It's fair to say that Roman Road isn't one of London's best known markets. Perhaps it ought to be, given its fashion-focus and longevity. But the market's lost its sparkle over the years, despite several attempts by the council to spruce it up. Its location isn't great either, holed up in a corner of Bow that's on the way to nowhere, unless you're local. You'd probably not think to come, nor be bothered to come even if you thought. So the traders got together and submitted their cause to the latest Government retail initiative, the Portas Pilot scheme... and promptly failed to become one of the 27 lucky winners.
So I thought I'd go "down the Roman" one week later, that's yesterday morning, to see if I could spot the differences Mary's Town Team had wrought.
I passed a young lady clutching a freshly-purchased handbag as I arrived. A good sign, I thought, even if the buyer looked very local and bag a fraction tasteless. It had been bought from the first stall at the top end of the market - a few racks of non-designer leather-look creations, and nothing that'd ever grace the streets of Mayfair. The next few stalls set out the pattern of much of what was to follow. A lot of dresses and other ladieswear, hanging from racks labelled "Top Shop", "Oasis", "River Island", etc. I assumed this wasn't genuine chain store fodder, nor blatant knock off, but some kind of mass produced cheap copy. The market is indeed an ideal spot to buy high-street-looking fashion at sub-high-street prices, to fill up your wardrobe at low-budget prices. But only if you're a woman. Most of the blokes I saw tagging along looked rather bored.
This being the start of the winter season, there were plenty of boots on offer. Tall furry things, like Mary would wear, although I suspect she shops elsewhere. Plenty of jewellery too, more at the bling end than the sparkly end of the spectrum, and plenty of accessories too. There were several non-fashion interludes, such as CD merchants and kids toy pedlars, plus some beautifully laid-out fruit and veg. But the Roman's nothing like Petticoat Lane or Walthamstow. It's much more the sort of place you leave with something to wear than something to scrub the floor with, for which reason alone the market deserves to be doing better than it is. [photo][photo]
I couldn't immediately spot Mary's upgrade, although playing spot the difference isn't easy when you're not a regular. I think the pink and white awnings were new, some of them at least, so there was now some coherence end-to-end. I walked on behind a woman on a scooter and a small dog in a winter coat, looking out for an element of abnormal class. Nothing, until I was right up the far end by St Stephen's Road. Here was a genuinely new experience, for E3 if not for London - half a dozen carts of street food. A beardy chef in a stripy apron called BurgerBear. A coffee cart doing proper 21st century caffeine. Two gentsfryingup eggs benedict, bacon and berry-topped French toast. And, in what's almost certainly a first for the Roman Road, an artisanbakery offering Madeleines, Florentines and Giant French Macarons ("two almond meringue discs filled with flavoured buttercream or chocolate ganache" "made by hand in small batches"). This may be normal in your corner of London but, trust me, it's a revelation round here.
Beyond the market, on the non-pedestrianised stretch of Roman Road, footfall was low. There are still boutiques down there, a couple of finecafes and a new cards and gift shop called Snap. But few marketgoers venture that far, it seems, as though the stalls are all they've come to see. If Mary's brief stretches the full length of the road, there's much more to be done.
Roman Road's still a very working class market, I'd say, albeit with a dash of fashion flair. What Mary appears to be after is more middle class shoppers, lured in by variety and value and some tasty French tarts. An ideal destination in an age of austerity, she hopes, where you can dress in style for only a tenner. I suspect it'll be hard to attract far-flung punters, but if some of the younger professionals from Bethnal Green and South Hackney can be tempted in, all the better. When you watch the episode next spring, please don't think this corner of E3 is all pearly kings, craft stalls and musical performances - that was all for the TV cameras. But do come and take a look one Saturday, as Mary nudges Roman Road upmarket, else one day this market might fade away altogether.
One other retail giant is hoping to ride to Roman Road's rescue, and that's Tesco. They're building a new Metro-sized store and several flats on the site that used to be Safeway, just round the back of the library. The Roman Road area's suffered this last decade from the lack of a decent supermarket, the best of late being an Iceland where Woolworths used to be. Disturbingly this'll be E3's fourth Tesco, in a postcode that boasts no Sainsbury, no Asda, no Lidl, no Aldi and no Morrisons, and is starting to feel like a grocery monopoly. What's yet to be seen is whether the arrival of a major player will draw fresh customers into this shopping street, or suck the life right out of it. I fear the latter, unless Mary's Town Team can work their magic.
Tuesday update (from the Roman Road Town Team): "The Team that's trying to get something done about the market is a group of local volunteers who want to do something about the sad state the Road and the market has fallen into. We all have day jobs - inevitably it's slow going. Sorry you didn't hear about what was happening the other weekend - our PR budget is non-existent! You can find out what's coming up by following @romanroadmarket on twitter. And if you've got any good ideas and (even better) any time to spare to help, you can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org. If nothing else, if you liked the coffee and the giant macarons and the gift shop up the Road, go up to the market every so often and buy something, otherwise they won't be there for much longer!"