Sunday, 18 September 2011

"Everything a fiver": Flower shopping at Columbia Road Flower Market

Gardens are highly sought after in London. Many of us live in upper level flats, where the nearest green space is an inaccessible scrap of grass down below.  Whilst my little flat is not endowed with a garden, my kitchen windows have wonderfully roomy sills.  And this is where I've focussed all my horticultural energy.  A neat little row of terracotta pots now lives on my kitchen window-sills, and so far this summer they've even contributed to my food supply, with some tiny carrots and some less tiny, but reluctant-to-ripen, tomatoes.  But what my sills really need is some colour, particularly as winter feels not so far away.  Flowers were called for, and in London there's just one place to find them - the Columbia Road Flower Market in the East End.  

Running from 8am in the morning until around 3pm in the afternoons the market is a weekly affair, held on Sundays.  By the time the Accidental Ex-boyfriend and I visited, a while back, at 11am the road itself was heaving, and progress along the length of the market was slow.  But there was so much to see, one didn't mind only being able to shuffle slowly between the stalls.  On the approach to Columbia Road one could spot numerous, early-rising flower-shoppers, already heading home, with their arms full of brown paper-wrapped sunflowers and lillies. Shrubs and small trees were being stuffed into the boots of parked cars.  On turning into the road itself, we were met by the sight of a middle-aged man bashing merrily away on a piano on the pavement, his tea-cup resting on the top quivering with every crash on the keys.
Maybe 20 or so different stall-holders display their horticultural wares in the market, each trying to outsell the others.  Prices are almost identical between the sellers, and a popular cry of 'Everything a fiver!' echoes around the road.  There are bedding plants in trays, pots of aromatic lavender, tiny lemon trees, enormous orchids, bulbs, and huge bunches of cut flowers.  Some sellers stick to a particular type of plant - trailers and creepers, edible plants - whilst others seem to have a little of everything.  Some stock ceramic pots and planters, in which your new plants could be happily ensconced.  Next to the delicate flowers and pastel shades the flower-sellers themselves are a somewhat incongruous feature of the market.  Large, burly men, yelling their barrow-boy patter, are surprising experts on how to care for your geraniums and basil plants.  Resisting the urge to buy a pretty sizeable olive tree for a fiver (they weren't kidding when they said 'Everything'!), I scouted some cheery little cyclamen for my window-ledge for a couple of pounds each.

And then we explored a bit.  Tucked behind the market itself, hidden by leaves and stalks, is a picturesque row of shops, selling housewares, art, clothing and cake.  There is a serious lack of coffee venues however, and the one canny purveyor who had noticed this gap in the market had an endless queue out of their front door.  There's even a shop above which sits a real-live cross-stitching fox - look! 
We discovered an off-shoot market of vintage home-wares (from enamel jugs to ancient cake-stands), and a stall selling extremely popular bacon sandwiches, down a street on the corner of which a small swing band strummed and drummed.  We spent a very happy day pottering around the area - excellent coffee, tasty take-away lunch from the market at Brick Lane, window-shopping and market-browsing - with my new flowery purchases, before taking them back to their new window-ledge home.  And very jolly they look there too.  I just hope I manage to keep them alive...!


  1. Nice post on a day when everyone felt that winter was really coming - and not autumn!

  2. I wonder if the stall-holders will be changing their wares as we move towards winter to feature Christmas trees, londonerfromafar?


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