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Billingsgate Market – Freshest Fish in London

BY Boon Koh
Published 5 July 2009

*Beep beep beep* – 6:30am

*Beep beep beep* – 6:35am

Bleary eyed, I got out of bed, while at the same time gently prodding my partner next to me, not wanting to have a sleeping monster wake up. Thankfully, she too was still half asleep and in mood for monster-like behaviour, so we both got dressed quickly in silence, locked the apartment door behind us, and walked down the road to the bus stop.

Billingsgate Market is the biggest fish market in London, and is only open from about 4am till about 8:30am, Tuesdays to Saturdays. You can find practically any type of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans that exists there. Fishmongers, restaurant chefs, and ordinary people go there to get the freshest seafood available, and at much cheaper prices too than at supermarkets or fish shops. However, although you can enter the market at 4am (when the traders start setting up their produce), you can’t buy anything till 5am, at which point out of nowhere there is a massive tide of shoppers appearing out of nowhere. Armed with shopping trolleys and a wallet-full of cash (only cash is accepted at most stores), they are there to get the best and freshest seafood available, first come first serve style.

It is normally a logistical nightmare to get to Billingsgate Market without a car. Although it is next to Canary Wharf, it is still a good ten minutes from the center by walking (which seems more like 20 in the early morning), and the Jubilee Line and DLR are barely functioning so early on. The best option is the D8 bus, which stops right outside the market, and goes either in the Crossharbour DLR direction or Stratford Station. Thankfully, I live just minutes away from a D8 bus stop.

On this occasion, I arrived at around 7:30am, with the crowd, and the choice of seafood, having thinned from the peak. I really do recommend going much earlier if you can, as the stuff left over are the ones the pros who come at 5am have passed up. However, if you are not too fussy (and there’s still plenty of fresh produce available), you can get discounts if you come after 7:30. We managed to get 2 Canadian lobsters for £5 each, but realized our mistake when we got home and found out that the meat was not too good as the lobsters had been dead for too long. We also picked up a whole salmon for £5, weighing around a kilo. After baking it following these instructions, it was just about the tastiest and freshest salmon we had ever had, and the leftovers will last us for a good few days.

Billingsgate is definitely a place every seafood lover in London should visit at least once. But be aware that most of the fare are sold in big quantities, with fish usually sold in 1-2kg fillets or five to a box (e.g. seabass), and prawns are sold in 2kg boxes as well. In addition make sure you wear sneakers or boots, as they will be stepping on fishy floors. Try to go early on, and read up a bit about seafood so you know what to buy, and be suspicious if you are quoted a very good offer; chances are the stallholder knows there’s something wrong with that particular batch and wants to shift it quickly.

The best times to go are just before they start selling at 4:45am. Go after 7am, and all that’s available are the leftovers for sale. Pricewise, the fish and seafood at Billingsgate are cheaper than you can find at fishmongers in London, and alot fresher too. Plus, you can get live seafood, something of a bonus. What are the average prices at Billingsgate Market? Medium sized tiger prawns sell for about £12 per kilo, and live Canadian lobsters sell for £15-£20 per kilo, depending on lobster size. Then there are king scallops,which retail for about £14-16 per kilo. Whole salmons (less than 1kg) are about £6-8 per fish, while salmon fillets cost about £8 per kilo.

Address: Billingsgate Fish, Shellfish, and Seafood Market, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf, E15 5ST.
Nearest Public Transport: Bus D8 (either direction, bus stop is right in front of the market, 24 hours a day and night bus service). Poplar DLR (15 minutes walk across bridge), or Canary Wharf Tube Station (Jubilee Line or DLR, 15 minutes walk). To find out how to get to Billingsgate Market by bus, tube, or train, please use the TfL Journeyplanner.