“I was here selling fish when a naked man walked past,” says Carol Wallace, without batting an eyelid. “He just wandered up the street. People didn’t notice until they passed him, and then you could see them turn around, and do a double-take.” She breaks into a grin. “We told the police what was going on, and they just said, ‘well, it’s a hot day…’”
The owner of fishmonger Wally Herbert’s, Carol has been trading on the street corner outside Hackney Central Station for 22 years: nothing shocks her anymore. In many ways, hers is a traditional fishmonger: it has fresh cod, skate, salmon and mullet, bought from Billingsgate Market every morning, and its central Hackney location is reflected in the tubs of jellied eels sitting alongside trays of rollmops and crab meat.
What makes Wally Herbert’s unique is that the “shop” is an open-sided, concrete edifice built on to the pavement. “You see that line?” Sally asks, pointing to a stripe of darker-coloured bricks in the street. “Well, that side is council-owned pavement, and this side is owned by the railway,” she says, flicking her head backwards in the direction of the station, which is just behind us.
When Sally’s grandfather, the original Wally Herbert, founded the business in 1940, he ran it from a traditional East End barrow: a wooden cart on wheels. By 1975, Sally’s father had taken over, and times had changed: barrows were out of favour, and British Rail didn’t want the fish stand there anymore.
“Dad got solicitors involved,” say Sally. “They noticed the grooves in the pavement which our cart had made because it had been there for so long – and they claimed ‘squatters rights’. As soon as they said that, British Rail relented.”
And so, almost 40 years ago now, the barrow morphed into a crescent-shaped, brick counter, from which Sally still runs the business with her husband Martyn.
Will her children maintain the tradition and take on the family business? “It’s a bit hard now,” she says. “It’s not an easy life, you know. I’m at Billingsgate by 4:45 most mornings, which messes up your social life. The margins are getting smaller and smaller, and when it’s cold here, it’s freezing.” But today, thankfully, it’s sunny and warm.
Does she have lots of regulars? “Oh yes, lots of locals,” she says. “After 22 years, you get to know a lot of names. People stop and chat: you hear all the gossip.” And almost on cue, a woman, leaning heavily on a trolley bag, comes along and picks up a tub of jellied eels from the dwindling stocks. “I’d better serve this customer,” she says, turning round and putting the pot in a plastic bag. A train rattles overhead, and a man walks past, spilling beer from an upside-down can. And colourful, changeable, unpredictable Hackney life continues to unfold around the constant that is Wally Herbert’s.
Near Hackney Central Railway Station,
Amhurst Rd, London E8 1LL
Open: Wednesday to Saturday (9am-3:30pm)
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