When you step into Berwick Street Market, be grateful that you’re doing so. A few years ago, this deliciously eclectic medley of stalls – a rumpus of fresh cut flowers, bubbling paella pans and bargain price toilet cleaner – was on the precipice of oblivion. Lines like “Come and get your gums ’round me plums” might have been lost on the wind forever. Soho never stops transforming but sometimes it must dig its heels in. An embittered battle against privatisation saw an unlikely victory for the traders.
A market was first set up here in the 18th century and Berwick Street’s rarely had a dull moment since. By the 1920s there were over 150 stalls, and the traders would have to yell over one another to pick up custom. The market wasn’t just somewhere to buy things – it became an al fresco art gallery: “They decorated their fruit especially in Berwick Street, my God, quite amazing,” remembers Michael Dillon. Stallholders like Billy Bean did with potatoes and carrots, what Van Gogh did with oils. Nylons from Dave, cigars from the Coleman Cohen shop, and fresh pasta from Camisa were jotted on the shopping lists of Soho locals.
Berwick Street has naturally moved with the times, and while you’ll still find London’s oldest flower market stall – now presided over by Mark and Laecia Stannett (“it’s our little village,” she told the Guardian) – the muscles of gentrification are being flexed here. Fruit and veg displays front the geometric stained glass of upscale Chinese emporium, Duck & Rice. You can buy a pint of milk from Soho Dairy then peruse the zines and graphic novels at Gosh! Comics.
While your nostrils are filled with the aroma of fresh satsumas, halal curries and strong coffee (from Flat White – the Kiwi boutique guilty of getting Londoners hooked on caffeine all over), your ears tune into the record shops like Sister Ray and Reckless – as well as the stereos of hip new boutiques. It’s like twiddling dials on a radio as you pass each one; a roar of Patti Smith’s grunge here, a smattering of Jimmy Cliff’s lilt there.
Rock and roll flows naturally through Berwick Street. In the days before he was a juggernaut of flared trousers and glitter, Marc Bolan sometimes worked a Berwick Street stall with his mother Phylis. Maybe some of his melodic sales patter went on to influence his later masterpieces. The album cover for (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – consistently voted one of the most iconic – was shot on Berwick Street at 5am one Sunday morning in 1995. In true rock and roll style, both Noel and Liam Gallagher were too worse for wear to show up. The two blurred mystery men are in fact DJ Sean Rowley and cover designer Brian Cannon.
Ironically, this world-famous shot captures Berwick Street in a single bare-faced lie.
You will hardly ever see it this empty and silent – even at five in the morning. “I was quite prepared to have to digitally remove vehicles if need be,” Cannon told the Big Issue, “But weirdly that was how it appeared that morning… there was nothing in the street.”