London's street markets at Christmas
First published by WestJet Magazine
It’s a misty December morning at London’s cobblestoned Camden Market. Warmly dressed Christmas shoppers are crowding the Victorian railway arches and stall-lined laneways, exploring a walk-through kaleidoscope of items for sale, from handmade trinkets and modish accessories to comical T-shirts and Santa-hatted Godzillas.
An eclectic, hipster bazaar, Camden offers enough variety to sate any Yuletide gift list. Add a hearty serving of steam-shrouded food stands—anyone for turkey teriyaki?—plus a booming, bass-heavy Christmas soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why locals and visitors flock here, happily browsing outside despite the cold.
London has been studded with hawker hot spots like this for centuries, from Restoration-era Greenwich Market to millennia-old foodie magnet Borough Market. And while Camden launched with just 16 stalls in 1974, it’s now one of the biggest street markets in the city, with hundreds of vendors selling their wares.
But what’s it like to work at one of these famous markets when London’s fairy-lit festive season is in full swing?
Sonia Arena and Ellen Kitching launched their tiny Camden stall in 2016, selling cards and T-shirts with their own punkishly cool designs. “We thought this would be a perfect place to kick-start our Camden Supernova brand,” says Arena. “There’s a great alternative vibe and a really wide variety of customers.”
Working the market’s Middle Yard from Monday to Friday—as casual traders, they have no contract and are assigned their pitch daily—Arena and Kitching admit the holiday hours can be long and hard. “We wake early, drink strong coffee and arrive around 9 a.m.,” says Kitching. “After setting up, the market quickly gets busy but we usually peak in the afternoon and work until 7 p.m.”
Steps from wind-whipped Regent’s Canal, with strong aromas from the Eden Ethiopian Coffee stand scenting the air, there’s a warm camaraderie among Camden’s traders. They help each other with extra change or bathroom breaks and there’s a shared scramble to cover everyone’s stock with plastic sheets when rain hits.
Profitable days can occasionally be side-swiped by challenging weather. “We’ve survived snow and icy winds,” says Arena. “But we still love everything about being market traders—especially meeting customers face-to-face.”
Not all London’s hawkers have to brave the elements full-on, though. Some markets are sheltered by glass roofs, including Greenwich, just steps from a crooked elbow of the River Thames and a Docklands Light Railway station.
Perimetered by inward-facing storefronts, the courtyard market first opened back in 1700, and with its rows of long stalls specializing in antiques and arts and crafts, it remains ever-popular with Yuletide shoppers. The low, opaque ceiling creates a cozy indoor aura, while twinkling lights and mulled wine aromas foster a festive feel.
Nostalgia also underpins the vibe at the market’s popular Alice and the Thimble stand, where the owner (who refers to herself as Alice and the Thimble) and her father hand-make all the vintage-feel cards, gifts and wooden toys she sells.
“We start Christmas in summer, making an enormous number of new items and dealing with special orders,” she says. Juggling increased production with operating her stall can be tricky. “I love talking to visitors, but I don’t want to run out of stock; I want to be sure the stall looks magical at Christmas.”
Meeting customer demands of the belly-filling variety is a prime motivation over at Borough Market near the south side of London Bridge.
Reputedly founded in 1014 and now tucked under a grand lattice of glass and green ironwork, Borough is crammed with artisan food stalls. Stands practically groan with chunky game pies and plump pork sausages, while vendors stir steaming pans of paella and shredded duck confit.
Borough also hooks serious cheese nuts, including those with festive dinner tables to fill. Selling their award-winning, Sussex-made goodies from Tuesday to Saturday, the cheesemongers at Alsop & Walker plan Christmas several months ahead.
“It begins in July,” co-owner Arthur Alsop says. That’s when he starts making his Emmental-like Mayfield cheese to ensure it matures in time. Next comes Sussex Blue and creamy Sussex Crumble. Finally, in November, they have a few weeks to produce their festive bestseller: the bell-shaped Lord London.
With production set, meeting the rush at the holly-wreathed old market becomes vital. “In the week before Christmas, we double our staff,” says Alsop, adding that other Borough vendors are equally busy this time of year.
He points visiting foodies toward the market’s Bread Ahead Bakery & School, The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand and Borough Olives, where sweet pickled garlic cloves are a must-try. And if you need immediate festive sustenance? “Scotchtails serves warm Scotch eggs—cut into them and the yolk is still soft.”
According to Alice and the Thimble, that’s just the kind of joyful, unexpected discovery visitors enjoy when they explore London’s ever-evolving market scene during the Yuletide season. “I really do love the festive atmosphere here at Greenwich. But I also love that our markets change with the seasons,” she says.