyrene containers.
Each day fish are brought in by the lorry load from coastal districts and abroad to meet the demands of eager customers. Many of whom buy wholesale. Frozen fish are also available.
I walked around the site at quite a leisurely pace and managed to acquire a few fishy treats to take home. There were also outlets to purchase a range of catering supplies for those whom required this service. Above the trading hall were offices including a seafood training school. Relaxing in a market café, I had a conversation with other customers about the market. One regular customer gave his reasons for attending the market. He remarked “I have been coming here for years, the banters good and you can’t beat this place for the amount of choice on offer, prices aren’t bad either.”
My visit was about becoming a bit more acquainted with this part of London and seeing first hand what it was like. As well as picking up some lovely fresh salmon. Billingsgate is one of those iconic landmarks which most of us have heard about. Even if you are not planning to open a restaurant any time soon there is always the option to buy retail, like me. Forget the stuff you can pick up anywhere covered in a mountain of plastic wrapping try the good stuff. I returned home and that evening prepared a fish supper for me and a few friends. Was it worth it, the empty plates at the end of the meal was a good indication. Listen, It may not be the first choice on your list of places to go but at least for me it made me appreciate the history that bit more and even though this was not its original location the legacy of Billingsgate lives on. It was strange really to think, amongst the hub bub and ‘hidden’ life at Billingsgate, staff had arrived to work and stalls had been busily prepared and set up under the veil of an inky deep blue sky, while much of London was still asleep.
The market is open Tuesday to Saturday from 4 a.m. – 9 . 30. a.m.
Many thanks to Dawn for her contribution, it is remarkable that the oldest and the largest inland fish retailer in the United Kingdom carries on its business in the shadows of Canary Wharf.
The Market is open to the general public. Guided tours of the market are organised by Billingsgate Seafood School. If you wish to arrange a guided tour, contact Billingsgate Seafood School on their website here for more information about services they offer.
Children under the age of 12 are not permitted on the Market floor and It is advised that suitable non-slip footwear is worn.