“Things go in circles and things change. And we’ve got to change with it or we disappear. ”

 

Leather Lane is a market in flux; although one of London’s oldest markets, with a wide variety of goods, it occupies an area that is changing rapidly, and stallholders feel they are suffering from an indifferent local council. But for all its troubles, it’s a vibed-up, bolshy, exuberant place thanks to its traders. There’s none of the po-faced, self-regard of some of London’s foody places; Leather Lane is pretty cheap, and exceptionally cheerful. One good example is Tim Driscoll, who with the Friends of Leather Lane is on a campaign to return the market to its former glory. He’s got a fight on his hands – but I suspect, somehow, he enjoys it.

What’s your role in the market?
Years ago we used to have an official market committee and I was the chairman. So I use it to my advantage when I can, so I’m an unofficial representative now. When it’s busy, nobody’s bothered about what anyone does so long as you’re making money. And now it’s getting a little bit hard we need a bit more effort from traders, and from the council. What we’ve needed for a long long time on this market is a bit of advertising and some strong leadership – which we ain’t getting from the council! Now round the corner we have an architects firm, they’ve taken up the gauntlet and tried to help, and with the [Friends of Leather Lane] involved we’ve spoken to so many more people than we would have on our own. They’re more connected, more switched on than councils. And it seems to be a little bit better than it used to be.

Tell me about Leather Lane’s history – it’s reputed to be one of London’s oldest markets.
There’s so many different stories, I’ve been down here 31 years and I’m by no means the longest-serving trader here, everyone got their own version, some say it was set up to settle a debt of King Charles, I heard it was a chartered market, someone said it came from people living down here and it sort of evolved. I don’t think anyone knows for certain – but I know it’s been a thriving market for hundreds of years.

How’s it changed in your 31 years?
It’s not as busy. I think that goes for a lot of markets. One thing we’ve got that other markets don’t, is we’re a four-five days, lunchtime market, from twelve to two. Historically, it always was a lunchtime market. Thirty one years ago it was loads and loads of fruit and veg. And you had one stall doing leathers, chammy leathers, one store doing dresses. Then we had the Turks coming in and selling a lot of clothing, now that seems to be petering out, and you have food. Things go in circles and things change. And we’ve got to change with it or we disappear. But what you’re finding now is the people in charge don’t know about running markets. They know about working in councils, and having their days off and they don’t realise it’s got to be governed, it’s got to be planned – you can’t have too many people selling one thing.

Have you sold flowers for all your 31 years?
Just flowers – I fell into it, I used to work in Smithfields Meat Market, I was a trainee butche, I was 16, 17 and I was invincible, scared of no one. And I had a row with the bloke I worked. And a mate said, you want to come and help out on the flower stall? I ended up working with him for 15 years and for myself for 16

Has that been hard work?
It’s very hard work. It’s all perishable. And it’s also a luxury. Having a luxury perishable in a recession ain’t fun. But you’re getting less people doing this so I’m competing against less. And now you’re competing against bigger firms. But they don’t specialise. So if Sainsbury’s are selling loads of one thing, I can go for something different. You can chop and change and that’s the beauty of this game. But when people like me have gone, all you’ve have left will be what the big firms want to give you. But I survive ‘cos I work very very hard, I have no social life whatsoever. I get up between half three and five, six days a week. If anyone told me five o-clock was a lie-in when I was a kid I woulda laughed at them!

Your stall looks lovely, lots of orchids, poinsettia and Christmas trees – but I heard you had a problem with Christmas trees and the council?
They come and they probe. So yes, they asked me, Do I have a licence for selling Christmas trees. Now, I’ve sold Christmas trees all the years I’ve been here. So I’m going, No, I sell plants, floral sundries, that’s what Christmas trees are and that’s what I’ll do. They do is try to probe, to get a little bit more. Honestly, they act like parasites sometimes, just taking off people. And I would think the purpose of the council is to look after local people. The thing that most upsets me is, a place like this with a big estate at the back, through the years lots of kids would would see someone from their estate, their own area, going to work and earning money. Not relying on the government, not relying on a big company, just doing their own, thing, not necessarily being an Alan Sugar and earning millions. When this sort of thing goes, that’s all gone too. Because this adds so much more to the community.

What’s your plan for what’s next?
My plan is to sell a lot of Christmas trees! And no one knows what’s gonna happen, we had a meeting, and they said lovely, good idea – but we ain’t got no money. All I’m trying to do is bring it to their attention that this is a really good market; it’s established, it’s got a hard core of very, very good traders, we’re central to everything, we’re five minutes from the West End, you’ve got Crossrail that will hopefully open and and this will be a developed place. And Camden’s got a market in the centre of it – and if the time and effort is put into it, this could be as big as any market in London.

Tim Driscoll is at the Clerkenwell Road end of Leather Lane,weekday lunchtimes.You can find the Friends Of Leather Lane here.