Russell Dryden, fisherman and manager of the Blue Bermondsey business development area, adds, “Jesus didn’t go to Tesco.” “He went to the market,” says the narrator.
Markets, in other words, aren’t only places to buy and sell stuff; they’re also places to meet people, share ideas, and even launch global religions. But their existence isn’t always guaranteed, which is why he and his local supporters have been battling for years to revitalize the town where they work and shop.
He’s standing behind his booth in the Blue Market, a south-east London tradition with 200 stalls at its heyday in the 19th century. Behind him stands a new clock tower, a cheery combination of pyramidal roof and horseshoe arches that hints at architecture from different cultures — Moorish? Japanese? – without identifying which.
The oak-framed structure’s silvery scales capture the changing fall light. A partnership between Hayatsu Architects, a firm with a preference for working with wood, and the Turner Prize-winning team Assemble has created serious and creative yet cost-conscious interventions all over the place.
The market, like the surrounding neighborhood, has had its fair share of ups and downs. Bermondsey is a historic town that grew up on pilgrimage routes to a medieval abbey before being changed by railroads and ships. It was previously known as the “larder of London,” a center of food production and trade that included the world’s first commercial cannery and a massive biscuit factory, as well as a source of custard, malt vinegar, and other delicacies that were delivered to kitchen tables around the nation.
The majority of this industry, as well as neighboring ports, has vanished. The market’s number of booths has shrunk to four by 2018. The neighbourhood was described as a hotspot for “race crime and youth disorder” in a 2005 Metropolitan police report.
The Blue Market gets its name from a bar named the Blue Anchor, which may have something to do with the anchorites who provided spiritual guidance to pilgrims who revered the color blue. Its booths used to line what was effectively the area’s main thoroughfare until being moved to a triangular plaza in a new construction in the 1970s.
It didn’t help the market’s fortunes that it was a relatively sterile site, poorly linked to the layout of neighboring streets.
Dryden, who has been selling fish in this town for 40 years, banded up with other merchants and community members to take action. They went through the lengthy, sluggish grind that is typical of public-space improvement initiatives, which includes a lot of discussion and consultation, foiled ideas, and inadequate funds.
“When you get £50,000, you think ‘yippee,'” Dryden adds. “However, what is £50,000?” Nothing. “You’re going to need a good chunk.” They were eventually given £2 million from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, a revitalization initiative. It was enough to cover the cost of Hayatsu and Assemble’s makeover.
The most conspicuous of a series of modifications in and around the market is the clock tower. It is promoted via creative signage placed around the neighborhood.
Routes to adjacent locations are being upgraded or opened up, such as to a large housing complex planned for the old Peek Frean biscuit factory. It is also anticipated to capture some of the vigour of Maltby Street, a bustling food market about a mile from London’s central station.
Hand-painted narratives of Bermondsey’s history have been added to the roller shutters of dealers’ lock-ups. A drinking fountain composed of recycled construction materials has a mottled and marbled appearance. The merchants are protected by oak-framed canopies.
The way things are created, when feasible by local firms, is emphasized, particularly the jointing of the wood and the shiny discs of the tower’s cladding, which turn out to be the bottoms of paint cans made nearby. Passers-by may engrave pictures of local history on them at a stand put up in the market. There’s also frugality, as it turns out that £2 million isn’t all that much, particularly after a significant portion of it has been spent making local roads more pedestrian-friendly.
Existing trees are made to seem less straggly and more verdant by carefully adding vegetation around them, while old concrete bollards are dyed red and turned into seats. Stinsensqueeze, located in Bermondsey, is responsible for a lot of the paint and graphics.
As a consequence, the creative interventions coexist with the municipal modernism of the 1970s construction and the Millwall and England flags of a nearby pub, creating a hybrid environment. After considerable dispute, a wiry lion statue that was erected a few years ago has been kept.
It’s a nice, laid-back atmosphere that’s unlike anything else. Its creation was done with much care and attention. It seems delicate, and you worry about its destiny at the hands of vandals and reckless motorists, but in Dryden’s opinion, “if something is nice, people leave it alone.”
In which case, the delicate nature of the material will be a welcome contrast to the robust war-zone materials that local authorities choose for areas like this.
There have been several fruitless and underfunded initiatives to enhance public places in our nation, not least because, despite general agreement on their value, funding for their renovation are limited. The Blue Market seems to be more considered and felt.
New stallholders are needed immediately, which Dryden and his fellow activists are actively pushing. He believes that people would continue to desire to purchase and sell in the open air. “I believe the human soul is very powerful. You go back in time to ancient Sumeria. Markets are always available.”
Thanks to Rowan Moore at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.