London ‘to-do’ lists that burst with parks, palaces, museums and big stores need to add one more item and it should be right at the top – Camden Market. Forget the branded stores and step out to the new frontier.
Camden Town tube station leads on to Camden High Street. It is crowded with colour and, to start with, a long parade of repetitive mass-product stalls. An in-your-face first impression perhaps but the shop fronts are worth the walk and you will not be tattooed, or dressed in studded black boots and a sleeveless T-shirt, without your consent.
Once over the canal (about six minutes from the tube station) turn immediately left into Camden Lock Market and start to breathe. Here the stalls and workshops become more individual. There is more space to meander, to take your time, to build up an appetite for the range of meals on offer in the West Yard.
The West Yard is on the edge of Regent’s Canal. It is a quiet cobbled space within a three-sided courtyard – part of Camden Market but slightly apart. It serves fresh food from around the world that is cooked and presented by chefs who understand their local dishes and want your business. Some of the chefs are shy but most are engaging and entertaining, and will sell you a main meal for less than a fiver. You can taste just about everything in advance and then watch while it is cooked in front of you.
The meals are served in take-away cartons with plastic forks and, if you’re lucky, there is a chance of a wobbly white chair and table. Not high comfort perhaps but real food – a different meal, explained in English, made in London.
There is everything for the bold food lover – Galician freshly cooked octopus; Pakistani chapati/paratha wraps; Spanish paella; West African cassava; Japanese sushi; Polish sausages; kangaroo burgers; deep-fried Oreos; Turkish falafel; French nougat; freshly grilled salmon and sardines; Ethiopian coffee; Chinese dumplings – the list is constantly evolving.
On my first visit I had Chinese noodles (not that easy to eat with a plastic fork) and the second time I had curry and samosas filled with an explosion of mixed spices. Each time I found a chair and new company at a plastic table. The sun shone, there was a world to watch and neither meal, nor the dozens of tastings offered, made me ill or cost me more than a few pounds.
Queues at some stalls may be eager and curious but they never struck me as too long.