Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Accidental Visits: The New Covent Garden Flower Market, Nine Elms

I was out of town last Sunday. But a quick glance at Instagram suggested that many of my fellow Londoners were all in one place on Sunday morning: Columbia Road Flower Market.  My but there were a lot of photos of metal trolleys groaning with orchids, and pots of pansies, and armfuls of lilies.  Columbia Road - if you live anywhere vaguely north or east in London - is just one of those places you visit from time to time. You take visitors and out-of-towners to peruse the tiny street lined with flower-sellers; you meet friends there for a coffee, a bacon roll, and a lavender plant in a pot; you elbow your way through the throng of others to snap 100 floral photos and Instagram the hell out of them. It's sort of an East London Sunday morning institution.   

But at a dinner party last month I met a florist. And when someone mentioned Columbia Road, and asked if she bought her supplies there, she politely pointed out that real florists visit a proper, daily tourist-free market for their blooms - the New Covent Garden Flower Market. Not that the market - despite its name - is actually in Covent Garden. The New Covent Garden Flower Market replaced the actual Covent Garden Market, of My Fair Lady fame, over 40 years ago; shifting the city's flower trading hub across the river onto the South Bank. No wonder the rest of us at the dinner party had never stumbled across it.
I was intrigued though. I love a good market. Sorry, I love a good traders' market. I am less fond of those markets full of artisan coffee vendors and sausage purveyors who will sell you a gourmet bacon sarnie for an eye-watering amount, while people wheel buggies over your toes and fight over the sample trays.  (Ahem *Parliament Hill Farmers Market*) I love the bustle of crowds of people with a purpose, the speed of transactions, the size of purchases, and the almost secret language in which bargains are haggled. So when, along with several other bloggers, I was offered a tour of the New Covent Garden Flower Market a couple of weeks ago, I was very keen to take a peek.
Our instructions were to meet at half past eight in the morning, beneath the large clock in the centre of the market. But first we had to find it. The market itself sits slightly back from the Thames, in an area I have only recently discovered is called 'Nine Elms'. Although many of us would more likely recognise it as 'that area around the hideous Vauxhall station roundabout'. Cursing another street I had to cross then re-cross, I was pleased I'd set out early for our rendezvous. And even more pleased when I finally saw a sign to the market's pedestrian entrance.
Approaching the market through carpark (or more appropriately, lorrypark) the huge metal canopied building looked somewhat tired. The spaces where huge refrigerated container lorries loaded and unloaded were mostly empty. A few abandoned metal trollies stood sadly on a raised concrete deck, and I spotted an industrial wheelie bin piled high with discarded flowers. The market building itself is a tall structure, all metal beams and grubby glass ceiling windows - with a whole level of empty space above the trading floor. (This odd emptiness I later learnt was a huge frustration for the market, as it represented a dead space in need of expensive air conditioning - the result of using a building designed for another purpose for a flower market.)

Eight-thirty feels like a somewhat early appointment to a blogger with a 9 to 5 desk job, but by the time we all amassed, in a corner of the market caff, the day was almost over for London's flower traders. Leading us round the Market, Helen Evans the Market's Director of Business Development and Support, explained that the majority of trading was conducted in the hours of darkness. Busyness peaks at the Market between 2am and 5am, and by 7am - while many Londoners are contemplating dragging themselves from beneath their duvets - the day's work is practically done for the Market's traders. Those who were still hard at work when we trailed round and asked them questions about where their flowers had come from were immensely patient, despite having already had a long 'day' on their feet. 
So, here's something interesting. For many years the British were not known as great flower-buyers, particularly not of flowers for the home.  But then supermarkets began to stock cut flowers, and the Brits - too lazy to go to a florist, but happy enough to buy a couple of bunches of daffs with their weekly food shop - started buying. Sadly, this damaged business for the high street florists, as their customers deserted them for the sake of convenience. And so now, many florists find the majority of their business in events or filling the many-roomed homes of celebrities. Of course, they also sell to the general public, but they report an increased importance of special occasion reflected in their sales patterns.  I visited the market shortly after Valentine's Day, which is clearly a significant day in the life of a florist or flower trader. Other days which also see a spike in sales include International Women's Day apparently (which is today FYI!), which would never even have crossed my mind as a prompt to head out and buy a bouquet or two.

Many of the flowers sold in the New Covent Garden Market come through the Dutch flower auctions; these auctions are the European clearing hub for the global flower trade. Historically, these auctions were also the centre of the global trade. But now European traders are being challenged by new growers in Latin America, with altitude and low labour costs on their side. Ecuador has appeared as a new player in the global rose trade in recent years, farming its flowers at high altitudes where the conditions are perfect for cultivating enormous, blowsy blooms. Colombia has a better established foothold in the global marketplace, and is now the second largest flower exporter in the world.
Clearly, cost of production is everything in this industry. Bearing in mind this is an industry with expensive overheads - energy for temperature-control, huge volumes of water, costly transportation of fragile goods - it is no wonder that the flower trade appears to be such a tough business in which to work.  Yet the banter between traders at the New Covent Garden Flower Market gave the impression of a jolly family atmosphere within the market. Indeed, many of the traders represent a third, fourth or even fifth generation of the same flower trading family. One trader wryly admitted his son had followed him into the flower business, but he wished that he'd listened to his encouragement to go into fruit and vegetables instead. Even at the end of trading, the traders energetically joked and teased one another. Everyone appeared to know everyone else. And some individuals were known more intimately than others, thanks to a recent naked calendar that had been shot to raise funds for charity. "Look, there's Mr February!" pointed Helen across the cafe, as we began our tour.

The main trading floor of the market houses over thirty different wholesale businesses. There were banks of tulips in every imaginable shade. Roses in ever style and size. I learnt from one trader that the perfect rose is not judged on appearance alone, but also on its longevity and smell; many commercially 'perfect' roses have no smell, as whilst they're growing all their energy is forced into becoming as big as possible. I spotted some of my favourite flowers too - ranunculus, anemones and peonies - waiting patiently in the beige plastic bins that tell you they've come all the way to London via auctions in the Netherlands. Alongside the cut flowers in plastic wraps are potted primroses and pansies, small trees and shrubs.
There are specialist merchants here who trade in greenery alone - supplying the foliage to act as the backdrop to the riotous flowers which take centre stage in any arrangement. One foliage merchant - situated behind sliding doors, in a carefully controlled microclimate all of its own - was pointed out to us as a fifth generation trader, whose family business had started out in Dutch feather trading. Now they stock fans of tropical leaves, and spray-painted fir cones, and tall stems of pussy-willow and yards of trailing ivy.

Yet it's not just organic materials that are for sale here in the market. You can also buy (in vast trade-sized amounts, of course) just about everything else a flower-arranger or purveyor might need. From enormous pseudo-ceramic pots to bags of decorative pebbles and shells, and from light-up water features, to yards of multi-coloured ribbon and raffia. 
The New Covent Garden Flower Market is a garden centre on speed. It is a Royal Park with a host of exotic hothouses in comparison to Columbia Road's neat little window box of a market. It is, as someone at the market the other day said, "a whole little ecosystem". And it is there every day, tucked away below the Thames, whirling away while most of London sleeps.

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  1. I can only imagine what a wonderful smell there must be inside it, too. What a fantastic opportunity - I'd love to go there.

    1. Oddly there's less of a smell than you'd imagine, Jenny. Maybe it's all the plastic wrapping? And the fact that many cut flowers are grown to look pretty rather than to smell nice, as I learnt on my visit. Weird, eh?

  2. Great description.

    Nine Elms is also the place where the new American Embassy is being built. You probably spotted the new high-rises being built all around as the stretch from Vauxhall to Battersea is getting a makeover.

    1. Thanks, Rashbre. It is indeed the site of the new American Embassy. And all kinds of other places including a new Damien Hirst gallery would you believe?

  3. It is the second time I have heard about the new Covent Garden flower market. I will have to check it out...8.30 seems a bit early though...It will be difficult for me to wake up on time!

    1. Definitely worth a visit, Muriel. Although if you want to catch the market in full swing you will have to head down around 4am - might be a bit early for you!

    2. 4 am? No way ! I don't know if you are like me, but at 4am, I don't like anyone, I just sleep...

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