It's usually Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane or Columbia Road that spring to mind when thinking about London's Sunday markets. But they're not especially representative of where the majority of outer Londoners go, especially on the east side of town where the capital rubs up against Essex. A much more likely spot is Dagenham Sunday Market, down by the industrial Thames, where ten thousand a week come to look, to browse, and to buy. You'll not see it mentioned in the style guides, nor most likely will you ever visit. But I was passing by, unlikely as it seems, so it seemed only right and proper to step inside.
There can be few grimmer corners of London than the road out of Creekmouth [video]. Creekmouth itself isn't uplifting - a long row of smelly light industry and trading estates along the lower reaches of the River Roding. The council doesn't bother to repair the pavement because nobody lives here, so the path breaks up into fractured lumps and mucky puddles. The Roding Flood Barrier looms over all, site of an unlikely nature reserve and well-hidden Thames-bend viewpoint. Most of the week the sole point of social focus is The Crooked Billet pub, now under new management and reborn as the "River Club" (bedecked with slightly dodgy silhouettes of gyrating women). But on Sunday that's dead, and all the gates hereabouts are locked, and the road's available for boy racers to rev unchallenged. And yet there are 4×4s with personalised numberplates passing by, and a row of less-loved cars parked alongside the transformer coils, because the weekly market is in full swing. [3 photos]
Most of the week these acres of tarmac are empty but on Sunday hundreds of stallholders move in, followed closely behind (at 9am sharp) by the punters. Parking's free, because you'd never get anyone out here otherwise. There's also an hourly bus from Barking station - that's very new, but very necessary when TfL only run 10 buses here a week. The organisers have been cunning and arranged the stalls around the edge of the car park in a C-shape. You'll not be milling willy nilly through a grid, you'll be guided to walk a single perimeter all the way round and back again, past absolutely everyone. Probably twice. What you may not spot is that the farthest flank runs alongside the edge of the Thames and the mudflats beyond. Google's aerial camera flew over on a Sunday, fortuitously, so you can see what I mean.
Don't think bric-a-brac, think household staples. And don't think haute couture, think jumpers, trackies and market shoes. Some of the shoes are way off catwalk level - more blinged-up plimsolls and garish stack heels. Others are much more sensible, say £20 Caterpillar-like safety boots for the working hubby in your life. As for the jumpers, and some of the handbags, the "in" logo this summer appears to be the diamond skull. That's for the adults, while Disney princesses and Ben 10 are still very much in demand for younger punters. For your garden, maybe a golden cherub. For your kitchen cupboard, a family-sized box of Persil. For your head, a knitted hat or flat cap. There's absolutely no knock-off, the market demands legal goods only, although I'm willing to bet that the "Calvin Klein" undies I saw on a couple of stalls are 101% counterfeit.
There is a definite Essex feel to the punters at the market, even though that county's still two boroughs away. No The Only Way Is Essex starlets, however, because the clientèle's much more Wickford than Chigwell. A lot of tattoos, a lot of pushchairs, and a lot of extended families traipsing contentedly around. Apparently Stacey Solomon buys her frocks here, and there are certainly a lot of potential X Factor contestants milling about in the aisles. As for the ethnic mix, that's as mostly-white as Barking and Dagenham used to be, but no longer is. I got the definite sense that for many this riverside bazaar is the great Sunday day out, especially those trying to make their weekly budget stretch that little bit further.
A surprisingly high number of stalls are devoted to catering. A small pie and mash cart lurks in one corner, near tables that offer "very very good" Indian food. Elsewhere the smell of fresh-fried donuts permeates, and thickset ladies wait to serve up sliced roast pork in a roll. But it's "something and chips" that's everywhere, for this is the great Dagenham Market Sunday lunch. Large areas are laid out with tables, beneath pink and white striped plastic awnings, providing a weatherproof cocoon where you can slump down with bacon butty, egg roll, hamburger or whatever and chips. At Julie's Fast Food Bar a Cadbury hot chocolate's only 60p, the menu peaks with Jumbo Cheese Dog, and a printed sign reassures "Smokers Welcome". I succumbed instead to a bag of white chocolate shapes from Gary's Confectionery, and a bag of sugar-free rhubarb and custard for afters.
I don't think Brick Lane has anything to worry about. This is very much a market with a provincial flavour, more like you might find on a Norfolk airfield than a bijou street. It's the sort of place that sells Sock's, and Jersey's, and Shoe's, and Chip's, and from which you're most likely to bring your purchases home in a blue plastic bag. Expect the retail circuit to be very busy if you arrive in the morning, but rather less rammed if you're still here in the afternoon. And be warned that the last free bus back to civilisation leaves at 3pm. If you miss that, as one unfortunate lady and her family managed yesterday, it's a bloody long trek back via dodgy pavements to reach anything resembling transport connectedness. Best bring your car, and the kids, maybe nan too, make a day of it.