Spring has well and truly arrived in the UK, with gorgeous blossom trees and cheerful daffodils coming into bloom across the country. During a trip to London, you’ll be able to see the first of the season’s flowers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew or at Kensington Gardens, while the date of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May is firmly pencilled in the diaries of many.
Taking a turn around these glorious gardens is sure to provide you with some inspiration for your own garden back home, and there’s nowhere better to shop for interesting plants and trees in London than at the Columbia Road Flower Market.
The history of Columbia Road Flower Market
Once upon a time, Columbia Road was used for herding sheep from land on the outskirts of London to the slaughterhouses at Smithfield. As the industrial revolution of the 19th century took hold, however, the city’s population grew dramatically and in the 1860s Columbia Road found itself home to a row of smart Victorian shops.
There was a thriving wood and milling trade in the local vicinity, so many of these shops started off selling wares made from these materials. On Saturday, this wood was taken back to its roots, with flowers, plants and trees placed on sale at what became a large outdoor market, which went from strength to strength and eventually moved to Sundays thanks to the growing Jewish population in the area.
A typical image of the old market would be sellers turning up with a handcart filled with greenery collected from gardens at nearby Hackney and Islington, before blowing a whistle to claim their selling spot. The market would have been a noisy place full of hustle and bustle, but would have been significantly more pleasant than many in London thanks to it selling flowers rather than meat or stinking cheese and fish!
Columbia Road Flower Market remained a weekly staple in the UK capital for the next 100 years, but began to decline in the 1970s. However, by the following decade, community campaigners had won their battle to save the old Victorian shops from demolition and regeneration in the East End saw the market begin to thrive once more.
Columbia Road Flower Market today
Today, Columbia Road Flower Market is open to the public every Sunday, usually from mid-morning until around 4pm. Some of the market’s traders have had a pitch at the site for more than half a century and many have been there since its regeneration in the mid-1970s.
You can find everything from traditional English bedding plants to exotic banana trees at the market, as well as cut flowers that you can select to turn into a beautiful bouquet. Many of the traders have their own distinctive ‘pitch patter’ to attract customers to their stall, which will make you feel like you’ve stepped into an East End market day of an era long gone by.
Those old Victorian shops that still surround the market are open throughout the week, where you’ll find everything from art to handmade jewellery and from vintage clothing to food and drink on sale. Browse for street art-inspired prints to take home with you at Nelly Duff or shop for handmade, vintage and customised homeware and fashion at Beyond Fabrics.
For food, Treacle serves up some excellent examples of Great British baking, with its interior inspired by the Lyons teahouses of the early 20th century. Treacle’s scones, fairy cakes and classic Victoria sponge all come highly recommended – it’s hard to know which to go for first!
Cafe Columbia is another popular spot among tourists and locals alike, thanks to its famous bagels filled to bursting with delicious combinations, including smoked salmon and cream cheese or crayfish tails with cream cheese and rocket. These are particularly popular on Sundays when the flower market is up and running, so head there early to avoid disappointment.
Where to stay
If you want to visit Columbia Road Flower Market during a visit to London, make sure you’re going to be there on a Sunday and consider staying at the Montcalm at the Brewery London City, which is just a 20-minute bus ride from the market and offers unbeatable five-star luxury.
The Montcalm Royal London House hotel is also within easy reach of the historic flower market. It takes around 25 minutes to walk from the hotel to the market, or you can catch one of the iconic red London double decker buses, which will take you on the ten-minute journey from your accommodation to the vibrant, bustling market.