Learning London: Columbia Road Flower Market

The blooms.
I love anything from the 19th century. Who doesn’t, really? London suffers no lack of history, but World War II took its toll on the city. It’s not always easy to know when you’re revisiting history or something from the late 1970s. But I’m managing well, so far.

The Columbia Road Flower Market, I learned, is one such remnant from the 19th century. So naturally I fell in love. While clearly a draw for tourists, I have no problem visiting the weekly market, playing tourist myself. Imagine the scents of fresh flowers and black coffee mingling with the intoxicating smells of frying bacon – what could be a better Sunday morning experience?

The market dates back to the late 1860s when a wealthy baroness opened a covered market hall in the more or less degenerate area around Shoreditch. It was a popular place to buy all sorts of things – not just flowers. Through the 20th century, it was opened on Sundays, to accommodate a growing Jewish population, and fresh flowers eventually took over as the main product du jour.

The crowds.
Today, many of the 19th century structures, including the original hall, have been destroyed, effects of postwar rebuilding and whatnot, but the market remains. Lined with little Victorian shops selling everything from terracotta pots and artworks to pastries and kitchenware, the market’s main draw are the Sunday flower stalls in the street. People go crazy for them.

Sunflowers, hydrangeas, succulents – they sell it all. It’s not a huge market, but anyone from the casual gardener to an expert flower arranger will appreciate it. The sellers hawk their products with witty English comments and banter with clients. "Same shit as everyone else, just cheaper," one of the guys calls out across the crowd. We all laugh, enjoying the theatrics as much as the scenery. Far from missing my sad attempt at a Parisian garden, I’m delighted to be able to invest a few pounds each month in freshly cut flowers. 

Beyond the market, around Ezra Street, there are numerous other nooks selling antiques, decorative objects, and of course food. One courtyard, almost like a garage, had a grill set up with sausages and bacon for breakfast rolls while an adjacent espresso machine hissed. Naturally I went for a sausage and egg roll, topped with plenty of brown sauce. If you need to rest, there’s the little café Campania that sits gloriously in the sun. Each time I’ve gone, a top-notch busker was on hand.

The random objects that I absolutely need.

At the opposite end of the market, past The Royal Oak pub, there are more cute cafés with seats or coffee to-go. The English aren’t shy about consuming food, and I’m totally on board with it.

After walking through the market a bit, the crowds do begin to get to me. It’s not at all oppressive because most people are just there to look and take photos, so it’s all very civil. With a happy tummy and a bit of a caffeine buzz, it was time to go, until next week maybe, when I can maybe grab a bunch of those sunflowers for 5 pounds…