I’ve lamented the decline of some of London’s best-known markets in these pages before, so I’d like to use today’s entry to talk about an utterly enchanting example of one of the lesser known markets.
In fact, this one is very near to me – about 15 minutes walk via the scenic route – so it’s a mystery why I haven’t talked about it before now. Merton Abbey Mills describes itself as London’s Alternative Market. It’s located out in the suburbs, more-or-less equidistant between Colliers Wood and South Wimbledon Stations on the Northern Line, near Phipps Bridge on the Tramlink and a short bus ride from Wimbledon Main Line and District Line stations. And if you’re particularly energetic, you can peg it from Haydons Road. To get there from the main road (and Colliers Wood bus garage), I would recommend taking a walk along the river from in front of the massive Sainsbury’s superstore. This is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of it – much of the area is covered by superstores, car parks, hotels and similarly overwhelming structures. So this little 19th century survivor is somewhat incongruous.
The market is near to the site of the medieval Merton Abbey – indeed, the Colourhouse Theatre, on site, may have been an ancillary building to the old Priory. If so, it would be one of the few remnants of the Abbey surviving to the present day (although there are some fragments walls, and the ruins of the Chapter House are preserved in a secret little chamber under the road).
This part of what-would-eventually-become South London lapsed into boringness following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. However, from the 17th century onwards, the river came into demand for the purposes of industry. See, the thing about the Wandle is that it’s rubbish for navigation. It’s shallow and fast-flowing, so can’t be used for carrying goods. However, it’s perfect for driving waterwheels. The chalky water also makes it ideal for the purpose of textile manufacture. Merton Abbey Mills was founded in the 18th century as a silk works, one of dozens of mills along the river and the only working survivor.
The charming complex was taken over by William Morris, he of Arts and Crafts fame, in 1881. In accordance with his rather sentimental philosophy (I like Arts and Crafts just fine, but you have to admit it has a somewhat 19th-century middle-class sentimentality about it), he retained the old buildings, adapting and adding to them. Carpets, stained glass, tapestries and fabrics were all produced here. The site was taken over by Liberty’s in 1940 and abandoned in 1972, following which it fell into a state of shocking dereliction.
In 1989, fortunately, it was figured that something ought to be done about this horrible eyesore, and so following the example of Camden Lock (to the extent of using the same consultants, I believe) it was decided to turn the place into a craft market.
Today the market boasts of half a million visitors per year. As well as the market, there’s the aforementioned Colourhouse Theatre and the William Morris pub on site. The wheelhouse, as you can see in the photo at the top of this entry, has been restored and the wheel now provides power to a pottery. There is a small display on the history of the area inside.
The shops and stalls are a fairly eclectic mix. The market deliberately encourages independent artistic types, offering free stalls (I know, right?) and being, I understand, fairly strict about what is considered unsuitable for sale. There’s a second-hand bookshop and a small but varied vintage clothing shop next door to each other, so that keeps me happy for a while, and they’re across the way from some marvellous small restaurants. Izzi and I have sampled the waffles and the Caribbean cuisine, and found them good. The waffles in particular induced a sense of guilt within me, but this was overruled by my tastebuds. God, I miss those pre-diet days.
Other stalls and shops sell paintings, dolls’ house furniture, farm goods, ceramics, clothing, rocks and gems, fancy dress and some really top-notch coffee beans. The market as a whole has an artsy-but-independent feel about it that is, as far as I’m aware, unique in London. It’s not as trendy as Camden and not as touristy as Portobello, but neither of these are a bad thing. There’s a much more relaxed feel about it than you get at any of the bigger markets, and is one of the finest ways I know to spend a summer afternoon.
All in all, Merton Abbey Mills is highly recommended for those with a love of arts and crafts, those who seek a rural escape in the heart of suburbia and those who keep a London blog and can’t think of a subject for their Sunday entry.