Unlike big sister Roman Road, or floral northern cousin Colombia Road, Bethnal Green Market might be lesser known, but its stalls and sellers sustain a stronghold of Bethnal Green’s community spirit.
You might ask yourself, where is Bethnal Green Market? Passing through the parade of tables laden with local gems is likely part of your daily commute. From Monday to Saturday, the market stalls border the pavements of Bethnal Green Road, spanning from the iconic breakfasteer E. Pellicci down to Top Ten newsagents.
And what a parade it is, of pom-pommed hats, thick bristled brushes, paisley-patterned rugs, and an extensive array of undergarments. Silken scarves to leather bags, and even more bags brimming with brightly coloured scrunchies, woven throws, and fleecy slippers.
Every hook, rail, and bench is bedecked in household wares reflecting local needs. Gloves, jumpers, and puffer jackets appear on most racks, catering to the current cold weather and economic climate. Here, you can get a key cut for £5, or a week’s worth of fruit and veg for under a tenner.
Stand out on the street is a cobalt Ford van. I find its owner – or should I say, twin. Sharing their birth year, Tony and his van are local celebrities, being business partners for over 30 years and working across multiple markets in east London. As he packs down coats into the boot for the day, Tony tells me he knows all the traders, long-time friends, who form a wider network across East London. Many hold stalls at Roman Road or Petticoat Lane on other days.
The market merchants trade not just a dependable service but constitute a community hub. As locals stroll through, ‘hellos’ echo down the street as neighbourhood news is nattered between strangers who call each other ‘sister’. A customer squeaks gleefully over the Guava fruit she discovers at the greengrocers. A stranger to both the woman and the fruit, I watch as a nearby shopper joins her excitement and asks advice on how to tell which Guavas are ripe.
Further down I find Emin, who is celebrating his 20th year of trading in September. Emin tells me the market is a shell of what it was pre-Covid. Like the wider scape of Bethnal Green, the market has suffered since the pandemic, experiencing a decline in in-person shopping. Unable to survive the loss of customers, a few traders on the market have been forced to change careers.
The resident key cutter explains encroaching gentrification of the area has meant many of his regulars are having to move away from Bethnal Green. No longer local to the market, traders have experienced a decline in their customers and community.
Whilst the stalls may no longer form a fleet, the trader’s electric blue shopping bags punctuate the pavement. The bags not only hold the carrots for tonight’s family stew, or the socks to warm chilly school-run toes but enclose the remnants of deep-rooted relationships.
Bethnal Green Market is a place where rambles down the road have become rituals. Where conversation connects friends and strangers alike. Where traders are staples of Bethnal Green’s community spirit.
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