Columbia Road

Posted on June 12, 2017 by Andrew Kershman

Columbia Road east of Ravenscroft Street to Barnet Grove
Shops and a courtyard on Ezra Street E2 7RG
Tube: Old Street, Bethnal Green (then bus)
Open: Sunday 8am-2pm

This flower market is easy to find from which ever direction you approach it – just walk in the opposite direction of to those weighed down with bedding plants, cut flowers and large potted plants.  On a busy Sunday morning the streets around the market can often resemble a scene from Day of the Triffids, with punters making slow progress as they shamble along, obscured by the massive array of flora they are trying to get home.

Columbia Road Flower Market is a real Sunday institution and has appeal that extends well beyond the green fingered listeners of Gardeners' Question Time,  with great gift shops, cafés and eateries along the route and the added appeal of two courtyards on Ezra Street offering among other things food and bric-a-brac.  Even on the wettest of days there are always a good few hardy buskers providing a musical accompaniment to the whole experience.

The stalls selling cheap cut flowers at the junction with Ravenscroft Street mark the start of the market and always have an enticing selection of flowers at well below the prices at your local florist.  Here you can get a huge bouquet for around a tenner and there are plenty of other cut flower stalls along the route, so it's always a good idea to have a shop around before parting with your cash.  The cut flowers remain a constant, but the rest of the market varies its stock depending on the season.  In the spring it is awash with trays of bedding plants to brighten up a flower box for as little as £4 a tray and lots of larger plants that will give the urban gardener an instant splash of colour.  As summer turns to autumn, evergreens begin to dominate with healthy looking shrubs for as little as £4 and plenty of large mature plants such as organe trees (bearing small fruit) for around £20.  During the festive season Columbia Road is a great place to come for Christmas trees of all sizes as well as holly, ivy and other festive greenery.  The market shops also open on selective evenings in the run up to Christmas for gift shopping, mulled wine and carols.

The central avenue of the market is always a scrum with hundreds of people pushing their way along, often carrying armfuls of plants.  If you get tired of the crush, try weaving between the stalls onto the pavement and taking a look at some of the shops that now line the street.  There are lots of good gift, furniture, toy and hat shops to check out and in the middle of the market is the excellent Lee’s Sea Food for a fishy treat.  Towards the eastern end of the market are some of the best stalls for herbs with healthy looking pots of thyme, rosemary and sage all for around £1.50 a plant.  

Columbia Road Market is not restricted to Columbia Road, but extends onto Ezra Street and the courtyards connected to it.  The main courtyard is just off the junction and has several smart shops including Milagros selling a great selection of Mexican glassware, tiles and gifts. Further along to the left of the main junction is a courtyard dedicated to second-hand stalls with a good selection of books, clothing and bric-à-brac to sift through, as well as a stall dedicated to French cheese and cold meats and a great coffee stall with lots of accompanying treats.  One of the stalwarts of this part of the market is the burly and bearded Shaun, who has been selling a well chosen selection of clothing, pictures, jewellery and objet d'art from here for years.  He loves the market but is acutely aware of the changes to the area that have impacted the market:

'Many houses around this market are now selling for well over a million pounds.  The well-off arrivals to the area don't use the market in the same way and don't buy market bric-a-brac.  The young that live here are all struggling and don't have the means to set up home, but live in shared houses and they don't want to buy my stuff.  So it's a hard time for this kind of business.'

But despite the gloomy account of things, Shaun is always cheerful and enjoys talking with passing friends and customers.  His stall is one of the joys of Columbia Road and a place that has provided us with lots of treasures over the years.


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