When waking up abruptly in the thick darkness of night, one could find it quite unusual to rise from that warm haven of rest to go marching 8km through the city of London in search of a bunch of fish. However, on November 26th at 2am, my dear friend and myself did exactly that, lured by the prospect of capturing a taste of the sea under the Golden Arches of the world famous Billingsgate market.
I had watched the BBC documentary, The Fish Market: Inside Billingsgate, back in 2012 and was mesmerised by the apparent magic of the market. The camaraderie between the fish mongers, the swathes of people wanting to purchase fish before the sun was up, the stories of how things had changed with nearly all expressing a sentimental quip about how great things used to be, had captured my imagination and become an almost legendary place in my mind’s eye.
So as not to be completely ignorant of the history of the market and in order to be able to gauge the contrast of then and now, I researched into Billingsgate market beforehand and became even more misty-eyed about my impending journey. It became apparent however, that the history of Billingsgate was, akin to almost all things in this world, a history deep with individual stories, ascensions and descents and of course political interference.
Originally located in the City of London, the Billingsgate fish market was established with an Act of parliament in 1699 wanting “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever”. The fish used to be sold from a ‘hythe’ directly off the pavements of Lower-Thames Street until increased yields of fish required the stalls to be moved indoors in 1849. However, the building being deemed inadequate was demolished and with Sir Horace Jones as the architect, a newly built building was opened in 1876 to become the official home for the fish market.
Still though there would be another move in 1982 to the Isle of Dogs, where the fishmarket I was heading to is now situated. After over 300 years the market was moved from the City of London and placed away from the riverside in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Here the market now sits, in the shadows of skyscrapers, paying its rent with the “gift of a fish” and opening its doors at 4 am to begin trading.
Although the main objective of the walk was to reach the market itself, there was a wealth of history and fascination to be found whilst wandering across the four boroughs towards Billingsgate. Each place had its distinct character, from the perpetually lively roads of New Cross into the rich architectural history of Greenwich, right through the residential area of the Isle of Dogs, there was a vast depth of knowledge to be obtained. There was however two distinct features along the walk which were of high importance for me sticking out for their association with the river, sea and fish market.
The first of these was the Cutty Sark. Walking through the streets of London in the early morning hours it was bewildering to see an enormous sailing ship on the top of a restaurant. The Cutty Sark had not always been a fancy adornment, it had in fact been one of the fastest clipper ships of the 19th century. Built in 1869 she was primarily used to import tea from China but due to competition with steam ships in at the end of the century, she would come to be demoted from the tea trade and eventually in 1938 would make her last sail. The name of the Cutty Sark intrigued me because I couldn’t explain to my dearest friend what it meant. So with further investigation it was revealed to me that the word Cutty-Sark comes from the 18th century Scots meaning for a “short chemise” and was the witch in Robert Burn’s poem, Tam o’ Shanter.
The second was the Greenwich foot tunnel. This remarkable feat of engineering stretches 370 meters underneath the river Thames, allowing walkers to cross over to the Isle of Dogs. The foot tunnel was opened in 1902 with the original purpose being for workers a more accessible route to the shipyards and docks across the river. When imagining that I was making the same commute that sailors and no doubt fishermen would have made 100 years before me the final destination had never felt so close.
When arriving at Billingsgate market it was quite a bewildering sight. The market could not seem more out of place with its surroundings. Behind the Canary Wharf can be seen towering into the sky, to the front cars race down the dual carriageway, the dull yellow roof of the market looks somewhat delinquent with an accumulation of grime and birds shit. But the smell is unmistakable, the squawking of seagulls confirms the sea’s treasures are close and walking through the giant hanger doors your eyes are indeed assaulted with a colossal wave of fish. The energy inside the building is magical, the workers perhaps somewhat aware of their infamy put on a spectacle, telling stories to us weary travellers of cold mornings, unshakeable fish smells and bust-ups on the market floors. We wander around taking it all in, wandering around and around the slippery green floor, covered in fish guts and scales and ice and finally decide on a crate of oysters. For £12 we got 25 oysters, took them to the workers café where old heroes painted the walls, staring down at us from within their wooden frames and we spoke and listened to tales of the old Billingsgate market whilst I got to taste the ocean in the shadows of giants.