Off the tourist track: Brixton Market

Monday, May 23, 2011

I slept in last Saturday following a Friday night of after-work drinks with a couple of colleagues that turned into far too may rounds of “just one more”, but was also really good for the soul.  I was immensely happy and relieved to hear one of my companions report that, though he’d only been back in town for a few days, he’d already heard some good things about me from others in the business, and reassured me that I’m doing fine and should just bide my time and wait for the right next move.  So I was more than pleased to while away four and a half hours in a genial pub with cheap drinks (£2.70 for a pint! In the West End! Unbelievable!) and lap up any words of praise or encouragement I could get, along with about five pints of beer.

So when Saturday morning rolled around I was very happy to sleep in and woke feeling only slightly fragile.  Somewhat dehydrated and definitely in need of refueling, I decided it was time to scout out a local cafe that had been recommended and was sure to serve up a proper Full English Breakfast (which will definitely be another post).  The Phoenix Cafe turned out to be exactly what I needed, and wasn’t even close to as full as I thought it might be on a Saturday morning.  Properly fed, and with the morning paper read, I was in a state of perfect contentment and decided to have a wander around my local market and blog about it.

When you think about the markets of London there are a many that are likely to show up on the average tourist’s list – Covent Garden, Portobello Road, New Spitalfields, Borough Market, Brick Lane, even Camden Market.  But you’d have to get quite far down that list to end up at Brixton Market.  In fact, I’d venture to say that all of Brixton is very much outside most tourists experience of London, which makes it lucky for you that your humble blogger lives in Brixton, and can tell you all about its charms without the knee-jerk reactions most native Londoners have to the place.  I promise you more on the neighbourhood in another post; for now, let’s have a stroll through the market.

The first cool thing about Brixton Market is where it’s located.  Just around the corner from Brixton tube station, the main street that runs through the Market area is this one:

Electric Avenue Cropped
Yes, it is THAT Electric Avenue.  The one we gonna rock down to.  The street was built in the 1880s and was one of the first streets to have electric lights.  It’s an unremarkable street now, but when I walk down it I hear that song my head and I get that sense of somewhereness that’s a lot of what makes London so special for me. 

But the market itself isn’t confined to one street.  Electric Avenue might form the backbone of it, but even there the shops that line the street – butchers and fishmongers and fruits and veg shops and such - are supplemented by temporary stalls that set up in the middle of the road, which gets closed to vehicle traffic.  Smaller streets run off to the sides too, and stretch over to the railway arches under the train line that runs through the area.

Fishy fish
Fishmonger's daily wares.

ArcadeAlong with all those shops and stalls there are three different covered market arcades that house even more shops and restaurants with even more odd and excellent offerings.  The arcades are great – you wander into one and take a turn or two and get distracted and end up getting spit out onto the street at the end and have to take a minute to get your bearings before diving in to another one.

In 2007 two of the arcades were sold to a property developer, who intended to remove the existing structure and create “a 10 story privately owned residential tower block and private park, above a new market building” (Wikipedia).  Sounds charming doesn’t it?  Luckily concerns were raised, and a group called the Friends of Brixton Market, along with market traders and local residents, lobbied against the proposals.  Finally in 2010, the government reversed a previous decision and declared all three arcades Grade II listed buildings, meaning they can’t be demolished, extended or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.  Yay for Brixton!

DIY Toast 3During that time, the arcades enjoyed a bit of a rennaissance, largely due to a local initiative that helped fill many empty stalls with new small businesses.  This means that there’s been some renewal and a bit of the kind of gentrification that goes along with that.  There are still some empty shops in the arcades, but there are also new cafés and shops that have brought a nice mix to the place.  You can still get cassava root and papayas and other fruit and vegetable-like things I can’t identify.  And the arcades are still home to the first (and purportedly best) pizza joint in London.  But you can also sit and have a nice cup of café au lait or buy a loaf of gluten free bread.  You can even make your own toast!

Yes, there has been some gentrification, but Brixton Market still feels like a REAL place. Brixton’s huge Afro-Caribbean community colours the whole neighbourhood, and the market is no exception.  So while there is one stand selling Nutella-filled crepes made while-you-wait, there are probably ten selling plantains or halal meat.  And the butchers and fishmongers don’t hide behind their counters wearing boater hats – they’re out in the street drumming up business, like the fruit-stall guys who call you “luv” or “mate”. 

Part of the realness of Brixton Market means that, along with the usual suspects – apples, bananas, onions, chicken, blah blah blah – you can also find a frankly dizzying array of the kind of thing that doesn’t always show up at the local Tesco, and almost certainly not at your more touristy markets: hair extensions, fish heads by the pound, cheap luggage, bedazzled cell phone accessories, skin care products, area rugs, pig’s trotters, six-packs of boxer shorts, flatware, fishnet stockings, wigs, tripe, nail varnish, and goat meat.

Button BinFrankly, I thought that price was a bit steep.

StockingsGreat for stocking up.  (Groan…)

Brixton Market is a real place.  It’s there for the people who live in the neighbourhood, not to entice tourists with a tidy, sanitized version of a London Market.  There’s nothing wrong with a turn through Covent Garden, especially if you’ve got souvenirs to buy or haven’t seen your share of living statues.  But if you’ve got a few hours on a Saturday morning and a hankering for something a bit different you could do worse than to have a wander through Brixton Market.  I’m not saying you should skip the Tower of London in favour of the DIY toast place, but just think about it, you know?  And if it all gets a bit too scary there’s a Starbucks right next to Brixton tube station and a 24-hour McDonald’s at the main intersection, so you know you’ll always have somewhere to retreat.  But first try the toast.


Kathryn said...

Really jealous about "Electric Avenue" - that's awesome. And I may be the only one who is excited about the "make your own gluten free toast" stall. Need one of those here!

Jill said...

Love the gluten free toast as well, being a GF'er myself. I have been to the Camden and New Spitalfields market, now i feel gipped i didn't get to Brixton Market! I enjoy when people use the word "bedazzled", goes with the whole theme of Electric Avenue. Great post, i enjoy your blog, even though i've never met you.

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