My first memory of Covent Garden is of being taken as a young boy to the Market one Christmas. The image is unchanged in my mind, like a painting complete with sounds and (especially) smells.
Looking up, all I could see were baskets and sacks of fruit and vegetables piled high in all colours and shapes, and I remember the produce being moved from lorry to stack, and from stack to porters’ barrows and on to horse and cart. Some men had smart black clothes, while others wore a mishmash of wool, flannel and tweed that ranged from the nearly new to the utterly ragged. It was the first time I’d seen clothes tied up with string.
The sounds: men in bowler hats shouting; porters in flat caps growling; the barrows clattering over granite cobbles mixed with horses’ hooves and lorry engines.
The smells: food, horses, engines, coffee and frying bacon on the street stalls; the Norwegian Spruce; the scent of a thousand Christmas trees that will be with me forever.
Back then I could never have guessed that soon I’d be cutting Christmas trees on the Windsor Estate for Covent Garden Market, nor that the Market would become such an important part of my life.
Why I was there that winter’s morning in 1968 I can’t remember, yet that moment I stood on Long Acre could not be fresher in my mind. It was dawn. It had been raining and I was looking down James Street to the glass-topped Central Market building. It was all backlit by a flood of sunlight, the rays spilled halfway up the west side as the fruit and vegetable stalls glistened nearby.
So taken was I with the scene before me that it seemed completely silent. The road was a jam of trucks, buyers and porters pushing barrows, weaving in and out from dark to light and back to dark. One pavement was semi-shaded; the other bathed in morning light. Sharp shadows fanned across the buildings like a slightly staggered pack of cards, and the balletic arching lamps watched over the produce as twirls of cigar smoke rose upwards.
Rocking from heel to toe as they puffed on their cigars, salesmen minded their goods as though they were a flock of sheep. Waving a cigar towards a porter would bring a barrow to the pavement, then boxes appeared from a shop brimming with oranges, apples, cauliflowers, onions, potatoes, and in summer, delicate trays of peaches, or the first raspberries or grapes.
Some of the buyers moved quickly to ‘their’ salesman. A few words and gestures, and the deal was done. Money – mainly £1 and £5 notes – was exchanged and stuffed into the salesman’s pocket. Other buyers sauntered past, stopping here and there to smell a pear, feel an aubergine, exchange a word, waving to those they knew.
Everything was on the move: the ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and shapes. I remember taking all this in as I stood rooted to the spot. Then a blast from a truck’s horn, a voice from a cab window: “Out the f***in’ way, dreamer boy!” This was Covent Garden Market, and a new chapter in my life had begun.