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Review: London


England, United Kingdom

Surrey Street Market, Croydon (London)

  • By SilverTraveller Sandra-Shevey

    2 reviews

  • Oct 2010
  • Solo

150 people found this review helpful

Croydon`s Surrey Street market is the oldest, cheapest and friendliest market in London. For me, it`s an example of the essential British character which is why, as its traders are generally over age 50, I fear its passing and shall miss it. In short, it fails to take itself or anything else for that matter very seriously and it`s not uncommon to find fruit and veg, going cheap, being given away at the end of the day.

There are currently 92 pitches. Traders are routinely white, working-class and cockney. They don`t natter in cockney slang but you can certainly hear the cockneyisms in their chat. They keep themselves to themselves, don`t have time for or court trouble, and won`t exclude anyone on the basis of race or faith provided you meet them half way.

Whereas at one time the banana was the most exotic thing you`d see on the stalls, these days, and I exclude any and all eccentrics, you`ll see the presence of Polish and Asian produce (along with Polish and Asian traders who purvey the goods), Murrays`s traditional Irish meat market, bumped off Church Street in Lisson Grove about a decade ago, still has pride of place on this street, whilst having been joined by a Polish cold meat kiosk (which has a stall in the same meat hall).

Because of its indelible working-class character, Surrey Street has been referred to as right-wing and BNP. Wrong! Unfair! True, the cockneys do call a spade a spade and when I asked about the refurbished Victorian Granaries which has become a soul nightclub I was told curtly that it is a `Black club` and a no-go area for Croydon Whites.

Wandering around Surrey Street on market day (Monday-Saturday with a private Sunday flea market) I had a feeling of deja vu. The scene is a complete replication of W. T. Winter`s 1883 painting `Crown Hill looking Toward Church Street` with most of Surrey Street`s narrow alleys, old street and yards still extant. Not much of the architecture has been changed and/or demolished and the locals, largely working and lower middle classes, resemble the decent, hardworking types in the picture.

Surrey Street is film set pretty in a gritty, dog-eared sort of way. Many of the old yards prevail and with them remnants of ancient listed and historical buildings.

Called `Butcher`s Row` (for obvious reasons) prior to the 1834 name change to Surrey Street, there is still on Surrey Street a vestigal row of 18th and 19th century buildings which bear the old name. This surviving remnant of butcher shambles is supported by iron and timber columns which bolster galleried upper floors with shops below. If you look closely, you`ll still see the hooks and rails under galleried upper floors on which to hang carcasses under cover.

The old yards are still there too, just off Surrey Street market. Fellmongers Yard and Dog and Bull Yard are just two. The Dog and Bull pub, yard and stabling are mentioned in the Domesday Book along with the market, which means there was an unregulated market here even before a royal 13thc charter ordained the current one. The Dog and Bull Yard was originally a pound for stray animals before its present incarnation as a courtyard for barbecues and drinks.

Overton`s Yard opposite Butcher`s Row is the gem in the crown of the Surrey Street market conservation area (c1982). Whilst the Victorian gasworks and flour mill were demolished, the old 1880 granary of the Overton and Page brewery, now a nightclub, has been dutifully restored with original Victorian hoists, pulleys and loading bays. Parts of the Granaries are used by the traders as lock-up stores (for barrows).

I chatted to a young mother whom I met at the market (buying Kent strawberries for her young son) about the significance of this conservation area. Her sentiments seem to be shared by traders and residents alike.

`There`s alot of history in central Croydon which they want to forget about. They want to pull it all down and make apartment blocks`.

Could be why Surrey Street market has only one supermarket (Iceland) and a KFC shop!

The most formidable yard is Sturt`s Yard, where you`ll find the 1851 Waterworks which incorporates materials from the railway boiler house and engine house at West Croydon. This beautiful Grade II listed Gothic building with fine black and white brickwork and gables (1851 and 1912) lacks its original towering chimney and whilst it no longer functions to supply water, the four ancient wells are still pumped.

Surrey Street got its charter in 1276 with King Edward I`s bequest to Robert Kilwardby, Archbishop of Canterbury. The market was originally held on Wednesday but was changed to Thursday in 1314 when Edward II issued a second charter.

A third charter in 1343 substituted Saturday as market day whilst confirming the location which has never changed: the triangular convergence of High Street, Surrey Street and Crown Hill. The modern market dates from 1922 when the Council first approved it as a six-day event (Monday – Saturday) Hours were then as now- 6/7am until 7pm or until they sell out. The only exception is the old bell or whistle which no longer heralds the opening of the market.

A local resident recalled Surrey Street market on a Saturday night between the wars: `It was a much noisier place then, with each stall holder calling his wares. Traders sold fruit, veg, old books, antiques alongside chiropodists, dentists and fortune tellers. There were also waxwork shows. A penny would buy a song sheet, a hot potatoe, roast chestnuts and a glass of sarsaparilla. Tires of cheese from local farms were parked at roadside. They had that mouldy `cheesey` smell. You knew you were buying real cheese`

The atrophy which grips this old market is a particularly British phenomenon. Neither the French nor the Italians nor the Germans disdain their markets. The young still take pride in quality, in produce, in food and in eating. They keep the traditions going.

Not so here. Most of the traders are over age 50. A few have been here since c1960. There`s little continuity and even less care. One trader, Ian Lovett, is third or fourth generation who deals in plants, flowers and herbs. But neither he nor his wife were around. The stall was being looked after by a friend.

But it`s at Lovett`s that you`ll still get the old Englishy tomato plants such as Gardener`s Delight, Tumbling Tom and Moneymaker. They also had corn stalks (corn on the cob) , Lucky Bamboo (from the Far East) and French Lavender (not as robust as that which I`d just seen in Paris).

As I say, Surrey Street is a market I know and love. I`ve been shopping here for years having first been introduced by a friend who had been coming decades before I. It`s idiosyncratic, peculiar, quirky and very English. I hope it endures always so that others can love and enjoy it.

Sandra Shevey runs daily guided walks around London`s ancient markets. 3 markets/3 hours.

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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