London, All Change
Everything has moved around or changed out of recognition
Built on the site of the old Bermondsey Abbey, the Bermondsey Market was a thing of wonder, sprawling into the backstreets and surrounding warehouses. You have to get up very early on a Friday morning to go there, and even many Londoners have no idea it’s there. Situated on the other side of Tower Bridge, it became a shadow of itself in 2006 thanks to the rampant property development of all those lovely decrepit warehouses. It used to be called the New Caledonian Market, having been relocated from North London (the actress Valerie Hobson opened it in 1949), but because it’s in Bermondsey Square people changed the name.
Bermondsey is a ‘market ouvert’, following an ancient law which was finally repealed just a few years ago. Under this law, if you sold an item between sunrise and sunset then its provenance couldn’t be questioned, so stolen goods could be traded without any legal comeback on the buyer. It’s amazing how many Londoners don’t know it exists. Tourists are often better informed than we are. The old law meant you used to get a lot of stolen goods turning up. But the market actually opens before dawn, so you need a torch to check out the goods. This is where it gets tricky, because although there are many cheap items you could also pay a fortune for a dud, which is why Bermondsey was always something of an experts’ market.
Like everything else in London its history confuses because the Caledonian market was primarily a cattle market but spread to the sale of other items. Meanwhile up the road, the Old Vic, a theatre not originally named after Victoria but after the King of Belgium, changed to meaning Queen Victoria before spawning the Young Vic, not named after a queen but for young people’s plays, which it sometimes still produces. Nearby used to be the home of the Union Jack Club, a soldiers’ club presided over by a statue of Britannia and started to commemorate those who fell in the South African war. Although the club still exists it’s now in a modern building and Britannia has vanished.
My point in all of this is that while everything has moved around or completely changed out of recognition, there are also oddities still about, hiding in plain sight. A market built on former swamplands, Lower Marsh Market, is tucked to one side of the Old Vic, there are sharks on Lutyens’ dolphin fountains in Trafalgar Square, there’s an iron cape hook for a copper off Leicester Square, there are chimneys that masquerade as lamps, doors, alleys and there are tunnels with hidden theatres.
And speaking of Trafalgar Square, many people know it’s the site of London’s tiniest police box, but did you ever notice what’s on top of it? A lamp from Nelson’s flagship The Victory.
To confuse matters further, tour guides don’t always tell the truth. Some of Arthur Bryant’s tour guide scripts are included in the new novel, ‘The Lonely Hour’, out tomorrow.