I’ve picked my way through narrow, darkened streets wondering at several centuries' worth of dirty dealings definitely done there, only to emerge at a bright, bustling food market. I’m sipping from a disposable cup (ominously named ‘Snakecatcher’s Scrumpy’) of hot, spicy cider - because someone had to try it out - and bought a more traditional pie. Now I’m boggling my poor brain as I work my way along a curved, cobbled path between brightly lit stalls selling, for the most part, unusual food.
Borough Markets lies on the south side of the River Thames opposite the City of London. I’ve heard of it many times and expected, I suppose, a farmers' market of sorts. But it isn’t. The atmosphere for starters: The Markets are undercover but airy, with bright stalls and an air of quality, both of produce and display.
The names of the stalls mix the innovative and the exotic: Chocolicious, Ethiopian Flavours, Balkan Bites, Pate Moi, Spice Mountain, and Nana Fanny’s (OK, so that last one may not qualify as exotic…). The Pieminister administered unto me a “Matador” (a beef steak pie with chorizo and olives) and New Forest Cider tempted me beyond a reasonable man’s endurance by placing at its bar a steaming urn, its lid open, cosy, appley, spicy smells of that hot cider luring me, luring me…
To be honest, I could have meandered between the stalls filling up on all the samples that are handed out: cheeses, chocolates, nuts, cups of exotic-sounding teas. I was there for an hour or so and felt I had not even scratched the surface of what was on offer over the large area covered by the markets. It’s wonderfully incongruous, I feel, to its surrounds: the names of the pubs and cafes selling porter and oysters bordering the markets are of a style straight from the 17th century. And that’s not surprising for this area of London has a history; a heck of a lot of it - and I’ve just enjoyed a fascinating walk through it.
My journey to the Market had started on a rather more sober note when, emerging from the Underground at St Paul’s Cathedral, I walked around imposing colonnades, dodged the gargoyles’ stares and made my way to the Millennium Bridge.
This pedestrian bridge across the Thames affords some of the best views of the City of London. It did not have an auspicious start to its life when, in 2000, it was closed after a couple of hours on its opening day because it wobbled. Badly. It was reopened two years later after being strengthened.
The morning I crossed it there was not a whiff of a wobble. Instead a bright day with low clouds allowed me a view of the 95 storey Shard building, spearing into the sky through clouds shifting around its middle floors. Behind me , to the North, was a clear view to St Paul’s and the north bank of the Thames with the ancient “Square Mile” gathered behind it.
A head of me, lie Shakespeare's Globe, the Tate Modern and the Bankside Gallery.
Just how much history, how many places to visit, can be placed in such a short walk?
But wait! There’s more… quite a lot more, actually
Walking steadily east from the bridge, past The Globe Theatre, I enter the sort of place associated with the seedier part of Oliver Twist’s tale. Old London.Tall buildings, once warehouses, some now offices, flank narrow, dark streets. Footsteps ring on cobbles. That and a murmur of voices is what I’m aware of: no cars, no music. It must have been very much like this in Dickens’ time, bar some yelling and clanking, I suppose. I pass the “Clink Prison” - hence the English slang name for a prison - where you are invited to come in and torture a friend. Mmm. Very tempting…
And just as I’m thinking I’d better be mindful of pickpockets, thieves and urchins as well as friends, I encounter something different again. Something that reveals that area was not always so industrial.
Redevelopment in the 1980s exposed Winchester Palace. The gable end of the massive Great Hall, whose length once ran alongside the river, towers up on green-grey, weathered stone blocks in full view for passers by. Built in 1242 for the Kings brother, The Bishop of Winchester, that Hall witnessed royal feasts and wedding banquets until, in the 17th century, it was converted to warehouses and tenements before falling into disrepair.
Moored in its own quay 50 metres from the Palace is another significant item of British history: The Golden Hind. It’s a full size, historically accurate replica of the original ship, of course. But looking at the sleek lines, its towering masts, the bright, intricate decoration, it’s still impressive that, in the late 1500s, a handmade craft of that size circumnavigated the globe.
I’m still pondering that significance as I turn off the street into an insignificant entry to an undercover area, just past the Food Museum. And step into the sounds and smells of welcome at Borough Market.
There cannot be many short journeys that capture such history, modernity, adventure, royalty, poverty, art and architecture in so little time - well under half an hour if you don’t pause too long anywhere.
And did I mention hot spicey cider?
Don’t over do that cider: you may still need to navigate those dark ancient alleyways to get home….