Is there a better day than a Sunday?
No alarm clock, Sunday morning radio and the official day of brunch. It is also Columbia Road’s flower market day, Rejoice! Once the pathway for herding sheep towards the slaughterhouses at Smithfield, now the cobbled streets bloom once a week from the primary school down to the Royal Oak pub, with offerings changing along with the seasons. Come rain or shine, a Hackney ritual.
If you want to beat the crowds and have the first pick get up there early. The smell of freshly ground coffee mixed with the Saturday night tequila hangover from Shoreditch signifies you are getting closer. Grab a black coffee, latte, flat white or cappuccino (your choice) from the sash window hatch at Peponita and a smoked salmon bagel from the courtyard behind the pub before heading towards the Cockney calls.
The whole street is transformed from the grey tarmac and Victorian brick to rainbows under canopies. You can expect succulents, cacti and big leafy houseplants all year round. In the spring a sea of tulips, sunny daffodils and mop-headed hydrangeas. As the sun warms up the stalls are a wash of bright pink peonies ready to burst and lemon trees bearing plenty of fruit for gin and tonics. Tropical oranges and exotic blues of flowers we have never seen before. If you can find them the market is famous for mini pink pineapples on stalks, the perfect addition to your homemade bouquet and an Instagram favourite. Autumn brings with it not only cabbage flowers and cotton plants, but delicious hot chocolate and cinnamon stands. However, there is nothing more exciting than the run-up to Christmas, where pine trees are the star of the show. All standing up straight trying to get picked to be taken home, draped in baubles and topped with fairies. Pinecone wreaths, mistletoe and the strong scent of what can only be described as that cosy Christmassy aroma. Mulled wine and Christmas carols are obligatory. To warm up, pop into the Birdcage pub at one end of the street for a menu of East End pies and a well-deserved pint.
If you have an eye for a bargain, aim for after 3 pm. This is when the stall owners are starting to wind down for the day and are open to haggling, as certain buds won’t last until next Sunday. Feeling pretty pleased with yourself on the bus home with armfuls of blossoms for under a tenner.
The flowers aren’t the only reason to visit. It is a haven for foodies. Tucked away off the main street you can find Italian Campania with melt in the mouth ravioli and in the summer arguably the best Aperol Spritz in London. Crisp frying bacon and juicy sausage baps with as much brown sauce as you like. Deli stalls of olives, anchovies, roasted tomatoes and goat’s cheese stuffed peppers to take home for lunch. After something sweet? Lily Vanilli bakery selling beautifully crafted cakes topped with edible flowers are the way to go, the only difficulty is which to choose. The brownies come highly recommended.
Rummage through antique dens, and vintage wracks for that one of a kind find, shearling coats, porcelain painted vases and restored grandfather clocks. Browse the independent boutiques and expensive galleries for dreamy interior design ideas. All accompanied by live music from buskers singing along with guitars or dancing with accordions.
Without a doubt, part of the charm is the eclectic mix of people. If you ever needed proof of the diverse culture of London, the flower market is a Polaroid snapshot of assorted characters. You will spot all walks of life here. From famous British actresses and rock band frontmen to the common tortoiseshell framed hipsters and pink haired artists in floral dungarees. Then you have the old residents. The lifers as they refer to themselves, who have been there since the beginning and watched the market’s transformation. They have the matured banana trees in their front gardens to prove it. Not to mention the canines. Tall, spindly greyhounds and curious fluffy faces poking out from oversized handbags. Once, even a pet parrot carried on a shoulder like a modern day pirate, repeating all the cockney rhyming slang.
An East London safari there to explore every week.
Words by Sophie Hockridge