“It’s a very London thing to do,” my friend assured me. “If you tell a Londoner that you’re going to Columbia Road on a Sunday morning, they’ll know what you mean.”
One of the things about being in Europe versus being in the United States is that the road name is a legitimate point of reference. Unlike at home, in Europe – and this includes the UK – streets are either very short or they change their name every three or four blocks. Thus, part of the difficulty Americans have in navigating organic cities which haven’t been planned within an inch of their lives. But I digress.
It was the one day of summer that London will see this year, and the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was over sixty degrees. It was the perfect Sunday morning for a walk. So, I was rather pleased at the prospect of wandering about a flower market.
The neighborhood we walked through to get to Columbia Road was quite nice. It had the feel of a small town, with parks and coffee shops and boutiques all around. But once we hit Columbia Road, an organized chaos reigned supreme. The cute little neighborhood had been invaded by a bunch of cockney-speaking men with their flower trucks and hordes of people come to see what they were peddling this week.
The tricky part about the flower market on Columbia Road was that it’s really just a street – and it’s just as narrow as any other street in that neighborhood. With the flower stalls lining either curb and flower spilling out every which way, there was about five feet of space for pedestrians to mill about in. But it was worth it, if only to look at the flowers.
There was everything from peonies to lemon trees on sale that particular Sunday, with a wide variety of plants that I’d never heard of thrown in for good measure. You usually think of London as being gray and rainy, but on Columbia Road, it’s a veritable color wheel. White peonies, yellow roses, green bushes, orange trees, and hot pink flowers (I never did get the name, and I’m a sorry excuse of botanist – you’ll have to settle for my less than precise terms) were on display, ready to be bought and sold. It was also one of the noisiest flower markets I’ve ever been to. Every single peddler shouts his offers out (usually with a broad cockney accent, I noticed), even if he’s got a customer standing right in front of him. The street was teeming with people, color, and shouts of “Roses! Five for a tenner!”
There has been a market on Columbia Road since the 19th century, when a generous benefactress, urged on by a certain Charles Dickens, built up the area to support the nearby hospital. The market itself started as a Saturday morning market, but as the Jewish population in the area grew, the market day was changed to Sunday, to avoid conflicts with the sabbath. Even as the demographics of the area have changed, the market remained on a Sunday, and grew to the point of international renown.
As for why they sell flowers and not other things associated with markets, the answer is simple: British people love flowers. If you travel around Britain at all, you’ll notice that the people have gardens that are just bursting with color and plants of different types. In the cities, this is because very few people have yards, as elbowroom is a luxury known only to those who live in the countryside, due to the fact that real estate in cities – especially London – is absurdly expensive. Therefore, when they do have a garden, most British people will pack as much color and plant life into it as possible. They’re quite the urban horticulturists.
So, the flower market on Columbia Road has survived through the years, retaining much of its old-world market charm as it goes. If you’re ever in London on a Sunday morning, take a stroll out that way. Maybe you’ll find a new succulent to beautify your countertop.
For more information about the Columbia Road flower market, check out their website.
Getting there: We took the tube to the closest station and then walked, but the area has quite a few buses as well as an overground stop. The closest stops are: Bethnal Green (Central Line), Old Street (Northern Line), and Cambridge Heath (overground).