Sunday, 9 October 2011

Smithfield is 24hourlondon in a nutshell

While the rest of the country sleeps, Smithfield's meat market buzzes and slams. Right through the night during the week, the ownership of huge slabs of meat is transferred and refrigerated lorries come and go.

Time was that cattle would be driven there on foot from all over the country for the same purpose: the records at the London Metropolitan Archive are full of the trouble that ensued. Locals getting trampled by herds that stampeded their way along Cowcross through to their steaming, teeming destination; the complaints of customers who'd been short-changed; and the traders done out of a livelihood by market administrators trying to clamp down on this kind of behaviour. These are the Rigs of the Times...

Originally called "Smoothfield" because it was once a flat, grassy area, over the centuries it's been a place of execution, the site of the oldest hospital in the country (Barts is still there), a fairground and a market. It's also home to one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in the country, St Bartholemew's the Great, which appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

And as you would expect there are historical hangovers.

One in particular is very interesting to Horatio. The licensing laws have always been a bit unusual - as are the needs of the people who work in the area. The meat-packers work through the night - typically starting at midnight - and so the pubs open for early breakfasts.

The Cock Tavern is the best known of these.

It's not what you'd expect a historically important pub to look like: no hanging baskets or thatch. It's the most recent incarnation of this ancient public house and it's under the covered market - though it wasn't always - on East Poultry. Unsurprisingly it specialises in breakfast. But the menu has a twist: there's a breakfast for two that includes a bottle of champagne... Clubbers, be advised. And it appeared in the film Gangster Number One.

It opens at 6am - but only during the week, which makes it clear what the origin of its peculiar licence is.

And it's not the only one in the area. The Old Red Cow is a stone's throw away on Long Lane. I went up there on Saturday afternoon, after I'd realised that I really didn't have the patience for a day in a library trying to piece Smithfield's story together that way. And I met Mark O'Gorman, the Old Red Cow's manager.

"Our licence is from 7am to 11pm but we don't use it all - it came with the building. We opened at midday today, which is normal here," he said. In fact, The Old Red Cow is unusual in the sense that it's open on a Saturday at all, as the whole of Smithfield has a closed-up feeling on the days when the market's not on, which is a shame for tourists (there were loads of them milling about) and locals. 

"The early licence is because of the market traders. If we want to stay open late we have to apply for an extension but early's no problem. It's not just the market traders who like a drink first thing in the morning though. Some of the doctors and nurses who come off shift at Barts have been known to stop by and you see clubbers from Fabric winding down."

He also pointed out that the rather beautiful Fox and Anchor on Charterhouse Square does use its early licence, and is a gastropub and small hotel to boot.

There are also several extremely late-opening bars in the area, including Beduin. I've been aware of Smithfield's reputation for late/early opening since I read a story as a youngster about a writer and famous drunk called Molly Parkin going to Smithfield in the small hours and pleasuring cohorts of market traders. I was relieved to find this proof that I didn't imagine the whole thing, especially since Parkin used to live in my house.

I was asking Mark about all of this (except the Molly Parkin bit) in the upstairs room of the Old Red Cow and delicious smells were wafting up from the kitchen, of chips, steak and mussels ordered by small groups of well-heeled customers. They looked like parents with their grown-up children, possibly from the Barbican nearby, enjoying the City of London's tumbleweed-ish Saturday quality. "You should see if Michael's still downstairs," he suggested. "He knows all about the area 'cos he grew up here. I don't think he's down there, though, because I'd be able to hear him."

In fact, I found Michael Pucknell about five yards from the pub's door, holding forth to someone he'd never met before about the history of the building and explaining that he'd painted all the signs on it, as well as those of most of the pubs nearby. He lives in Essex but seemed to have dropped by for the craic.

"I grew up round here," he said, loudly and fast. "When I was tiny, me and my mum and dad stayed with my grandparents, who lived for free round the corner in Gresham College - which has moved now - in return for cleaning it. My dad was a market porter for a while. He used to get up at 3.30 in the morning and have a couple of pints first thing before loading up and taking deliveries in his van."

Different times... I didn't know whether to believe everything Michael was telling us because his dates didn't add up. He said he was talking about 1956 but also said he was only 43 years old *counts on fingers* Hmmm.

However, he'd picked his tales up from somewhere. And in a tumble of local ghost stories, mates waving at him as they ambled past in the direction of a pub themselves and slightly iffy confessional about how he'd never been married, I started to feel that the area belongs to everyone and no one. It never sleeps and all human life is there.

As I say, it's 24hourlondon in a nutshell.

*Many of pubs mentioned in this post are in the database of 24hourlondon, along with around 350 other late or early opening bars in the capital.

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