Britain has survived its coldest March in fifty years. Brrrrr! We’ve been rugged up like it’s early January so now Londoners are embracing every hint of spring we can get. And the best spot in town to purchase a spot of spring colour and floral jolliness is Columbia Road Flower Market.
This colourful East End market takes place every Sunday from 8am until 3pm or so. From one of our London Perfect vacation rentals in West or Central London, it’s only a half-hour trip on the Victoria Line and then London Overground to Hoxton. You then simply follow the strains of accordions, double basses and Beatle Tribute bands (buskers a plenty give your flower-shopping an instant Hollywood soundtrack) and you’re there…
Modern Klezmer refers back to the East End’s Jewish past.
The Columbia Road market has its origins in the 19th century. This was a period of increasing urbanization in the areas around the City of London. The East End was filling up with rural youth, Irish and Jewish immigrants all looking for work. Poverty and slums were sadly the norm. Into the middle of this strode Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, society lady and philanthropist. She established the Columbia Market in 1869, a Neo-gothic confection that stood until the late 1950s.
The covered food market was intended to create jobs and thus provide a boost to the local economy. Oddly, considering the somewhat damp weather we do suffer from occasionally here in London, the costermongers preferred street trading. In addition the market couldn’t compete with the “Big Boys”, the established markets like Billingsgate, Smithfield, Spitalfields and Covent Garden.
By the way, when I say “established”, I mean actively trading since the Middle Ages. Columbia Road is a mere schoolboy in short trousers by comparison.
So, the covered market didn’t thrive although the street market pottered on. But the influx of Ashkenazim Jewish traders added an interesting element. As they couldn’t work on Saturday due to the Shabbat they petitioned Parliament for special dispensation to have Sunday trading at the market. And they got it. Much to their delight and that of the traders at the larger markets: on the Sunday they could flog the remains of their wares that weren’t sold on the Saturday.
The origins of Columbia Road’s floral success began in the late 1920s. Legislation for markets meant that traders couldn’t have as diverse a range of products on sale and so they began to specialize with flowers and plants leading the way. The Second World War was a rather grim time as agricultural efforts focused on food rather than flower production. Things vaguely picked up in the 1950s, but in the late 1960s yet more legislation (*yawn* … I know, I know this has been a rather dry history for such a glorious and colourful London landmark, but do bear with me) revitalized the market. For traders to keep their plots they had to regularly attend, thus ensuring a buzzy and vibrant market week in and week out.
And today Columbia Road is indeed BUZZING. Really, it’s great. If you want to meet some of the traders, of which a few have been there since the late 1940s, then have a look here for some charming interviews with them. Grab yourself bunches of flowers to add that personal touch to your London Perfect apartment and then continue to enjoy the fun. I’ve already mentioned the buskers but then there are the cafés, pubs, restaurants, bric-a-brac stalls, independent boutiques and the occasional Pearly King and Queen.
All in all, it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning in London!
Zoë F. Willis is a writer and enthusiastic London resident. You can read more about her adventures and creative exploits at Things Wot I Have Made.