COLUMBIA ROAD LONDON
The Columbia Road gallery is a riot of colour, chaos and contrasts. This great flower market may be honeysuckle for the soul, but it’s no place to seek tranquility. Londoners will know exactly what I mean. If you’ve never been there, I hope that the pictures will make you head straight there next Sunday. On any other day of the week, Columbia Road is just a curved long street with traditional London brick shop fronts and colourful shutters. Some shops are open Friday and Saturday, but the flower market is strictly a Sunday affair. The traders start arriving at 4 in the morning and the market lasts till about 3-4 in the afternoon, depending on the buzz and the weather.
I was a regular Sunday visitor for over 20 years; introduced to what was then a modest little flower market by my flatmate, just after moving into a shared house in Hoxton Street in 1992. I’ve seen it grow from a local market to an international attraction. The market can be entered from Hackney Road or if you’re coming from Bethnal Green, via Quilter Street. I started making a habit of going every Sunday morning, bringing friends, to show them this lively and colourful marvel of the East End.
Over the years the Flower Market has changed massively. On the road itself it’s still mainly plants and flowers, mostly for outdoor gardening, while there are shops with more domestic wares behind the stalls. I never minded the crowds. You can’t be in a hurry at Colombia Road, but you’ll always bump into friends and just hang out. When my arms were not full of plants I would bring my camera, and these are some shots captured over the last 10 years or so.
The market spills onto Ezra Street, especially the courtyard there, where there are stalls with vintage domestic objects and a cornucopia of ’stuff’. Not to mention the coffee stalls, and various breakfast offerings. Since about 2002 I’ve gone there with my Swedish friend and neighbour Lisa. We usually managed to turn up at the very busiest time, and the holy grail was always to get the best coffee and the tastiest almond croissants. Not to mention, the obligatory visit to Lee’s Seafood, for some shrimps and calamari.
On the small square outside Jones Dairy (now under new ownership) people enjoy street food and drinks, sitting on the curb and enjoying the buskers. The atmosphere is more relaxed once you get out of the crowd of the main street. People generally hang out, show off their outfits, their dogs, and eat & drink what’s on offer.
What fascinates me most is the faces and diversity. You see these happy faces, absolutely and naively in love with the sights and smells. Then you have the faces with a look of deep concentration – usually someone trying to figure out if they should buy that huge palm and take it home on the bus. Or the sceptical faces – you lookin’ at me? I love seeing the gay guys flirting with Home Counties housewives, people of every colour, age bracket, style and class are represented. In later years the hip crowd have taken to dressing up and coming there to show off their latest look. Celebrities get lost in the crowd. You may easily find yourself jostling for space in a queue and realising that the person next to you is Kiera Knightly. I once heard a typical Norwegian Oslo voice behind me, and turned around to see it was the future King of Norway. But no-one points at anyone. I guess that’s why it’s such a free-zone there.
The stallholders each have their own unique style. Some are witty criers, some are total flirts, some are so rude that they can make a whole street blush collectively. Some are great for sharing a cuppa and a bit of street philosophy, and from others you get the gossip. Over the years I got friendly with a few of them, and sometimes we spend a good while chatting.
Lisa and I were self-appointed gardeners in Mendip House in Bethnal Green, transforming the long garden from a rubbish tip full of bindweed to a colourful long oasis with the hugest Agave Americana I’ve ever seen in the UK. Every Sunday we bought more plants than we could carry, but somehow managed to drag them back home, sometimes with a stop in Jesus Green to just take stock of our plants. We went to the market whatever the weather, even in sleet, but remarkably, the Sunday weather seemed to behave itself more often than not. I have a clear memory of Lisa carrying that Agave home. It was already big, but maybe only a tenth of its current impressive size. I always smile when I see people struggling to get home with their big plants, on bicycles, open cars or by foot- or even on the bus. I love seeing people with an armful of Hydrangeas and a huge smile.
My particular favourites buskers were She’Koyokh, playing Balkans and klezmer music, which has gone on to become a real success on the World Music scene. Whether it’s the ban on busking or their success, they have now become a fond memory for the market-goers.
I couldn’t say if the future is bright for The Flower Market – whether it will drawn towards commercialisation or whether it will manage to hold on to its character and quirks. Banning busking is certainly not a good move. Clean it up too much and it will lose its charm. That’s why it’s so important to document it in pictures when it’s still going strong. I think I’ve captured a good era here, a small personal time capsule of my favourite part of the East End. Here in Cadiz spring is in the air, and I hear rumours of sap rising in London too. Miss you!