Bric-à-brac at break of dawn
Caledonian Market, Bermondsey Square, SE1
As its name may suggest, the Caledonian Market began life on a site adjacent to Islington’s Caledonian Road, where it functioned as a general market in the second half of the 19th century. From early in the next century its traders increasingly specialised in antiques – especially silverware – and business flourished, but the market closed with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Some while after hostilities had ceased the market reopened in the dockland district of Bermondsey, where it continues to the present day. It’s sometimes called the New Caledonian Market or Bermondsey Square Antiques Market because of this change of location. The market square is now hemmed in by swish new apartment blocks and a smart hotel, of a style that one might never have imagined would descend on this former working-class stronghold.
Until relatively recently the Caledonian Market laboured under an infamous reputation as a place where stolen goods might legally change hands, owing to an obscure medieval law known as market overt (or marché ouvert), which guaranteed a buyer title of ownership if an item was bought in good faith here between sunrise and sunset, whatever its provenance. The law was abolished in 1994, after which the market was said to have suffered a damaging drop in trade.
Despite a reduction in the number of stalls, this remains one of London’s most distinctive and characterful little markets, with traders ranging from cockney barrow boys through eastern European entrepreneurs to posh pensioners.
The merchandise is mostly bric-à-brac. Glass, brass and silverplate are the most common materials. Jars and vases, dishes and decanters, teapots and toast racks, candlesticks and cutlery all abound, along with figurines, decorative boxes and antique jewellery. There’s also a well-run, though not cheap, refreshments stall.
If you’re a jet-lagged overseas visitor to London and find yourself awake in the middle of the night, a trip to Bermondsey could be just the ticket. Summer and winter, rain or shine, the traders start setting up their stalls at 5 o’clock every Friday morning and everything is open by 6am, with some of the best bargains going early (as bargains often do, but here that means really early). The market continues until two in the afternoon.