If you are looking to buy meat, be sure to get there early – the market usually starts around 3am, and by midday most places have packed up.
Just to the northwest of the City of London sits Smithfields Market, the UK’s largest wholesale meat market and one with a rollercoaster past, to say the least. Originally known as “Smooth Field”, the area established itself as a livestock market over a thousand years ago, due to its excellent access to water and grazing. If you wander around the area today, you’ll see this history reflected in many of the street names: Cow Cross Street, Duck Lane, Pheasant Court and Goose Alley are all nearby.
Smithfields on the Silver Screen
As a large, open space close to the city, Smithfield became a popular location for large gatherings and events during the medieval period. One of the more famous of these was the 1390 jousting tournament put on by Richard II, in which 60 knights from across Europe came to London to tilt for two days, accompanied by sixty noble ladies. Organising the tournament was a 47-year-old Geoffrey Chaucer, and this episode served as inspiration for Paul Bettany’s role as the great English poet in the film A Knight’s Tale. Most famously, and continuing the cinematic theme, the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace was executed at Smithfields in 1305, though whether he really did shout “Freedom!” with his dying breath is subject to some speculation.
These days, most visitors come to Smithfields for the colourful history, though you can of course still buy meat here at surprisingly affordable prices. There’s also a certain charm in experiencing the cheerful hawking and clatter that has been going on continuously for over a thousand years.
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