Jock Stark is Borough Market’s longest standing trader. A bear of a man in a flat cap and cable knit jumper, the seventy-year-old has not lost his Glaswegian accent despite 55 years living south of the border. Even when he is talking in Cockney rhyming slang.
2am on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday will find Jock at the New Covent Garden wholesale market using a pocket knife to check the exact ripeness of a peach, or testing the snap of an asparagus spear with his hands. Then the bartering begins. A farmer might suggest he pays a ‘carpet’ (£3) for a box of tomatoes, in response Jock will offer a ‘bottle’ (£2), and they will settle somewhere in between for ‘50 Bob’ (£2.50). Market porters will load his selection into the back of the van and it is off to Borough Market, his workplace in one form of another for over 40 years.
At fifteen, Stark left Glasgow with friends looking for adventure. Arriving at Euston Station without a plan, the gang hitchhiked to Southampton where they got a lift on a German merchant ship to the Channel Islands. A year spent building tomato boxes on Guernsey was a good introduction to becoming a ‘costermonger’ (another of the beautifully archaic words that accompany his trade) on his return to the UK. He married June in 1971, and a year later opened a fruit and veg shop in South London, which meant regular trips to Borough Market.
“If you came here you were called a ‘Borough Boy’. Back then, it was a busy wholesale night market, opening at 11pm and closing at eight in the morning. During the day, the area was a ghost town,” he says.
Fast forward to today, and a lot has changed. It is late on a Friday morning and the passageway beside Stark’s stall is beginning to swell with visitors on the hunt for gluten free brownies and artisan cheese. A tourist stops to ask the best way to the changing of the guards – bus or underground?
Stark is pragmatic about the market’s transformation. He recognises that the trend for supermarket shopping killed off high street greengrocers, which in turn, killed off wholesale markets. It was these very pressures that forced his own greengrocer’s shop to close down.
Following a stint working for one of the wholesale suppliers, Jock started his own stall, ‘Jock Stark & Son’ in 1999, by which time the market was becoming an increasingly famous foodie attraction.
The stall remains a destination to locals and tourists alike thanks to an inside out knowledge of the produce that supermarkets would be hard pushed to replicate. Like Stark, the set up is unpretentious, with the fruit and veg doing the talking: oranges in beautifully decorated wax wrappers bob in a sea of ‘best blueberries’ and perfectly ripe avocados. His personal favourites include in-season asparagus - “The guy cuts it in the afternoon and sends it to the wholesale market, I’m not kidding, you could eat it raw” - and Kentish Jubilee strawberries - “The taste takes you back to childhood.”
Though the market has changed from the times when market porters could lift a ton weight on a two wheeled barrow, the camaraderie between the traders at the market has not (perhaps this is why the old language has stuck around). Stark is clearly well respected by his fellow stallholders, some of whom he has known since the early days. He is equally welcoming to the new guard, one newbie (an artisan producer) describes how he showed her the ropes on her first day. The rest take it in turns to rib him about having his photo taken.
Giving him the most stick is the ‘and son’ of his business, Richard, 45, who shares his dad’s strong features, height and line free complexion that should not belong to anyone that rises before dawn every day.
“He told me he’d be retiring last year: he still hasn’t gone,” Richard jokes.
In turn, Stark says that his wife does not want him at home. The rumble from the trains overhead almost drowns out their banter. The noise is part of Borough Market’s fabric, along with the smell of fresh fish, and the market’s grandiose iron structures. It seems proper to add the Stark name to this list, especially as Richard’s daughters are now involved to continue the legacy.
“There’s a future for them here,” Stark says.
EXPLORE THE NEIGHBOURHOOD – STARK’S GUIDE
The Globe Tavern, 8 Bedale Street, London, SE1 9AL
The pub in the heart of Borough Market, serving a good selection of guest ales, as well as the usual international beers. It’s just yards from my stall. It’s handy and there’s always a good atmosphere.
Maria’s Market Café, Borough Market, 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1T
An outdoor café serving tea, coffee and fry ups under the cover of the market. I’ve known Maria for over fifty years. Her parents used to own the Borough Café on Park Street. She used to give me extra chips when I was younger!
Soul Food, Borough Market, 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1T
A Caribbean street food stall, serving jerk chicken and curried goat with rice and peas, fried plantains and pineapple coleslaw. I grab my lunch from here sometimes, their chicken wrap is a favourite.
Find out Jock Stark & Son's opening times here.