Article

Coming of age

Categories: History of food, Reflections and opinions

The story of how, 21 years ago, Borough Market was brought back to life as a retail market, told by some of the people who were there

In December 1997, the Guardian newspaper ran a piece about Borough Market. Today, we are accustomed to seeing colourful crowds perusing a visibly thriving market packed with beautiful and highly varied produce. Back then, things were different. The site, then primarily a fruit and veg wholesale market, was described as “dank and dilapidated” resembling an “untouched corner of Dickensian London ... often used for movie locations. It is as dead as a cemetery.” The piece reported a plan to use an emerging interest in food as the basis for some much-needed regeneration, not just of the Market but of the wider area. Those plans never came to fruition—but within them sat the kernel of an idea that would, in time, after a lot of hard work by some visionary individuals, grow into the extraordinary sight we see today.

VOICES

Fred Foster, owner of Turnips
Monika Linton, founder of Brindisa
Stephen Harrison, founder of Le Marché du Quartier
Henrietta Green, founder of the Food Lovers’ Fair
Peter Gott, founder of Sillfield Farm (former trader) 
Lizzie Vines, co-founder of Wild Beef
Barry Topp, founder of The Cider House (formerly New Forest Cider)

THE LANDSCAPE

Fred Foster: By 1998, I had been engaged in primary and secondary fruit and veg wholesale here for about 10 years. The fact is that the wholesale market was dying. The really big container trucks couldn’t get in because the roads were too small and there was competition from New Covent Garden and Spitalfields. The trustees were looking hard to find ways of raising money to keep it alive, but the place really was in need of something new to bring it back to life.

Monika Linton: Brindisa moved into Park Street in 1994. We had been doing open warehouse days, where we sold directly to the public, and had built up quite a following. I think the momentum changed when Randolph Hodgson brought Neal’s Yard Dairy into the area in 1995. We started jointly promoting open days, with their cheese room and our warehouse. We were having some success with these, but Randolph suggested we get a fruit and veg company involved. He thought that could help build a critical mass of shoppers. So, we approached Fred and asked if he would open up to the public with us. For about a year, in 1997 and 1998, the three of us would open every few months on a Saturday and invite the public in.

Fred: At those quarterly meet-and-greet events with the public, we were trying to show people the difference between supermarket foods and the high quality ingredients we were selling to the top restaurants. The first one was hilarious for us. We made a display of all sorts of things that we thought the public would not be familiar with: truffles, jerusalem artichokes. We bought in a load of wine and beer, but thought only a few people would turn up. What we didn’t realise was the scale of Neal’s Yard Dairy and Brindisa’s mail order networks. It was a huge success. There were so many questions about the produce and what you did with it—a real appetite for knowledge. Talking with Monika and Randolph, there was an atmosphere of complete and utter excitement. We thought that trying to create a retail operation in Borough could really work.

Monika: Neal’s Yard Dairy, on Park Street, was not directly within the Market, and back then we were even further around the corner. But that was exciting for the customers. When the flyers for those events went out, they had a little map and customers had to hunt for the places, so there was that sense of exploration. They loved it.

THE FOOD LOVERS’ FAIR

Stephen Harrison: I was chair of the Southwark Festival committee, working alongside Michelle McCluskey, who was the director of the festival and also a trustee of Borough Market. We’d decided that we would produce a themed festival programme every autumn, with the focus of the 1998 one being food. At the time, I was also chair of the Borough Market regeneration partnership board, together with Ted Bowman and George Nicholson, who were chair and vice-chair of the Market’s trustees. We were working on projects to get funding for the Market, which was in dire need of renovation.

Henrietta Green: I had been to America and seen their farmers’ markets, and had been completely rivetted. I campaigned for many a year to get farmers’ markets going over here, but without much success. Then, after writing the Food Lovers’ Guide to Britain, I was approached by the owners of St Christopher’s Place in the West End and asked to host a market. I chose 25 of the top producers from the book and invited them to come and take a stall, and it was a great success. We called it the Food Lovers’ Fair. Randolph from Neal’s Yard Dairy was one of those producers. He told me about Borough and said that we should do a food fair there one day.

Stephen: Michelle and I were looking for events to create for the festival and she was the one who first made contact with Henrietta about coming to Borough. There were a lot of people involved in bringing the Food Lovers’ Fair here, but by employing Henrietta, the festival played an important role.

Henrietta: The Market in those days was a pretty grim, dusty place. Randolph and some of the other wholesalers had done their open days, but nothing quite like this had been tried there before. I was ambitious, though. I wanted to create a fair here where people would walk from stall to stall and say, “I can’t believe it, this is heaven.” It was a quest for excellence, unusualness, integrity—proper food made in the proper way with the proper ingredients.

Peter Gott: I knew Henrietta from other events she had run and she asked me to come to London to this place called the Borough Market, where she was staging a three-day event. She said there would be a lot of press there. It sounded like a real opportunity, so we came down. That was the first we knew anything about Borough.

Henrietta: We did get quite a lot of press for the day, but I remember being a bit nervous beforehand as it was such a large event. I had rung Clarissa Dickson Wright, an old friend of mine, and said, “Clarissa, suppose nobody comes...” She was quite famous by this time as one of the Two Fat Ladies. She said, “Do you want me and Jennifer [Paterson] to open it?” That certainly helped. At quarter to 11 on the Friday we had a press call—there was Jennifer with her long fingernails, milking a goat.

Lizzie Vines: I think everybody who was invited came, which was a good start. It was opened by the Two Fat Ladies, who brought a lovely little Jersey heifer with them. They walked it down Middle Road in front of us all.

Henrietta: I have a really clear memory of that Friday morning. It was quarter to 10 and I was standing in the main hall area. It was grimy, it was dark, there was rain dripping on the traders. I remember standing there with my heart thudding, thinking, what have I done? I’ve brought together these 50 people, they’ve travelled for miles, they’ll sell nothing, they’re going to lynch me.

Peter: It was a horrible, rainy start to the morning and there was a point where the traders were looking at each other, thinking, how is this going to go? But it just took off. We used to travel round the country and abroad doing shows and events, so I was pretty experienced at setting up stalls. I had brought what I thought was enough meat for the three days, but by the Saturday night I’d sold everything I’d brought. We had another unit at an event in Kent, so I contacted him and asked if he had any stock left, which he did. I drove over on Saturday night, took all of his stock, re-opened on the Sunday and then sold all that as well. We had a really good weekend.

Henrietta: The whole fair really came to life. Ian Hartland from Mrs King’s Pork Pies had brought 900 pork pies and sold them all that weekend. Tim Wilson from The Ginger Pig had never done a market before. They brought everything including pigs’ heads and trotters and completely sold out.  

Lizzie: Richard, my husband, left me with what he thought was more than enough food for the three days and it virtually all sold on the first day. There is a picture someone took with our stall in the background and I’m standing there behind two bits of meat. Being based in Devon, I couldn’t just nip back to the farm and get more stock, so I just had to stand there talking to people and handing out leaflets. I bought a little exercise book and by Saturday, people were queueing to put their names in the book.

Stephen: I wasn’t a stallholder then—I had an interest in food but I had no involvement as a trader. I was so enthralled and enchanted by the whole three days, though, that after the fair finished I decided to give up my involvement on the committee. I wanted to trade that in for getting an apron on. I have connections with France and a love of French food, so I decided I was going to open a specialist French stall.

Henrietta: It was wonderful seeing the place so busy. People came from miles around. Who they were, I just don’t know. It was like rain on a desert—the appetite was clearly there.

AFTER THE FAIR

Fred: After the success of the fair, a few us got round a table to see if people like Peter might want to come down and join us on a monthly basis.

Peter: We realised that Borough Market had real potential so we went back for the December. The challenge came in January. Who on earth was going to turn up then? The only other person who came to that Saturday was Lizzie from Wild Beef. There we were looking at each other thinking we must be bloody crackers! But even by then we had established customers who wanted to come and buy our stuff, and we did sell that day.

Monika: After the fair, the trustees began to take more of an interest, but they were not managing the process as yet. Randolph set up a kind of selection committee. People who wanted to trade at the Market with us on a Saturday had to apply to the committee, fill out a form and we tried to vet them. Once approved, they would get referred to the market manager and get a pitch. It was a self-made committee, but we had a strict set of criteria. It started with the quality of the product. There had to be real integrity in the production of what they were selling.

Fred: I remember having my first conversation with Darren Brown from Shellseekers—this guy who was a Royal Navy diver who was now diving for scallops and shooting deer on his father-in-law’s land. That was the kind of purity of produce we were attracting and that was what was so exciting about that time. We all understood the possibilities. We would go out onto London Bridge with a barrow loaded with Borough Market products: fruit and veg, cheese, meats. We would give out flyers encouraging people to come in.

Monika: Randolph kept pushing the trustees for things that would help the retailers. Things like the Market opening on Fridays as well as Saturdays, because one day a week would not attract the calibre of customers or staff we needed. If you wanted to create great customer service then you needed to start building a core of really good staff. Those details were hugely important in establishing Borough Market as a place where repeat customers would come.

Fred: There was still this real excitement about the Market, but it was tough. Some of the really good traders started to leave. The trustees were in no position to give any financial support from the trust. Also, there was opposition to the whole thing from some of the trustees. I remember the vote to allow the retail market to continue was quite close. The issue was that they had a decent income coming in from car parking and the growth of a retail market here would limit that significantly. As money was so tight, you could understand some of the objections.

The resilience of those traders—especially the ones who travelled miles to set up—has to be really commended. None of us were making money from it, but we were on a journey and we could a see that something worthwhile would happen. I have to take my hat off to George Nicholson, who was vice-chairman of the trustees, James Todd, another trustee, and Randolph, because between them they managed to persuade the trust to allow enough time for the retail market to grow.

Peter: I knew we needed more traders and that they wanted to come if we could accommodate them. I went to a trustees’ meeting and asked about an area called the Triangle, which was quite derelict. I offered to take the Triangle and develop it, put in the necessary infrastructure and then bring in tenants who really deserved to be there. Then after two years I’d hand it back, because I didn’t want to be a landlord. After a bit of haggling over the rents, I signed up to manage the Triangle. Les Salisbury had established a bit of a fish trade with Furness Fish and Game in front of my stall. Andrew Sharp was just beginning to bring his herdwick lamb down and trading as Farmer Sharp—they were two of my tenants. There was Northfield Farm, Wyndham House Poultry, Mrs King’s Pork Pies, Peter Kent with his West Country venison—all British producers. I was trying to get another British product, but an Italian guy pestered the life out of me and he just would not let go. In the end, I gave in to him and that was Marco Vineis from Gastronomica. I could see that international representation was very important, so he became the sixth regular stall in the Triangle. There was a seventh stall where we’d have guest traders.

Fred: I call Peter Gott the PT Barnum of the food industry. He was a showman—the likes of him and Barry Topp were really good businessmen and they were putting on a show as part of their selling. Mrs King’s also brought showmanship as well as their great products.

Barry Topp: Having been at the Food Lovers’ Fair, I was invited back the following February. I used to drive up from Somerset early on the Friday morning to avoid the traffic. Quite often I was told by the wholesalers that someone had phoned in to LBC radio to say they’d seen a thatched cottage—which was the shape of my stall—going across the Hammersmith flyover. There was a wonderful camaraderie among the traders. On Friday nights we would all generally have a drink and something to eat. Lenny Baxter, who ran Baxter’s Fruit & Veg, would take us out to various venues—he knew the city like the back of his hand. We’d arrive back in the small hours in a little worse for wear to rough it overnight in our vehicles until the Saturday market the following morning.

Fred: Monmouth Coffee’s arrival was hugely important. To keep the public in the space, being able to buy a great cup of coffee was so important. It seems like a small thing, but it was huge for us. People knew they could get a coffee while they shopped, as well as buying some beans to take home, and that is something people will come back for.

Stephen: It was always a lovely community of like-minded people. Quite a few of us were people like me who had made dramatic career changes to be in the fine food business. I left being a senior manager in local government and never regretted it for a moment. But it was hard. I remember on my first Friday I took £3. I sold one tin of goose fat. The idea that Borough Market is paved with gold is not the case. We all put in long hours of hard graft for months, taking just a bare minimum.

Lizzie: Our space was still also a car park. I remember vying with cars every weekend. We had to make sure we got in before they arrived or you would find one parked where you wanted to put your stall. Fridays were a struggle for a long time. It took a while to build up sales. I would spend hours in the cold and dark, thinking, god, what am I doing here? But then Saturdays were always good. I remember Richard telling our butcher that we needed a whole bullock cut up, and he thought it was a joke. We’d never sold anything like that amount in a week before—the whole thing, nose to tail, all the joints, all the steak, all the stewing cuts. But we would sell it all at Borough Market, which was unbelievable for us.

Monika: We were confident that the retail market had a real chance of success quite early on, because the calibre of the people who were interested in trading was so high. One of my favourite memories of that time was getting to meet all these incredible people—British producers making these wonderful products. They brought such an energy with them. People who were working the land were here in London telling people why their stuff is so good, how they work, how they look after their animals—just telling their stories. It was experimental, innovative, theatrical, edgy and risky. We’d go to the Borough Market café, run by Maria and her mum and dad, and we’d eat bubble and squeak and watch great cheeses being unloaded from lorries. There was almost a festival atmosphere about the place, even during some of the difficult times. We all felt that we were in something together.

Lizzie: My main memory is of how the public were so caring and so sweet. People would come up, like a mother with her small daughter, saying they had never met a farmer before. What really surprised me was how much these city folk really cared about us and our animals. I told everybody at home: “You might think everybody in the country loves their animals and people in the city don’t, but that’s not true.” That’s why we’ve always had pictures of the animals up on the stall, like the big picture of our cow Orphan Annie on the door: she was born in 1997, the year before the Food Lover’s Fair. She’s still going strong. She doesn’t breed anymore. She’s out there in the field, enjoying retirement, healthy and happy.