The Surrey Street-food Revolution (part one)

By - Tuesday 1st January, 2013

In this first in a three-part series, Liz Sheppard-Jones gives us an introduction to the Surrey Street market, its history and importance, and what place it has in an increasingly food-obsessed Croydon

Photo by RachelH

How Surrey Street cooked up a storm

Foodie-dom arrived in London in the late 1980s.  These were the heady days of the sundried tomato uprising and it’s startling to realise just how radical a change took place in our dietary habits – both at home, and when eating out.  My well-thumbed 1990 edition of Delia, for example, urges me to sample ‘exciting new recipes like stir-fried mange-tout’ in a manner which suggests such far-out culinary experimentation might all be a bit too much for me.

Times really have moved on – but for a long while Croydon lagged behind.   In recent years, however, we have worked hard to ditch our reputation as a foodie desert; destination dining has made its entrance and is flourishing, particularly in the South Croydon Food Quarter. On the day of the first South End Food Festival, Sunday April 15 2012, more than 5000 people visited, and buses were re-routed so that white-clothed tables could be laid in the street for terrific venues like Albert’s Table, Fish and Grill, and Bagatti’s to strut their stuff.

It was a fine start and gives us much to be proud of, but today’s economic reality is not altogether heartening. Serious money dining flourishes in our city, and doubtless always will, but while many of us still love a posh dinner, austerity budgets simply do not permit.  There are two food-banks in central Croydon now – that’s food enough for any serious political discussion, as the rising cost of a decent diet should concern everyone. A well-paid elite in our country eats very differently from middle-income and lower-paid workers, and this quality gap is far wider than in many other European nations. And this is precisely where street food comes in.

Street food is a great democratiser. Skilled, committed traders with a passion for their products put freshly-cooked dishes made with local ingredients straight into the hands of just about anyone.  In 2013 in Croydon, for less than the price of a greasy piece of Mac-crap in a flavour-challenged bun, you can eat fresh and quite deliciously well.

Surrey Street December 22 2012 


Roots of a revolution – the foodie history of Surrey Street market

Surrey Street market lies at the heart of Croydon’s historic Old Town, which is presently enjoying a revival. The Croydon Old Town Business Association (COBA) was formed in May 2012 and works hard to promote the shops and businesses there and bring the area’s distinctive identity back to life.  Old Town is full of history and character – Croydon’s oldest pub, the Dog and Bull (originally the Bell) has stood in Surrey Street since at least 1595. It must have been extremely noisy, for in those days you would find the local stray dog pound right behind it.

In 2012, Croydon Old Town was chosen by no less a figure than Mary Portas as one of twenty-seven ‘Portas Pilots’. In these pilot areas, the Queen of Shops will lead efforts to breathe life back into town centres squeezed by out-of-town retail parks and, of course, by the increasing numbers of us who choose to shop online. To bolster this, the government has made £1.2 million available in funding for the Portas initiatives. Mary’s recommendations include free parking, disincentives for landlords who leave retail premises empty, the relaxing of rules restricting night-time goods deliveries, and national Market Awareness Days when outdoor shopping will be promoted. It will be fascinating to see how her strategies are received in Croydon Town Centre.

Personally, I predict controversy.  Everyone hates the bleak environment created by empty shop fronts and will welcome penalties for this. Free parking will be cheered by shoppers and traders alike after recent steep price increases. So far, so consensual – but I doubt that environmentalists, or those concerned about traffic congestion, will be quite so enthused. And allowing noisy night-time deliveries in central Croydon sits ill with current plans by the Greater London Authority and the Council to increase the number of people resident there by 17,000. Watch this space.

What Mary Portas understands is that although online shopping is a boon to many, it has a functionality which does not entirely satisfy. A day spent shopping can be a day of pleasure – time spent in an attractive environment, soaking up local character, eating and drinking well, and participating in the life of a community. Shoppers will visit areas where such experiences are available, and it is to be hoped that Old Town Croydon can become one of them.  The Croydon Citizen is following Portas developments and will report further on the progress of the Old Town pilot in the New Year.

Surrey Street market, however, dates from long before retail therapy was part of our lives. The village of Croydon received a market charter in 1276 from the Archbishop of Canterbury – it seems that archbishops, rather mysteriously, were in charge of these sorts of things at the time.  There were market stalls on the site even before this, with the very earliest piece of evidence, an account roll for stalls erected, dating from 1236.  The first market stood on an open hillside, doubtless looking down into Croindene – the beautiful ‘valley of the crocus’, which is the origin of Croydon’s name.  As the village grew, buildings spread over the site and by 1708 a new purpose-built structure housed The Butter Market.  General provisions were sold there until 1874 when the market declined, operating from that point until 1922 only on Saturdays.

Surrey Street market in 1955

That was the year Croydon Corporation revived and re-launched it as a vigorous six days a week operation. Prince Charles came to visit in 1994, and in 1997 Croydon Council instigated an annual ‘Good Stall Award’ to encourage good trading practices. Surrey Street today is primarily a food market, although household items do also feature, and more recently still, clothes (of the hippy-ish variety), scarves, and jewellery have made an appearance.

The world is in Surrey Street, with fresh coriander, chillis, lemongrass, yams, and coconut milk to be found amongst the apples and pears.  The market still retains its seasonal character, selling local asparagus in May, strawberries in June, and fresh cranberries at Christmas-time. Its atmosphere has always, in my experience, been a lively and cheerful one, with the traditional cries of London market traders promoting their wares, and footfall brisk from early in the morning until nightfall. However, it was not until around 15 years ago that our street food story began in earnest, with the arrival of the first of the Surrey Street food pioneers.

Next time – meet the Surrey Street food traders and learn about one of Croydon’s most exciting areas of growth
Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Kake

    Glad to see a post about the market, and delighted to see it’s one of a series! (I suspect Delia secretly still thinks mangetout are a bit exotic though.)

    Regarding free parking: (a) Didn’t London Road have a free parking trial? I think it was/is half an hour free? Do you know anything about this, and in particular whether it had a measurable effect? and (b) This opinion from the Wokingham Chamber of Commerce president is interesting.

    In-person shopping vs. online shopping — this is one of the things I’m trying to promote with the Completists’ Guide to Croydon. Personally speaking, as a person who hates shopping, I’ve found it’s helpful to be able to plan out in advance where I’m most likely to find the thing I’m looking for. If I can go into two or three shops and be fairly certain I’ll find what I want, then I’ll buy it locally rather than online. If I have no idea where to look, I’d much rather do it online.

    Where did you see the stalls account roll from 1236? I’d love to take a look at that.

    “Crocus valley” is my favourite theory of Croydon’s name too, though other hypotheses have been popular in the past.

    Are the Good Stall Awards still going?

    I find it interesting that you talk about seasonal veg in the market, since this isn’t entirely my experience there — I’ve seen a lot of out-of-season fruit and veg.

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Yes, there was a post-riot experiment of half an hour’s free parking on
    London Road. I believe that the effect was pretty much negligible
    for 3 reasons : 1) London Road is not used by destination shoppers
    (with the exception of one or two places such as Rock Bottom) but by
    locals who walk or use public transport, 2) destination shoppers who
    drive into the Town Centre perceive the West Croydon area as dangerous
    and rough and are unlikely be persuaded to leave their cars there and 3)
    even if these shoppers could be persuaded to park there, half an hour
    free would be insufficient time to draw them in. (I would contest the ‘dangerous and rough’ perception, but I know that it is there).

    I think a Croydon shopping app would be very useful and I am aware of one in the early stages of development.

    As far as I am aware the Good Stall Awards are still running. Hopefully the Portas Pilot, a most interesting initiative, will ramp up these kinds of
    things still further. Watch this space for more on the progress of the Pilot in 2013.

    Yes, there’s Surrey Street produce that clearly isn’t local or seasonal – as everywhere – but I’m always very pleased to see stuff that is. And like Delia herself, I’ve never really been a fan of mangetoute ;-)

    • Kake

      Yes, half an hour’s free parking seems more like a token gesture than anything likely to have a real effect. I do wonder why more people don’t park in the carpark under Roman Way, though — it’s dirt-cheap, and only about 3 minutes’ walk from London Road. Perhaps the answer is, as you say, fear of crime (though my visitors have left cars there overnight with no problems).

      Which stalls would you particularly recommend for seasonal veg (or is this coming later in the series)?

  • Liz Sheppard-Jones …… and Surrey Street food takes to the airwaves on Croydon Radio!