Every Sunday, on a cobblestone lane tucked away on Hackney Road opposite the ever-empty wholesale shops that sell tacky shoes and bags, a floral scent wafts into the area’s usual aromatic mix of car exhaust and coffee beans. Despite the touch of ice in the wind, Columbia Road is a melting pot of activity as the famed flower market is in full swing.
The flower market is one of only two in the whole of Europe (the other one is in Barcelona) and has been a weekly affair since the early 1900’s. It is as popular now as it’s ever been and it’s immediately obvious why; the market is a total feast for the senses, a half-mile road lined with hundreds of types of flowers, plants and trees which make a wonderfully delicate contrast to the burly-bloke sellers who bellow catchy one-liners like, “Whoever says size doesn’t matter is lying, get your big bouquets here! ” or “We won’t rip you off like the stall up the road!”. If the true spirit of the Eastend could ever been picked from the air put into a jar, here would be the source to do it.
In the actual market the crowds work their way in two neat anti-clockwise walking lanes, don’t expect to get anywhere fast between 10am-2pm, as the crowds are thick through the narrow road. The people who attend are almost as colourful as the flowers themselves, whether they are quirky, cool locals or savvy tourists and out-of-towners.
When the petal hunters have got their fill, there’s a bounty of unique boutiques to buy from and homely hunger heroes to fill bellies. Some of the best picks are indie homeware Ryantown, classic English pub The Marksmen, fine food restaurant Brawn or traditional fish and chips joint Lee’s seafood (expect long, but worthwhile, queues for this one).
Down to the adjacent Ezra Street, rustic acoustics fill the air as regular weekly buskers take their spot on the street corner and the crowds gather to listen and sometimes sing along. A regular act to look out for is local family affair Double Bass Dan who strums his big bass with his singing wife and 6 month old baby – who also adds to the mix from time to time shaking his little bells along with the rhythm. The couple inject their positive Sunday vibes as they sing about happiness, kindness and love and Dan might even do a spontaneous jig at the end of the act.
Those who love a good pose can end their afternoon by popping into celeb photographer Seamus Ryan’s studio at 7 Ezra Street for a free photoshoot as part of his ongoing Sunday Shoots project which aims at capturing the changing faces frequenting the flower market.
Columbia Road Flower Market really is more about the journey than the destination, for the rest of the week that bouquet resting on the mantelpiece will not look so much more beautiful only for their quality, but from the memories they carry of a very special Sunday spent in this absolute gem of a place.