“Three fifty each or three for a tenner!!! Three fifty or three for ten!” the bombastic cockney accent of a Columbia Road flower market hawker cuts through a cacophony of chatter. “Cut stems, bunches for the holidays! THREE FOR A TENNER!!” He is a pot-bellied man, this hawker, with matted grey hair and ruddy cheeks singed pink as his peonies. Stood atop a plastic pedestal, ensconced in a forest of fragrance he plies colourful wares with a forceful friendliness to the barbarian hordes below.
The hawker’s flowery throne spans double the length of two meaty sweatshirt-cloaked wings and he reigns proudly amongst this metal slat kingdom of makeshift shelves and plastic picnic tables. There are a couple hundred plants at his disposal, but I don’t have time to count properly as my estimations are addled by too many ales in the haunts of Dalston the night before. What I do know however is that this man arrived at the crack of dawn and he has done so, in one form or another, every Sunday morning since the middle of the 19th century. There is plenty to see amongst the Sunday Columbia Road Flower Market maze. So I continue.
As I move amongst the sweater-clad crowd I realize that these flower hawkers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the stalls are family-run affairs while others are one-man operations. One of the female vendors stands amongst a collection of ferns and exotically named house plants. I ask her what time she arrived this morning. “Been up since 3 AM love. Down ‘ere every Sunday. Big crowds these days, big crowds. 2 PM we shut and then another couple hours to pack it up.”
Sweet smells are swirling in every direction on the bustling street. Tulips, carnations, fresh hyacinth, peonies, poppies and cacti galore. Successful market-goers grip their crinkly plastic bags, smiling proudly at a haul in hand. Others, like myself, are just here for a bit of atmosphere. There’s succulents, house plants, herbs and chilli peppers. Rows of pungent lavender waft through the brisk autumn morning. The bulk of the vibrance is green, but that only makes each shock of soft lilac and butterscotch yellow stand out all the more vividly.
From end to end the flower market is only about a quarter-mile in length and it’s a packed procession. I look for a release valve to catch my breath outside the narrow corridor. Sneaking through a gap between two vendors I am able to make way to the sidewalk along the storefronts. There is a mesmerizing mix of these shops. A gently curving wave of Dickensian brick with pastel entrances and pithy names stencilled emphatically on their respective banners. Columbia Road is a gentrified street, certainly, but one that retains an integral idiosyncratic tenor sorely lacking from nearby Shoreditch.
With the number of shoppers in play, you can see why many of these lovely little stores are shuttered during the week and only need to do business on some mix of weekend days. The shops run the gamut. Many of them offer gardening tools and plant accessories, obviously, but there are all sorts of unique spots to spend. Vintage Heaven is a light pink storefront stuffed to the brim with china plates and kitchen accessories. There’s even a pop-up coffee shop in the back of this store called Cakehole, one of the many stoppings off points to get a caffeine fix while browsing.
Contemporary art gallery Nelly Duff delights with cutting edge graphic arts and screen prints for sale. Further down the street, I stop off at A Portuguese Love Affair. Every shelf proudly displays carefully curated treasures from Portugal, the homeland of co-owners Olga and Dina. I’d been to there deli and cafe up the street on Hackney Road the day prior for an irresistible mid-day pastel de nata and the craft shop on Columbia Road is just as good as yesterday’s sugar high.
Artisans and Adventurers is my favourite stopping off point of the day. It’s a tightly packed houseware and interior design shop with beautifully bizarre items for sale. Ethically sourced artistry lines the walls with a decidedly global theme. Not half bad prices either, all things considered. I don’t have an extra 60 pounds on me, but if I did I would half think I’d be getting a deal for a paper maché tiger mask sourced from India. It is London after all.
About halfway down the market, there is an outlet down to the left-hand side opening up into a makeshift courtyard. With street performers entertaining the excess crowd flow. Irish step dancers and musicians delight the masses with a festive performance more endearing than your ordinary London buskers.
In the corner of this makeshift square, there is a fantastic Italian restaurant with a haphazard, rustic aesthetic and plenty of natural light. Campania is the name, and I almost miss it at first glance because “S. JONES” is written on large letters on the storefront. This is an ode to the properties prior to life as an old dairy, and the wonderfully mismatched interior belies that fascinating heritage. Most importantly Campania has absolutely delicious food. It’s an atmospheric restaurant with washed-out wooden tables and terrific Italian fare. One would do well to come back later in the day to try some of their scintillating pasta recipes from the south of the boot.
My final stop of the day is for a pint of ale at The Royal Oak. This timeless pub has been the heart of Columbia Road for a century and maintains an old school vibe despite a healthy dose of improvements over the past decade and a half of new ownership It’s one of the rare East London pubs that walks the modernization tightrope well. I sit amongst the golden light spilling in sipping on a pint of Doom Bar from Cornwall and watch the parade of people and flowers continue outside glazed windows.
The Columbia Road Flower market is no hidden gem, but it is a gem nonetheless. Sure a plant may be a difficult souvenir to leave London with, but the best thing on offer at Columbia Road is authenticity and inspiration. You can’t put a price on that in this day in age. It’s just one of those rare streets that you’ll tell other people you’ve been down and how lucky are you for that.
Once you’re done strolling the flora and fauna filled Columbia Road Flower Market, be sure to check out some of the awesome street art in Brick Lane. Or if you fancy staying outdoors, check out the wonderful Spitalfields City Farm nearby. Oh and don’t forget to download the Like Locals app to find more fantastic spots nearby. Available to download on both iOS and Android devices.
This author of this article was our local insider, Willie Gevertz. If you’re a storyteller with a passion for travel, we’d love to hear from you.
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