For three years I worked in an office directly above Smithfield Market in Farringdon, and this meant that each day on my way in to work I effectively had to dodge through an obstacle-course of meat. Bleary-eyed and unprepared for this daily test, I wasn’t at first wholly endeared to the cockney butchers that greeted me each day (and they really are cockneys, not Shoreditch imitation ones). But over time I began to appreciate the butchers, the architecture, the history, the details and the oddities of this bustling meat market that supplies many of inner London’s best butcher’s, shops and restaurants. And now it would be one of the first places I would take a new visitor to London, to get a taste of what London’s really like.
Some history. From the 10th Century the site was used as a cattle Market, and it remained so until the 1860s, when everyone from local residents to Charles Dickens complained of the poor hygiene conditions and barbaric treatment of livestock. In 1348 a site next to the market was used as a mass grave for victims of the Great Plague (Smithfield lies immediately next to St. Bartholemew’s Hospital, which itself is the oldest hospital in London, has a museum in one of its wings and the only statue of Henry VIII in London. I also once went there when I got some dirt in my eye. It was worse than it sounds. I’m not a hypochondriac)
During the Second World War, one of the large underground cold stores, that had previously been used as railway tunnels to transport the cattle (and incidentally are used for Thameslink services now), was used for secret experiments conducted by the molecular Biologist Max Perutz. Behind a screen of frozen meat carcasses, he unsuccessfully attempted to harness the power of ‘pykrete’, a mix of ice and woodpulp, which was allegedly more powerful than concrete and might be used for floating airstrips in the Atlantic.
These cold stores are an essential part of the history of Smithfield, and are spread across Farringdon. The nightclub Fabric, for example, is a former cold store (so next time you’re going ape in there consider all those frozen carcasses that have stood before you).
Since 2005, other cold stores adjacent to the market have faced the threat of demolition, but many, including the English Heritage, have rightly fought the plans to replace them with office and retail space. Farringdon’s character really lies in these incredible Grade II listed buildings…
This is no butcher’s shop. Inspired by Italian architecture, the buildings are immense. The central arcade called Grand Avenue is decorated in ornamental cast iron with an elliptical arch; most of the rest of the buildings feature stone griffins, coats of arms, dragons and other wonderfully fantastical stuff. Designed by Sir Horace Jones who was also responsible for the fabulous Leadenhall Market , it’s testament to the idea that functionality and practicality can combine with beauty. It’s unmistakeably a meat market, but in other ways it’s more like a cathedral.
And that really is the best thing about it. London is littered with beautiful buildings that we gaze at in awe, and say ‘wow, imagine what this place was like when people actually used it’, but at Smithfield, you don’t have time to gaze in awe because a butcher is about to run you over with a cart full of rib-eye steaks. Head down and experience a working tourist attraction. Come early while it’s still operative (ideally before 11), and you might just catch the butchers as they finish their shift popping into the Cock Tavern for a few pints. I speak from experience when I say that seeing cockney butchers having a pint at 9 in the morning redefines your understanding of the concept of manliness.
Smithfield Market – Tube: Farringdon or Barbican