Shopping and changing

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Borough Market customers talk to Clare Finney about their experiences of shopping during lockdown

“We get up late normally—but to come here, we get up early,” Natalia grins excitingly, clutching her bag of cherries. Her mum, Nadia, laughs. “It’s true. We live in Hackney and we hadn’t come here before lockdown. Now walking here for our food is a nice day out.” Last week they bought ice creams from 3BIS Gelateria. This week they’re taking their cherries and bread and salad down for a picnic by the river. In the past few weeks we’ve heard a lot from behind the stalls about how the Market has changed since lockdown began and eased—sometimes for the worse, but also for the better. Change for traders inevitably means change for customers. Indeed, some customers, like Nadia and Natalia, wouldn’t be here at all were it not for lockdown.

On an uncharacteristically (for the past few months) damp and muggy weekday morning, I’ve come to ask shoppers—from a safe distance—about their experience of lockdown, through the lens of the Market. Have they shopped more, or less? Have they shopped less, but bought more? Did they stay away until lockdown started lifting? Were they already regulars, or were they, like Nadia and Natalia, new converts to the Market’s charms?

Responses are as varied as the people who give them. Somehow, with social distancing in place, there is even more opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary breadth of people the Market pulls in, loading up canvas totes, backpacks, buggies and bike panniers with their wares.

Adding joy to shopping
Food writer Ed Smith, a regular shopper at the Market (so regular he wrote the Borough Market Cookbook, in fact), came here throughout lockdown and was struck by how enjoyable the experience continued to be, despite—or in some ways because of—distancing measures. “I live within cycling distance of the Market and have been, when it felt safe and appropriate, a good number of times. It felt well-distanced, in comparison to other places. The thing about Borough is it has everything, so it’s a useful one-stop shop, but it has also been pretty much the sole way of adding joy to my shopping experience in the last few months. The process of looking around and choosing, of buying my nduja and olive oil, it felt more than just a chore.”

Though the opportunity for conversation is more limited than it would be without social distancing measures, there is still more human interaction at the Market than elsewhere. “Even just a smile makes a difference. I’ve been cordial and had conversations where I can without getting too close or slowing down people behind me,” says Ed. There’s been a definite sense of camaraderie: “Clearly all of us are there to shop, not simply browse, which seems to create a unity—the sense of a tight community.”

Anxious to limit the amount of time he spent outside the house, Ed began buying more essentials at Borough Market, at the same time as his ndjua. He’s not the only one: most shoppers I speak to have upped the quantity of fruit, veg and meat and fish they buy from the Market—and are minded to continue doing so, even now lockdown is easing. “I used to walk here on Saturdays,” says Mark, who is here with his dog, Charlie, and has come all the way from Paddington. “It’s a good walk and I’d have a beer at the end and something to eat.” Then lockdown set in and Saturdays became weekdays, and the beer and a takeaway lunch became a backpack full of groceries. “I go to Spice Mountain, Wyndham House Poultry for chicken.” Right now, he’s in the process of buying oysters from Furness Fish Markets. “I used to just come for fun, but it’s been nice to engage more—to shop.” His comments are echoed by Nadia, who was struck by the quality of the fish. “It’s very nice, very fresh. Now I save up to come here for my fish.”

Lack of crowds
“Did you see the cider place has reopened?” a young man called Ben exclaims excitedly, when I speak to him about shopping. “Now we won’t have to go to Peckham to get our cider. It’s really good there,” he explains to his partner, Laura. Ben has shopped at the Market for years and has been coming more frequently since lockdown began. “I like it a bit quieter, because I’m not very good with crowds. We’ve come once a week for fruit and veg. I try to resist the luxuries, though I did get some roasted hazelnuts the other day and they were amazing. I have one a day because they are so delicious I want them to last.”

Now that pubs, restaurants and the Borough Market Kitchen stalls are opening again, the Market is slowly getting busier. Visitor numbers on Saturdays are sufficiently high that queuing outside is sometimes necessary to keep the volume of people in the Market’s tight passageways at a safe level. But on weekdays like today, London’s half-empty office buildings and the reduction in levels of tourism mean Borough is still noticeably quieter than it used to be. Shoppers have mixed feelings about the lack of crowds. “It doesn’t feel the same,” Maurice says, “but it’s my first time back here. I’ve not been able to come because I live too far away. I usually come on my way to work. I will get used to it.” Ruby agrees. “I’ve been coming less often because it felt so strange. I love the atmosphere of the Market when it’s buzzing,” she says. “But I’ll be coming more now that things are getting a bit busier.”

“The produce is here, there is flow, there are people buying things. In some ways I prefer it as it is now to pre-lockdown with the crowds,” Ed muses. There have been lessons for the Market in this, as much as for the traders—and, of course, for customers. “The point about the cookbook was to make people realise they can and should shop for daily ingredients at the Market; that it’s a place to buy produce as well as to walk around and be inspired by. It feels like, during the course of lockdown, more people have realised that.”