Sometimes I end up catching an early train that gets into London at a ridiculous hour of the morning – five or six o’clock, too early for anything to be open except the greasy spoon cafes and a couple of hard-working investment banks. It’s always been a bit of an annoyance, so last time I took an early train I decided to put my time to better use and visit one of the few places in London that works through the night; Smithfield Market.
In fact, by the time I got there at nearly seven in the morning, quite a few of the traders had already packed up and gone home. There were a few refrigerated lorries outside, their engines humming, but the white-coated porters had enough time to stop and chat in the lane between the two halves of the market when they met, and most of the stalls were already being tidied away. Few of the meat rooms had more than three or four carcasses still hanging from the rails.
Those shops that were still open were mainly those offering cooked meats, sausages, and hams, some with a range of deli goods – this must be a useful place to shop if you live locally or you’re passing through on your way to work in the City.
Though it was light by now as the grey of an overcast morning slipped through the glass roof, the fluorescent lighting still gave the place a bluish, antiseptic tinge. Step through the transparent plastic sheeting that hangs at the entrance, pushing the thick tabs aside and you’ve entered a strange twilight world of glass and steel, utterly clean and ordered by comparison with the grey, traffic-encumbered streets outside.
The architecture is splendid, Victorian cast iron at its best; or perhaps its second best – Leadenhall Market just nudges it out of the top slot in the City, I think. (They’re both by the same architect, Sir Horace Jones.) But what I’m here to see today isn’t the Victorian market, but the modernist addition – the Poultry Market, rebuilt in the early Sixties by Sir Thomas Bennett. Its huge, shallow concrete dome is possibly the largest concrete shell structure of its era, though the stalls that cluster tightly underneath make it difficult to grasp what its original impact must have been.
Besides the great meat market and the poultry market, there are other buildings that originally belonged to the same huge enterprise; a General Market, at the western end, amazingly ornate brickwork with a truly Victorian flourish and swagger to it, as well as the Red House Cold Store. And there’s another great building; the Central Cold Store in Charterhouse Street, clearly utilitarian in its architecture but with an ornate cartouche and fine, strong classical details. It’s now a power station. (Wonderful London irony; Tate Britain turned from a power station to a gallery, but here, a cold store turned into a power station.)
One of London’s most engaging mysteries is the series of tunnels under the market. The whole market is built on a hill, with Farringdon Road running down one side where the Fleet Ditch used to be, and this enabled the Victorian engineers to create a link to the Underground at Blackfriars and King’s Cross to carry freight through the Snow Hill tunnel. You can still see the cobbled spiral ramp to the old sidings on one side of the market; now, it’s an underground car park and the meat goes by road.
It was time for me too to hit the road, to see if I could blag an early check-in at my nearby budget hotel in Liverpool Street. But as I travelled I couldn’t help but ruminate on the future of Smithfield.
The City Corporation is the official guardian of London’s heritage. It’s about as worthy of the name as Boris Johnson is of the maillot jaune – however fast he pedals, I can’t see him making it up Mont Ventoux – because it actively campaigned to have the General Market knocked down as ‘rather cheap and nasty’, and replaced by an expensive (and nasty) glass and chrome office development. Fortunately a campaign by English Heritage and SAVE rescued the market from the threat of demolition, though it’s still uncertain what’s going to happen to the buildings.