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Typically Random London

Last updated on April 27, 2013

In a last-ditch attempt to give his mother-in-law, Ana, a taste of authentic London, Ben Holbrook heads to Columbia Road Flower Market, where the bellowing traders are large and in charge.

flower traders at columbia road flower market london

“Come on, ten for a fiver, you won’t get better that that!” roared a large bald man, “Treat your wife, or if you’re really looking for some fun, treat someone else’s wife!” It felt more like a comedy show than a street market, but as we scuffled slowly through the bustling colourful stalls it was clear that this was very much the real deal. Most of the traders have been running their pitches here every Sunday for generations. Old-timer George started selling his seasonal stock on the street way back in 1949, selling bedding plants from March to July and colourful pot plants, like felicia and scaviola, from July to August. Then you have Mr and Mrs Grover who have been trading their huge selection of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, basil, dill and coriander since 1973. Their son, Carl Grover, can also be found close by selling what he proclaims to be “The best flowers in the market” – with his impressive celebrity client roster to back him up, he’s hard to argue with.

I STRUGGLED against the endless stream of punters, tourists and delivery boys and slipped out onto the worn-out pavement behind the stalls. Standing next to one particular trader, I watched as she sold handfuls of bulbs and seeds, explaining to her customers exactly how to get the best out of her produce. For a moment, I imagined how similar this scene would have been back in the old days, as London slowly became one of the greatest cities on earth. Passionate people coming to show off the fruits of their labour, and to trade with other expert producers. But before I had a chance to drift off entirely to ancient England, I was summoned by my girlfriend, Sylvie. She’d found what I can only describe as someone’s hallway, which had been transformed into the most basic of coffee shops. A wooden plank where the door should have been acted as a shelf and counter. All coffees were £1.50 and they had “real hot-chocolate!” for £2. Looking back into the bare-brick corridor, we could see a young man sitting on the stairs, next to a commercial espresso machine that took up the majority of space. It was just enough for him to whip us up a couple of tasty drinks. London hipsters’ favourite coffee (Monmouth Coffee) was displayed on every available surface and it was an instant reminder that we were, in fact, less than a mile away from the likes of Brick Lane and other über-cool hangouts.

busker playing guitar at columbia road flower market london

AS WE sipped on our hot, sweet coffees a side street grabbed our attention and pulled us away from the cheery banter and truckloads of organic stock. It was a bumpy old street, the kind that requires your full attention so as not to stumble and fall. It was surrounded by un-loved old storage sheds and suppliers of various random gardening products. There was also a traditional bakery with old-fashioned typography in the window and a vintage “We’re Open!” sign hanging in the doorway. Whether it was a brand new place, piggybacking off the latest vintage trend, or a genuinely old premises, I couldn’t tell you. The whole area seemed to be in a time warp, stuck elegantly back in the 1950s. Hipsters walked around aimlessly, boasting their latest charity shop finds and impressive facial hair. A guy wearing an ancient pair of worn-out leather boots sat playing classical Spanish guitar next to a pile of flower-stall-waste and empty beer cans, people sat around chomping on pasties and other types of street food that they’d picked up in the little places hidden behind the flower stalls. It was here that I turned to Ana, she was in deep conversation with an Irish women who was selling a load of tat from a bright red suitcase. After purchasing a cafetière for £2, the Irish women told us that we were her first customers of the day – I wasn’t at all surprised. Before we left her to drum up more customers, we had one last question – “Can this be used for loose tea leaves as well as coffee?”, “Yes, of course” she replied, “It’s a cafeteria. You can put whatever you want in it.” Of course! How could we have been so stupid!

WE CONTINUED walking, smiling and laughing and stopped only to take photos outside of a row of terrace houses. They were, after all, “typical little English houses” as Ana noted. I stepped back and wondered if I’d succeeded in my quest. I didn’t know if it had been a “real taste of London” or not. We’d enjoyed the bellowing banter of the traders, the Italian style coffees and hot-chocolates, we’d nibbled on some of the best tapas I’ve had this side of Iberia and haggled with an Irish women in the street, whilst listening to Spanish classical guitar. One thing I was sure of – as random as it had been, it was pretty typical for a day out in London town.

1923 truman hanbury buxton the royal oak columbia road flower market

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  1. Simon F Simon F

    Excellent piece: a favourite walk of mine, from Hackney – Broadway – Columbia Road – Brick Lane!… you captured the atmosphere well!

    • Thanks for your comment, Simon. Yes, it’s a very interesting part of the city – glad to have done it justice. Looking forward to returning there this spring/summer!

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