With a long stretch of weekends in London ahead of me, I am looking forward to returning to more of my favourite local places. One spot I am always drawn to and keep going back to is the Columbia Road Flower Markets.
They are only open every Sunday and have become a tourist attraction in their own right, so you must be prepared to do a little bit of elbowing and jostling to secure your blooms of choice, but the atmosphere, variety of plants and flowers and surrounding shops and restaurants will make it very much worth your while.
Columbia Road is smack bam in the middle of a few different tube stations and bus routes, so there are lots of potential ways to get there. You’ll know when you’re getting close because the number of people walking by carrying flowers significantly increases.
If you pay attention to what people are carrying, you’ll get glimpses of some of the flowers available in the market, and I think it’s a good opportunity to get inspired and ‘window shop’ before coming face-to-face with the throng of people.
Part of the attraction of the markets for me (aside from the fact that you get less ripped off there than you do in an average florist) is the charm of the vendors. At every stall there’s a cheeky chappy or chappette with a cockney accent and a wicked sense of humour. Generally though, they’re very friendly, and know their stuff if you want to ask them about which plants will be best for your particular garden (or window box/plant pot, as the case may be when you live in London).
Because there’s so much choice, it’s natural to impulse-buy the first decent-looking flowers you see. I remember that on my first visit to the markets, I panicked and bought a rather sad looking orchid. As I carried it through the market, one of the other vendors pointed at it, started laughing and told me to take it back to the stall because of how “pathetic” it was (I did get a refund, thankfully).
These days, I try to suss out the full offerings before making my selection. No matter how hard I try though, I nearly always get buyer’s remorse as soon as I leave and see someone carrying a different bunch home. There are just so many beautiful flowers on offer, and not enough space in my little flat!
At either end of the market, you’ll find most of the plants and succulents. Try and resist buying one of the mini cacti, I dare you! I am personally longing for the day that I can have my very own lemon tree in my garden.
A few stalls along is where you’ll start to find big bunches of various blooms. If you want the cheaper stuff (of the same quality), you have to keep pushing through to the centre of the stalls, where you tend to find the same flowers but usually for a few quid less.
If you go as the markets are closing, you’ll also get cheaper deals, as the vendors rush to get rid of their wares.
Another thing I love about the markets is their seasonal nature. Going in autumn, you’ll find stalls selling autumnal coloured leaves and flowers, and on my latest trip there were a few places displaying Halloween-appropriate mini squashes in various shapes and sizes. As you get closer to Christmas, the beautiful fruit wreaths come out (I highly recommend getting a couple of these), along with the festive berries and traditional Christmas flowers.
Once you’ve secured your bouquet, you can pop into one of the many cafes for brunch or take a seat in a pub for a well-earned drink. There’s a little cobbled street (accessible to pedestrians only on market days) with some lovely little shops for antique hunting, and you can pick up some fresh antipasti from the Borough Olives stall.
On this particular weekend, I went to get a bunch of flowers for my friend Cathy’s birthday, before going for brunch with her and a group of girls at Ottolenghi in Spitalfields. I decided to stick to a ‘shades of purple’ theme and went for three types of flowers, including the most fragrant bunch of lavender.
I think she liked them!