“Some days, you can’t see three inches from your nose. It can be spooky.”


Borough Market has been a centre of foodie culture for a dozen years now  – but they’ve been years of turmoil, building work, the disappearance of many traders. Today, the offering is diverse, from glorified fast food merchants mainly reliant on tourists, to some of the most committed food producers in the country. Darren Brown has to count as one of the most crucial traders in the latter group. When you see him chatting to customers  on a Saturday afternoon, or pulling lobsters out a large tank to show inquisitive kids, it’s hard to credit that he’s often been up at dawn that morning to dive for scallops, before the long drive in from Dorset. Catching scallops this way is sustainable, unlike the dredging methods many rivals use, which can cause damage to the seabed which takes years to recover. We often mention here how market traders work harder than most of their peers – Darren has to count as one of the most extreme examples, but once you’ve tasted his scallops, you’ll agree it’s all worth it.

I’ve spoken to you some Saturdays and you’d been out diving at 5am – when does your  typical day start?
I don’t have a typical day! It depends on the tides and the weather, and also the light. Certain times of years it’s not light enough for diving till 8 o’clock, sometimes it’s dark at 5 o’clock, so you’ve just got to work around that. There’s so many factors – you can’t just go out there, dive and come back.

Is it a physically gruelling job?
You’re carrying 8 stone of tanks on your back, 32 pounds of lead round your waist, so it’s not for the average person.

How did you start diving?
I basically was a survival instructor and did survival equipment, and I tried to change to become a Royal Navy Diver. I passed through all the process – then I was told at the last interview that I was too old. So that was me out. So I decided to go; now the Royal Navy’s got to resettle you into a civilian job and I got them to pay for my Commercial Diving Ticket. So in the end I became a diver and they lost a diver. Then I lived at Lulworth cove in Dorset, and started doing diving back in 1983 as a hobby.  And we’ve been at Borough Market now for 13 years.

In the past few years, you’ve diversified?
I stalk, I manage an estate down in Dorset where we control the deer numbers, and that’s another hobby that I’ve turned into a livelihood, so part of the business is game now as well as fish.

How do you feel, when you’re underwater most days, diving? Is it  strictly a job, or is it something you enjoy?
Well, put it this away – I wouldn’t go away on a diving holiday! It’s a busman’s holiday doing three or four hundred dives a year, it gets a bit tedious. Like going to the office. At the moment we’re fishing in Dartmouth, then we come back and work from June onwards back in Lulworth Cove. Some days it can be fantastic, then some days, you can see less than three inches from the end of your nose. It can be spooky. No disrespect to the average Scooby Doo, but they wouldn’t tolerate it.

You embody a certain ethic at Borough – whereas some people simply buy food in and sell it on, you’re bringing in something unique.
There’s only a handful, two or four of us, who are producer and providers. We go out and get it. And a lot of people don’t believe that, I have to show them pictures to prove it.

Does the Market appreciate that you’re offering something unique?
I’m concerned about it. Sometimes I think they’re pricing us out of the market. I don’t like passing on the large expenses – it makes us feel and it makes us look like a very expensive market. There has to be fair trading. How can I compete with someone in the middle of the market, and all they’re doing is buying and selling? So no, I don’t think those people are bringing anything to the table. You get people who come in and take advantage of the fact that you can get a cheaper pitch, come and take the good times over Christmas, and then run off. So there is a lot of unfair trading, I don’t think there’s a loyalty to the long-term people who are committed to Borough Market, and bring something unique and individual to it.

But with all this, the getting up early, the physical effort, the lack of independence, the weather, when you get home at day’s end – is it satisfying?
It is. Especially when you get people who really appreciate it. I’m dealing with some of the top restaurants who appreciate it, Jamie Oliver, Mark Hix, who I go back with a long way. But it is hard work. When you go home sometimes and you’ve lost money at the market that day you think, Why am I doing this? But staff comes first, and the rent’s gotta be paid.

Does it beat the Navy?
I am actually missing the Navy really – only because of the lads and the camaraderie and you can always rely on somebody. If you were in the shit you could turn around and there’d be somebody there for you. It doesn’t happen in civvie street I’m afraid.

Now, the crucial question: how do you eat your scallops?
I like them simple, maybe pan fried with garlic. Or simpler still, is to eat them raw on the boat, straight away, when I come up from a dive. You can’t get better than that.

Darren’s stall, Shellseekers, is at Borough Middle Market, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.


Comments are closed.