I’ve been buying flowers at Columbia Road in East London for fifteen years or so, and the pleasure I take in the flower market never fades. Even if I’m not looking for anything specific, it’s hugely enjoyable pottering about, buying posies and drinking good coffee. Although I’ve mentioned and photographed it quite a lot on here, I don’t think I’ve ever written about the actual experience before…
Last Sunday I drove over to pick up some plants for my window boxes, as all that was left from last year was some straggly Hidcote Lavender that had struggled through the winter. I had Lavender and white Geraniums on my list, and was also hoping for bushy Rosemary and maybe some mint. It can be a bit of a lottery, and sometimes the stallholders sell out, but I did get everything, plus some lovely healthy blush Antirrhinums (snapdragons) in pots, which you don’t see as frequently as the cut stems. I took my camera, and managed a few shots to show you what it is like, but it’s tricky shooting with a tray of geraniums balanced on one hand and a bag of orchids in the other with your camera. I think I need to go back for some more detail shots!
It takes me about twenty minutes to drive over from Camden, using my special honed Ninja back route. I’m usually with my sister, so she uses her Blue Badges, but you are probably better off cycling, public transport-ing, or walking if you can, as the traffic wardens are endemic and parking after about 10am is impossible.
Although the flower market section of the street is maybe a five minute walk, on Sundays it can take twenty minutes to battle your way down the middle from either end of the stalls. Inside tip: if you just need to get from one end to the other, walk down the sides on the pavement (sidewalk for my US readers, who understand pavement to be the road.).
Also: go before 1030 if you really want to buy flowers without being elbowed. Although in all the years that I have been going I have managed this once: In 1996 when I lived a few blocks away. The other good time to go is at 1400hrs when the market officially closes. The stallholders are desperate to offload everything and you can pick up some phenomenal bargains: my best ever was fifty huge pink roses for a tenner.
Although most of the lovely shops and boutiques around the market take cards, the stalls are cash culture, and I always seem to want to spend more than I bargained for but there are no bank cashpoints on Columbia Road itself. Fortunately the newsagents at either end of the market can help. The one furthest towards Bethnal Green will advance cash on a debit card for £1.50 (they also sell delicious hot vegetable samosas from a tiny window by the front door), and the one nearest Shoreditch has a pay cash machine inside.
It’s particularly good for bedding plants. Chelsea ones too, apparently!
On sunny days do not take your dog: you’ll have to carry it, as it will be trampled otherwise, and it really isn’t much fun for kids too unless you get there first thing. It’s literally can’t breathe busy by midday, and pushchairs on the main drag are universally loathed, as the only way to get through the crush is to barge them into people’s ankles.
Do take a sturdy shopping bag: I always see lots of those blue IKEA ones, which are ideal. The stallholders have flimsy carriers but they have a habit of breaking and scattering your floral booty to the four winds.
Although be prepared: I’ve had some dying plant disasters, and my mother once bought a car load of lavender all of which died within weeks. (There’s not a lot you can do to predict this unfortunately, bar remembering any bargain that seems to good to be true probably is.)
And last week I spotted pearly queens!
Do make sure you walk down the side streets too, as there are all sorts of shops, pop ups and coffee places to explore. Including Lily Vanilli, who makes excellent cakes. (She has a really good cookbook out too)
You can tell you are in East London by the fixies chained up everywhere. (For New York readers we are now in Williamsburg. Basically.)
This is what I got for fifty quid:
Three white Phalaenopsis orchids for £5 each – £15
(Although I was done because they were supposed to be double stemmed and I wasn’t paying attention)
Four bushy flowering French Lavender for a tenner
Two large Rosemary for a fiver
Five flowering Antirrhinums (Snapdragons) for a tenner
One three headed white Hydrangea for a fiver
Five flowering with lots of buds white Geraniums for a fiver
And this is what I got one day last summer with Clare for £25!