It’s early on a chilly morning, mid-February. Delicate pink magnolia blossoms already frame the Underground sign outside of Parsons Green station. The platform is empty. I’m heading east to the most colourful place in London on a Sunday: Columbia Road Flower Market.
I walk a ways at the other end, through the streets of the City, a ghost town on a weekend, the Gherkin poking its nose up in the distance, shops closed, few passersby with their heads down against the wind. I head up through Shoreditch where the sign at the top of The Tea Building – a creative working space once a bacon factory – reminds me I haven’t yet had my caffeine fix. The streets turn grubbier but much more interesting at this point, street art-covered walls almost more common now than those that aren’t. A thought goes through my head that I should start photographing the empty walls of Shoreditch as a new project. They may soon be a rarity.
Cutting up through the back streets, the sight of a girl carrying a brown paper cone full of lavender stems and dusty blue eucalyptus tells me I’m close. And soon enough, everyone I pass is armed with flowers. It’s been a while since my last visit, but the same homeless man in the same sleeping bag is still in the same spot at the beginning of Columbia Road, still smoking a cigarette, still asking if anyone who passes can spare a cigarette.
The street was once upon a time a simple pathway toward the slaughterhouses at Smithfield for some unsuspecting sheep. Fast forward through history and it’s been transformed into a botanical wonderland. Stalls have passed hands through generations, some that are still going having started as far back as the 1940s.
Week after week, even in winter, colour brightens up the grey skies with buckets of tulips on display, great piles of everlasting protea, green ivy leaves tumbling down from carts, hand-drawn signs announcing “Three bunches a fiver!” reiterated by the Cockney accents pitching their sales.
I walk past a vintage shop, a perfumery, a gallery. Outside of Nom, which sells mainly handcrafted home accessories, I pause to sift through their selection of coco wood utensils that always on display outside.
As I cross a small side street, I’m swept into the flow. A vendor says, “£1 a picture,” and then then winks at me and chuckles because just about everyone has a camera or a phone pointed at a lovely display. He’s selling full trays of pansies and old English primroses.
The street is already jam-packed and it’s still early. People are carrying small dogs, bundles of blooms, lemon trees, cameras and small children. They’re speaking Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian. It’s also one of the only places I don’t mind a crowd because it’s only a short stretch and there’s so many sounds and sights and smells to take in that you barely notice your lack of personal space.
As I pass a stand full of herbs, I catch a whiff of rosemary mingling with freshly roasted coffee from a nearby cafe. There are a few coffee points where you can just walk up to a window and come away with a cup instead of having to go inside and queue. You can also pop up to the bunting framed window of The Columbia Road Juice Company for a glass of freshly squeezed, a scoop of soup or a warming herbal tea.
The little independent shops lining the street are worth a visit just as much as the market itself. There’s the old-fashioned sweet shop Suck and Chew for a sherbet fountain sugar fix, Ryantown filled with artist Rob Ryan’s intricate cutout prints, a number of stores appropriately dedicated to pottery and other gardening necessities, Lee’s Seafoods which has been in business since World War II and Cafe Columbia which comes to life every Sunday selling delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels.
There’s Milagros which is full of skulls and Mexican folk art, Wawa showroom full of cool furniture, Stoned and Plastered which just has a fantastic name, Laxeiro, a family-run restaurant perfect for Spanish lunch, the quirky Jesse Chorley and Buddug with handmade necklaces and Marcos & Trump where you may occasionally see a sewing fox in the second floor window.
The buildings themselves are also interesting, many of them a nod to history or long lost stories of the street as it was transformed over time – 19th century shopfronts, grade II-listed terraced houses, fox knockers on brightly painted doors – vivid layers of it peeling off of some of them. I read that there used to be an Odeon cinema nearby where you could go to see a film for 6 pennies on a Saturday morning.
From there, it’s always a walk down to Brick Lane, via a loop through the street art-filled flea market that fills up Sclater Street on a weekend. I stopped for a salt beef bagel at the famous Beigel Bake after queuing for a while (but they’re always worth the wait).
And then I put my camera away and rummaged through market stalls, ate a giant double chocolate home made brownie, took a slow wander through the Sunday Upmarket and the Spitalfields markets.
It amazes me, always, how different one area of this city is to the next, how certain parts always seem to stay the same and others seem to be constantly undergoing some sort of transformation.
It’s funny that I feel more at home in the west and have lived in the west for the nine years I’ve been here, but Columbia Road and the surrounding area has always been, without doubt, one of my most favourite places in London.