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Spitalfields Market wreck gets a 15-year overhaul
Spitalfields Market wreck gets a 15-year overhaul

Published the Times May 18 2010

A new chapter in the history of Spitalfields Market will begin next week, fashioned from salvaged glass and restored oak panels. After a 15-year restoration project, Market Coffee House will serve its first breakfast on Thursday.

Spitalfields Market, London’s fruit and vegetable hub, moved out to the suburbs in 1991 leaving behind a vast, empty covered space temptingly close to the finance-rich Square Mile, a patch of waste ground where tramps used to keep a constant fire burning with pallet wood, and a cluster of disused fruit warehouses. There was no fixed plan for the redevelopment of the market and the early Nineties’ slump meant that there was little appetite for buying property in the area.

But the Sindens were made of sterner stuff. Peter Sinden, originally from Australia, was a builder and his wife, Kay, an economist. “We bought a derelict commercial building at a time when no one else wanted it,” Peter says. Perched on a corner site, it had originally been a 17th-century house. It was extended in the 18th century, had its back garden covered over to create factory space in the late 19th century and for most of the 20th century was used by a vegetable wholesaler. A sign on the building still reads: “Percy Dalton — Nut Importer and Roaster”. Another sign above the shopfront reads: “Marsh mushrooms and salads”. The couple paid £165,000 for the unmortgageable building and set about restoring it. “There was nothing domestic about it, apart from a just-about usable toilet and a sink with a large hole in it,” says Kay, who also had to consider how to live there with the couple’s first child, who was only a year old at the time.

“I was looking for a project and Kay had always wanted a restaurant,” Peter says. “The building was solid enough but was in pretty poor repair. The roof needed redoing, the brickwork on the parapet was rebuilt and . . .” He pauses while he casts his mind back: “Oh, crikey! . . . Timbers. Lots of rotten beams that needed redoing.”

More than 15 years later, the project is nearing completion. The couple are living in a comfortable four-bedroom apartment on the top floor with their three children, a dog and three cats. They work in the elegant, panelled interior of their business, the Market Coffee House, and this week they welcome Paul Ribbands, formerly head chef at the Lanesborough Hotel and executive chef at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, who will work in the new, freshly dug-out basement kitchen. The restaurant will serve classic English and French cuisine. From Thursday Paul will be offering breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea menus, and evening meals are expected to start in a couple of months. By then it should be fully licensed, too.

It’s been a long process. While Peter has been working with a succession of joiners to handcraft the interiors, 21st-century glass-and-steel office blocks have sprouted around them; whole banking empires have gone from boom to bust; the market buildings have been transformed into swanky shops and restaurants; and the area has become one of the hottest property spots in the East End.

“The area has changed beyond recognition,” says Peter, who can’t help regretting the replacement of some of its bohemian character with modern corporatism. However, nothing has swayed him from working on the building at his own pace and funding it all without borrowing from the bank. “When work goes fast it gets compromised,” he adds. “When it’s all done on site by hand you get a different outcome.” This shows in the building’s detailing — in the panelled drawing room of the apartment; in the grander, first-floor drawing room painted with linseed oil paint, and believed to be the oldest room in Spitalfields, dating from 1670; and in the Market Coffee House itself, with its elliptical arch and hand-carved newel posts on the stairs.

“It’s mostly made from rubbish that people have thrown out,” Peter says, pointing to various parts of the ground floor to tell you where his salvage finds originate. The glazed office cubicle was created from windows pulled out of a Brick Lane skip and glass panes were saved from a school in France. The serving bar was rescued from a pub near St Paul’s Cathedral and the walls are adorned with 1720s oak panelling from Hawksmoor’s Christ Church near by, which the Sindens bought as a job lot when the restorers of the church decided that it was too far gone.

Has it been worth it? They nod. “It’s been a lot of fun and we’ve learnt a lot.” They do admit though that the constant building work takes its toll and that bringing up three children in the apartment has been constraining. “Oh, we’d love to live in a normal house with a garden like other people do,” Peter adds, but somehow I don’t believe him.

As the workload of running the business passes to a general manager who is arriving soon, they are looking forward to a more expansive life as restaurant owners. But as they travel about, they might just stumble across one of the many buildings out there that are crying out for this sort of TLC.


www.marketcoffeehouse.com


www.theenglishrestaurant.com

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