You can buy anything in one of London's street markets, from antique paintings to red snappers and old car parts. But they're more than just markets – they're a living part of the city's culture
London's street markets are lively places, where business starts at a stupidly early hour and rough humour is the order of the day. I'll always remember the man who ran the hardware stall on Brick Lane market – he used to shout, “Come on ladies! Get your husbands a new tool today!”
Not every market trader has the same command of double entendre, but they're a hardy breed. They need to be. A lot of these markets start at 5 or 6 in the morning, and they've already unpacked their vans and set the stall up by then.
Many of the markets sell mainly fruit and veg, with a few other stalls. For instance Roman Road, out in the East End, is open three days a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) selling fruit and veg, though it also has some good stalls selling fabrics and clothes at knock-down prices. Cheap (and sometimes nasty) confectionery and cakes are often big sellers at these markets. Whitechapel is another provisions market, though with a distinct eastern feel – the local Bangladeshi community has made a big impact on what's available, so you'll see exotic veg and huge bags of rice.
Some of the markets are right in the middle of London, tucked away in little gaps between the office buildings. Some have been reduced to just a few stalls. Others still thrive, like Berwick Street in Soho, where heaps of oranges sit next to piles of vintage vinyl – this is London's Tin Pan Alley, after all.
The mother of all markets is Brick Lane, a Sunday-only market in the East End (access from Liverpool Street or Aldgate station). You can get pretty much anything here – cheap meat sold out of the back of refrigerated vans, clothes, picture frames, hardware, and all kinds of second-hand stuff and old tat. You can find parts for 2CVs, an old bicycle, or a three-piece suite with one chair missing. The market sprawls over a huge area to the east of Brick Lane – it'll take you all morning to get round it.
In Brick Lane itself, there's a rather more upmarket art and crafts section at the old Truman Brewery. If you're hungry, there's the Beigel Bake, where you can get a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, and further down Brick Lane are a huge number of Bangladeshi restaurants serving curry and balti. (But if you want the bee's knees, you have to head back to Whitechapel market where you'll find Tayyabs. Be prepared to queue.)
Brick Lane blends seamlessly into Petticoat Lane, the biggest clothes market in London. If you want a cheap leather rucksack, a set of suitcases, or the latest fashion on the cheap, this is the place. This is the home of London's rag trade – there are wholesale fashion houses all around, most of them also open on Sunday morning.
Antique-lovers have a choice of two markets, unless they want to try their luck at finding something good among the junk at Brick Lane. (I spent years looking. Never found anything!) Bermondsey market, on Friday mornings, is one of the oldest antique markets, and the one the professionals use, but it has been badly affected by the redevelopment of the area. It has also lost its status as a 'market overt', in which the buyer got title to the goods even if they were stolen. Now, if you buy something that's been 'half inched' (that's Cockney rhyming slang, the key dialect of the London market), you'll have to hand it back if the owner or the police can track you down.
Bermondsey starts trading at five in the morning, and the best bargains are gone by nine, though the market doesn't officially close till noon. I've always liked Bermondsey on a crisp winter's morning, when it's still dark, and business goes on by streetlights with the flash of torches and the occasional sudden flame of a cigarette lighter. There's something rather film noir about it.
Portobello Road, in west London, is more photogenic and genteel. On Saturdays, Portobello has 2,000 stalls open for business. Some of them, together with the shops that cluster around the market, stay open during the week, and cognoscenti have told me they do better, with fewer crowds, on a Friday morning. It takes an hour or so to walk the length of the market, from Ladbroke Grove tube station to Holland Park tube; longer if you're tempted by one of the many bars or restaurants that line the street.
The mix of stalls is amazing. This is London's best market for vintage clothing, and probably for antique prints, but you can find food, too. The southern end of the street is more given over to classy antiques, and as you go north, it tends to fade into flea market and junk shop territory. At the northern end, Golbourne Road is home to many Moroccans and Lebanese, and you'll find some excellent Middle Eastern food – I can't resist the wicked, syrup-soaked pastries, though I know they're bad for me.
If you want downmarket and even positively grubby, Kingsland Waste in Hackney is your spot. The name doesn't sound inspiring, and the setting is rather bleak and down at heel – but the market is worth visiting just to see what turns up. Here, stalls selling cheap fixtures and fittings (brass doorknobs 50p each) mingle with second-hand clothes stalls and all kinds of bric-a-brac.
A little way up the Kingsland Road, Ridley Road market has more bustle and more colour. The local area is home to many African and Caribbean families, and you'll see red snappers, tilapia, eddoes and yams here – as well as Turkish food such as feta cheese and devilishly hot green chillis.
Food for the mind rather than the body is provided by the bouquinistes of the South Bank. These sprawling book stalls in front of the South Bank Centre (Waterloo tube) tend to be slightly overpriced, but nowhere else can you find such a wealth of books on art, photography, and theatre.
My favourite market, though, is the Sunday-only flower market at Columbia Road, in the East End. Cut flowers, indoor plants, and huge trays of bedding plants for the garden make it a colourful place at any time of year. Recently, art galleries and boutiques have begun to move in, but it's still a genuine London street market with that busy, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap, feel. And you can get a really fantastic chocolate and almond croissant from the coffee stall.