If you’re a market nerd and lover of quirky architecture like me, you’ll love visiting this slightly-off-the-tourist-path gem in London. It’s just a stroll from St. Paul’s (walk down Leather Lane on weekdays to check out the vendors and few food trucks) and near the Barbican and Farringdon tube stations. Go early to see the action–the market closes at 7am. If you miss opening hours, like I did, you can still walk down the wide main corridor and read the informational signs describing the history, and marvel at the architecture and colors. If you want to learn more about Smithfield Market, read on…
Smithfield Market is the largest and oldest wholesale meat market in the UK, and one of the largest in Europe. Also called London Central Markets, it houses a wide central aisle flanked by 43 temperature-controlled stalls. The market opens at 3am to sell meat, poultry, cheese, and some prepared foods mostly to London restaurants, caterers, and hotels, but anyone may shop there.
The site of Smithfield (from “smooth field” for grazing animals) Market has housed a livestock market for over 1000 years–in addition to hosting witch burnings and executions. Before trains, fresh meat arrived at the market on foot, losing valuable weight over the journey. It was estimated that a cow walking 100 miles would lose 20 pounds along the way. Animals began arriving by rail in the mid-1800s, and in the 1868, the current market buildings opened, designed by City Architect Sir Horace Jones, who also designed Tower Bridge. The railroad ran directly beneath the building, allowing for easy transfer of meat from trains to the refrigerated vending stalls, and facilitating movement of fresh meat to consumers around the country.
Smithfield Market may see some big changes soon, as plans have been submitted to the City of London to convert the market into a mixed used commercial development, with restaurants and retail on the ground floor, topped by six levels of offices. This is not terribly surprising; the prime location is amidst tourist and business districts.
The market is open on weekdays from 3am to 7am, but visitors may walk down the central avenue and read the historical signs at any time of day. The area around the market is full of shops, bars, and restaurants, far from what you’d expect to see surrounding a livestock market. It’s worth a visit; I’m looking forward to seeing the market in action next trip!