A steel-and-concrete viaduct weighing more than 1,200 tonnes, to be built through an area of historical sensitivity, passing 16cm (6in) from the nearest building in places? No wonder the Borough Market railway project caused trouble.
As far back as 1987, British Rail said it would need to ease the bottleneck running into London Bridge station. The plans would involve more than two dozen buildings being knocked down or rebuilt, and the replacement of frontages on Borough High Street with a glass-and-steel construction. Borough Market, one of the oldest marketplaces in the country and only recently brought back to successful commercial life, would suffer months of disruption. Finally, in 2010, having seen off opposition from residents, local MP Simon Hughes and the market traders, Network Rail began work.
Unfortunately for the traders, this also coincided with the economic downturn and an arctic period in trader-management relations. The decisions to raise stall rents, subject stallholders to “taste tests”, and kick out some of the longest-standing traders were taken badly, and lawyers were called in on both sides. The management were said to have a terse, arm’s-length style; one trader told me of receiving a legal warning by post from a member of staff he had been talking in person to a day earlier. Paranoia and conspiracy theories were rampant; the coffee chains were coming, and Borough would end up being a glorified shopping centre.
But two years later the work is completed, and on Thursdaythe old market hall will see its first day of trading, with the official launch next week. The much-feared Starbucks has not materialised, and the glass frontage is not as enormous as it looked in the plans. The space behind it will be used for educational programmes, seating and demonstrations, rather than the feared shopping centre. But will the market be the same?
“It’s been tough,” says Richard Vines of Wild Beef, specialist in native breeds of cattle. “We were losing about a week during all the work. But you know what? I also think it’s exciting. We’re in a time of real opportunity.”
Vines’ mood of nervy excitement and fragile optimism is echoed all round the market. Stallholders admit that the past couple of years have been traumatic, “listening to diggers and pile-drivers all day, just a few metres away,” winces one.
“I don’t want to talk about the past,” says Maria Moruzzi. Her famous cafe was at the heart of the rows when the managers subjected her bacon sandwiches and bubble and squeak to a taste test, and told her to take cooking lessons. “It’s negative to look back. What matters is the future. The new management is much more relaxed. They talk to you, instead of the dictatorship we had before. And look!” She gestures around the market hall.
The new viaduct has been painted the same green and white as the old, restored glass-and iron-roof. Yes, huge concrete pillars march across the market hall, yes, the top floor has been shorn off the Wheatsheaf pub (the viaduct runs directly above it), but the shops on either side are occupied again, the traders are back in place, and the customers are threading their way back in among the stalls. Moruzzi, whose family have been here since 1961, is misty-eyed with relief. “It’s so nice to see it coming back to life. Don’t you think it looks fantastic? They’ve still managed to keep the personality, the soul of the market. They’ve managed to keep the magic.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010