London's Christmas meat auction risks the chop at historic site

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM, Dario Thuburn- Waving banknotes in the air, hundreds of shoppers braved the rain for an open-air Christmas Eve meat auction at London's Smithfield Market on Thursday for what could be the last time in its historic setting.
Butchers in white coats shuttled along two runways outside Harts of Smithfield handing out turkeys, racks of beef and legs of pork to eager customers wheeling rolling suitcases and shopping trolleys.

The auction was led by 66-year-old Greg Lawrence, who has worked at the market for 49 years and is chairman of the Smithfield Market Traders Association.
"You're wonderful people who've come into the city of London to see us. Best city in the world. This is the beginning of Christmas!" Lawrence told the crowd to loud cheers and shouts of "Merry Christmas!"
As his staff showed off cuts of meat normally sold wholesale to London's hotels and restaurants, Lawrence shouted to shoppers: "Everyone must get something! These prices are unheard of! Unheard of!"
With six kilogramme rumps of beef at £25 and turkeys and giant legs of pork at £20, many buyers agree.
The diverse crowd of shoppers at the two-hour sale included hipsters in thick-rimmed glasses, working-class men in tweed flat caps and camera-carrying tourists curious to witness a slice of London history.
One man could be seen wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, while another had a bicycle helmet topped by a fluffy reindeer head.
"I've been coming here for five years... It's fantastic value and I love the atmosphere," said Annie Maloney, 62, as she wheeled away a trolley crammed with gammon, turkey, rump steak and pork.
Maloney said she was preparing meals for 12 people.
Nick Beresford, 40, who lives in Switzerland but is visiting family near London for Christmas, said he had heard about the auction from a friend.
"It's good fun. It's a Christmas-sy atmosphere. People are in good moods," said Beresford, who was sheltering from the rain under an awning as his six-year-old son Harry proudly clutched a chunk of beef.
- 'Absolutely iconic' -
Smithfield was an open-air livestock market during the Middle Ages and the covered market was built in the 19th century as hygiene rules became stricter.
The Christmas Eve auction has been for the past 50 years in front of the faded billboards of the General Market at Smithfield, which was built in 1881 and has been mostly derelict for years as successive regeneration plans have fallen through.
The Victorian building, which is next to a larger and more modern meat market, was sold earlier this week to the City of London Corporation, which plans to redevelop it to house the Museum of London.
"It's absolutely iconic," Maloney said.
"The traders are wonderful. I think it's absolutely criminal to shut this down. Very upsetting."
Previous owners TH Real Estate had planned to turn the building into a complex of shops, cafes and offices and the Financial Times put the value of the sale at £35 million.
There are no plans to redevelop the main market.
The current site of the museum is planned to become a new £278 million (379 million euro, $415 million) concert hall for London to be built by 2023.
"Personally, I'm not happy with the Museum of London plan. I would like it to be a market again... There is a vibrant community here now. We don't need another museum!" Lawrence told AFP.
"We hope to get another year," he said. If not, he said the auction would have to move to the more modern part of the market site and a slice of London history could be gone forever.

Saturday, December 26th 2015
Dario Thuburn

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