Top of my list of things to do on a Sunday morning in London has to be visit Columbia Road Flower Market. No matter how much partying I’ve been doing the night before (ha!!); if I’m in central London I’ll get up early to go, look at, photograph, and maybe buy, some of the amazing plants and flowers on offer.
This weekend we went down on Saturday to visit family, and unusually we were staying in a hotel in central London (since we have family dotted around the capital we usually stay with them). Not wanting to pay crazy hotel prices for breakfast, and having a few hours to spare before going to meet my little brother; we ventured out to find food and visit Columbia Road Flower Market.
Before I tell you about my visit I need to tell you about Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts – I think I might have a slight girl crush!
In 1837 Burdett-Coutts inherited £1.8 million (over £160 million in today’s money!), and became known as ‘the richest heiress in England’. But she didn’t sit about gossiping with friends and drinking tea……she got busy…
Along with her mate Charles Dickens she founded a home for young women who had ‘turned to a life of immorality’; she built schools, gave money to Irish farmers and fishermen, established a sewing school for women, co-founded the charity which would later become the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), and helped found both the Westminister Technical Institute and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
She even supported the work of Florence Nightingale; built social housing in the Highgate and Bethnal Green areas, was president of the British Beekeepers Society, AND the British Goat Society (or at least that’s what Wikipedia says!). At the age of 67 she married her 27 year old secretary – Go girl!!
By the time of her death in 1906, she’d given away over £3 million to good causes. The king described her as ‘after my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom’.
In his afterword to his novel ‘Dodger’ Terry Pratchett (yes, Terry Pratchett!) wrote that part of the reason for writing the book was to bring Burnett-Coutts to the attention of modern readers! (note to self: read Dodger).
But why have I wandered off on this tangent? Because she’s awesome – and because she was the founder of the Columbia Market in 1869.
A sleepy back street
Based in the Tower Hamlets area of north east London this market hides down an unassuming back street and is only open one day a week, for the other six days it is lined with cars and little goes on. But on a Sunday it’s a very different place.
Traders arrive from about 4am, and the market opens at 8am. My advice, especially if the weather is good, is to get there early – it gets VERY busy. Cafes and independent shops open their doors but are very much overshadowed by the impressive displays of cut flowers and houseplants on the stalls.
Family run stalls (some since the 1950s!) specialise in cut flowers from roses to sunflowers and hydrangeas; others have colourful bedding plants or trollies and trays loaded with cacti and succulents, whilst rows and rows of monstera, rubber plants, yuccas and palms line the sides of the street.
Similar to markets all over Britain, sellers shout their wares, and tourists come for the spectacle as well as to shop.
Prices are fantastic, 5 cut sunflowers for £5 (a present for my sister-in-law), 5 succulents for £10 or an abundant string of pearls for only £7. Most stalls take cards and cash, but I had to restrict myself as we were travelling home to Sheffield on the train – I had to be able to carry whatever I bought along with my suitcase!
As well as shouting out prices and descriptions of their plants, stall holders are willing to chat and give advice on care; the whole atmosphere is friendly and fun (the sun was shining so that helped).
Look first, then buy
The whole market is down a single street, so it’s easy to see everything. Many of the stalls sell similar plants, and most are similar prices but you can find a few differences and obviously if you’re looking for something in particular you might have to search a bit.
My advice is to do an initial walk and look at all the stalls, noting (if possible) any plants you’re particularly interested in. Then when you’ve got to the end of the street stop for a much earned cuppa or even breakfast in one of the ace little cafes….then start back up the street to purchase your new plant friends.
And I say ‘friends’ instead of ‘babies’, as with the exception of the tiny succulents, most of the plants for sale are well established and mature. This is why I love Columbia Flower Market so much – I’m buying plants I know are healthy and likely to continue thriving.
Don’t forget to also pop inside ‘In bloom’, which isn’t a stall but a fantastic little shop selling hundreds of different pots and containers for plants – I could seriously have bought loads of them.
If, like me, you don’t like plastic carrier bags be sure to take a selection shopping bags (look out for plantswap.uk bags coming soon!), and put your money in your pocket – in the crush of people you don’t want to be opening your handbag or wallet all the time.
Actually, a small word of warning; the market is also a magnet for pick pockets and thieves (probably hasn’t changed much since 1869 in that regard!) – so try not to take valuables, and if possible keep an eye on your belongings (I left my hubby in a local cafe with my bags!).
Set a budget
It’s easy to get carried away – how did I end up with two string of pearls!! If you’re on a budget it might be an idea to go with a shopping list, or set yourself a spending limit before you arrive!
One stall I could really have got carried away at was Paul’s – London House Plants, they had an amazing display with a wide selection of beautiful large houseplants – I wanted it all!! Look out for a video of Paul’s ‘pitch patter’ on the Sheffield PlantSwap Facebook page.
I kept to within my budget, coming away with two string of pearls and a gorgeous oxalis iron cross (only £5!), as well as the cheery bunch of sunflowers. I could have spent £100s, if I’d had a van to get them home…..maybe next time. Traveling by train actually saved me from myself!
How to visit Columbia Road Flower Market by public transport
Since it was a warm day we got the bus (I’m not a lover of the tube in hot weather). If you’re in central town the 55 bus from Oxford Circus to Queensbridge Road only takes about 40 minutes and is a lovely way to see some of London. The nearest tube stations are Bethnal Green and Hoxton – both fascinating areas worth an explore too. If you’re travelling from Sheffield it will be a combination of tube from St Pancras (or Kings Cross) to Old Street, and then either a walk or 55 bus.
Next time I’m going to try to spend a bit of time exploring the local area too, a visit to Columbia Road Street Market will probably take up the whole morning – then you’ve got time to find a nice cafe or pub for lunch – if you’re from Sheffield and into street art you might even find some recognisable artwork….
I’ll put a few more photos from my visit to Columbia Road Flower Market on our Instagram.
Have you been to visit Columbia Road Flower Market? What did you purchase? We’d love to hear about your trip too.