Shopping is a worldwide phenomenon, a seemingly genetic impulse written into the DNA of society. This makes sense; people need food, clothing, fellowship, and even comfort. Marketplaces have provided this since man began to collect in villages. In America, we have massive city-size malls and supermarkets to make our shopping easy. But what about England? Britain has been a center for trade and consumption for longer than they were an empire. Cities like London are crowded and busy, filled with businessmen, travelers, families, and sight-seers. From this, their markets have an almost unparalleled sense of history, refinement, variety and creativity.
In our opinion, the most visible and attractive chains are Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The former sells only groceries, while M&S has both grocery-only stores as well as full department-style locations selling clothing and household goods.
Though their prices creep somewhat higher than base-level grocery outlets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, we were surprised that such seemingly classy stores were still within the general shoppers budget. A higher level of attention is given to the consumer experience here: trendy items are swaddled in award-winning packaging and even store brands exhibit a unusual diversity we’d think would be too far outside mainstream tastes.
One of our more surprising encounters was at a freeway-side rest stop. Here a savvy full-size market lured shoppers in with aisles of locally produced goods and lovely handmade pies. An architecturally striking fresh food area was expanded into a near-restaurant offering a salad bar and bain-marie lunch choices. Floor to ceiling windows faced away from the freeway onto a small pond and acres of beautiful rolling green countryside. We were baffled, but quickly picked up some snacks and sat down to enjoy the view.
Yet there is a dark side to these wonders of good taste. Busy city life makes for busy people, and it seems like most Londoners aren’t setting aside time to cook. To make grabbing quick lunches and dinners easy, M&S and their ilk are filling aisles with the most ornate prepackaged family meals we have ever seen, obviously in lieu of raw ingredients.
Large packages of five or seven course Indian and Chinese dinners serve a family of four. Prepared sandwiches, microwavable dinners, and ready made salads dominate the lunch choices.
If you’re not fooled, you can pretend to cook by purchasing from a series of mix and match packages — numbered trays combine (1+2+3) to create a variety of diverse meals by substituting pasta for rice and teriyaki glaze for alfredo. Though the packaging is seductive, this stuff can’t taste good.
M&S and Waitrose take care to not stock items packed with preservatives, but frozen meals often have high sodium levels and low fiber. We haven’t tried any, so the verdict is out, but for all the effort these stores make to keep product local, we’d prefer to see more raw goods rather than processed meals.
Ah, but all is not lost in England. The street market culture is alive and fighting back. Pop-up flea markets play host to shoulder-to-shoulder crowds picking through handmade goods, attic castoffs, and steaming trays of grandma’s secret recipe. Close-up ready farmers markets deftly charm any passerby into exchanging the contents of their wallets for their beguiling bounty. Don’t forget to bring your own tote when heading out onto the London streets. It’s hard to pass these wonders up.
The cadillac of the street scene is the Borough Market in South East London. Foodies shouldn’t dare call themselves so if they visit London and miss this market, which takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Wiki calls the Borough Market one of the largest food markets in the world (maybe the 1st World…) and you might need more than a day to take everything in. We liked the market so much we came nearly every day it was open during our stay in London, always sampling and finding something new.
Video Warning: do not watch this absurdly mouthwatering documentation of Borough Market on an empty stomach.
Though Borough sets out to be a place to buy local produce and grocery, the majority of stallholders seem to be interested in selling you ready-to-eat temptations. For this reason it’s a madhouse around lunchtime. But don’t let the crowds detract you, amazing meals can be had here, and if you share like we did, you can walk away with some cash left over. And even if you don’t, we always felt everything was more than worth the price paid. Our favorites included the boar sausage, Fish Kitchen, Cheese Shop, cider flights, Raclette and rustic baked sweets.
If you are in the London Bridge area, even if it isn’t a market day, be sure to grab of cup of the World’s best drip at Monmouth (seriously!) and have a look at the beer selection over at The Rake — a pub which likes to claim it’s the smallest in London, but carries over 100 varieties of bottled brews in addition to well curated taps.
If you’ve gotten your fill at the pinnacle of foodie markets, you might want to go take a look at the the sprawl of linked markets at Camden Lock, which operate every day. Now this is a madhouse! Miles of stalls tangle their way around absurdly outsized horse idols. You can get just about anything here, and it’s no surprise that this is also a major tourist trap in London.
Camden is fascinating, but not always connected to the trends on the street, despite the fact that they ban anything but independent retailers. For a more grassroots bazaar, go clear across town to Brick Lane Market.
Easily the quirkiest of all London markets, Brick Lane is a self-styled flea market where stall holders do little but spread their merchandise along the street for passerby to browse. The charm is surely in the hodge-podge selection and general camaraderie.
A central indoor hall also hosts about 20 food vendors, each offering tastes from a different corner of the world. Here you can bargain or even make friends with the sellers, nothing is commercial or stuffy. Brick Lane Market is only in session on Sundays, while it’s food-centric neighbor, Spitalfields, is open daily (but stalls/vendors rotate, so check their site before making plans).
The tradition of markets, market halls and grocery outlets goes back a long way for England. The Grande Dame of it all, Harrods, was started in 1834 and has seen a prestigious line of customers come through its doors.
The Harrods motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique: All Things for All People, Everywhere. They forgot to mention which income bracket these “people” are all in. Despite the rich prices, Harrods makes for fun browsing; the classically styled interiors and gilded elevators are among the oldest in the world. Their haute foods hall and 28 restaurants shine, but it’s the 300 other departments that you’ll get lost in.
Even older and degrees more posh, Fortnum & Mason seems more concerned with theatrical displays than actually existing as a marketplace.
Fortnum’s vends only foods so you won’t be distracted while rubbing shoulders with local celebrities picking up beautifully tinned gifts, which are often priced well enough for flashy souvenirs and counter decoration.
All these great markets have almost gotten too popular for their own good. Crowds are often absolutely maddening, because most markets only operate for two days each week, it feels as though the entire population of London is descending on each one to fill its need for shopping and browsing. It’s best to come as early as possible.
In contrast to the markets we’ve grown up with the US, British markets are stunning. At grocery outlets all products, including store brands, utilize high value packaging and attempt to engage the consumer on a personal level. Distributors provide clearly marked “birth” places for goods, both raw and processed: milk from whatnot County, lettuce from so&so farms, Bangers + Mash meal with meats from xxxx farms.
Both grocery and mixed “farmers”-style markets infiltrate all neighborhoods and commute lines, so shopping can easily segue into daily life, encouraging residents to drive less and shop more. Though it was sometimes hard to manage the crowds, we’d love to see this level of involvement in our stores back home — this is something we should be learning from our big brother!
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