Practicality is not my middle name. I was named after two flowers – Rose Camelia, and I absolutely live up to my namesake. When I was a little girl my most treasured possession was The Garden Game, an English boardgame about flowers, composting, and plant harvesting. The Garden Game’s locust plagues, or other cruel Acts of God, were far more thrilling to me than building a hotel empire on Park Lane, or passing GO without collecting $200. I would sit for hours, enthralled as I meticulously ‘planted’ the ‘seed packets’ in neat little rows. The aim of the game was never my priority, in fact I barely knew the rules (or followed them). I was simply mesmerised by the vivid illustrations of the foxgloves, daffodils, and lilacs. Recently, when a new London friend regaled me with stories about her trips into central London to visit the renowned Columbia Road Flower Market I listened most attentively. My friend’s vibrant descriptions brought back a rush of botanical nostalgia and I could almost smell the intoxicating scent of jasmine rising from her words. ‘Wait until Spring’, she urged me, ‘the weather is perfect, and you’ll have your pick of flowers spilling from every stall’. I thanked her profusely for her most welcome recommendation, and promptly ignored her advice.
I may be a little impractical, but when it comes to the weather forecast I do not muck about. A big yellow cartoon sun with a threatening grey cloud lurking overhead gave me all the hope I needed to venture forth. Seventeen train stops later and a leisurely stroll through the hip eastside neighbourhood of Shoreditch, Dan and I found an inner-city paradise. To find the flower market, simply follow the stream of locals as they trickle outwards from the chaos protectively clutching their swaddled bouquets like newborn babies. Depending on the season, you’ll find clusters of jewel toned dahlias with their punchy bright faces, or delicate dried grasses dancing in the chilly winter breeze. There are oh-so-English roses in all their regal glory rubbing shoulders with the common daisy, those cheerful everyday blooms. Flowers may be the shining star of the market; however, you will also spy a multitude of potted greenery and trailing house plants slung from the arms of London’s youngest hipsters looking to deck out their newly rented digs in a swathe of foliage and palm fronds.
With my usual disregard for practicality, and with a dismissive wave of the hand towards Dan’s words of reason, I became a little overwhelmed by the first stall I saw. Billowing on all sides with frothy wild grasses and rustling dried flowers I was like a hungry kid in a cupcake shop – utterly overwhelmed by choice. My visually greedy eye darted off in the direction of a basket brimming with faded purple clusters of dried English lavender. I already had two bunches at home, but I could really do with another. I proudly presented my two new lavender bunches to the cashier, grinning from ear to ear like a fool as though I had never seen a sprig of lavender before. “Three for a twenty!” the cashier yelled out just as I’m turning to leave. Three for a twenty, oh well, back in I went, much to Dan’s dismay. As I continued my floral hunting, I enjoyed the image of a spruiking vendor, with his workwear ensemble in fifty shades of brown and matching flapped cap to cover his ears from the frosty winter mornings.
There is still so much to discover amongst the bustling chaos of Columbia Road, and I anticipate the best is yet to come. A handful of keen-eyed Londoners assured me that the little shopfronts here were very cute and well worth a visit – I found this to be a pleasantly surprising understatement. The street is flanked on either side by chocolate box terrace houses painted in a dizzying array of colours, each one lovelier than the last. However, in need of a little respite from the heaving crowds we headed off in the direction of the closest and cosiest pub. Nothing works up an appetite quite like buying six bunches of dried flowers and stopping here and there to pat an assortment of adorable pups. Presiding over the market is the much-loved local The Royal Oak with its time worn wooden floors a testament to the pub’s ongoing patronage since it first opened its doors in 1923. Once frequented by the lower working class eager for their hard-earned pint, it is now a fully fledged hang out for dapper locals and those who have made the trek into town for their generous Sunday roast. Locals we are not, but Dan and I have indulged in our fair share of pub roasts, and The Royal Oak roast did not disappoint. Atmosphere is aplenty as residents tuck into hearty plates of winter fare with their loyal furry companions curled up at their feet. This was the perfect spot for lunch while watching the market scene unfold through the frosty pane glass windows.
A little weighed down by flowers and roast beef, we shuffled onwards towards the shops. I was particularly keen to hunt down the treasure trove that is Mason & Painter. Over the last eight years owner Michelle has transformed her relatively small space along Columbia Road into a cornucopia brimming with antique furniture and bric a brac lovingly collected and curated by her well-honed creative eye. Mason & Painter’s carefully considered Instagram profile had prepared me for what I thought lay within the walls of the bricks and mortar store. I was wrong, it was even more heavenly than I could have imagined. A small, unassuming blue door leads you through Michelle’s shop and directly into a hidden alleyway dotted with market stalls selling winter wares and surrounded by enticing vintage shops and cafes. As an avid bakery fiend, I was particularly drawn to a delicious looking pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) from the highly acclaimed Lily Vanilli Bakery. Those tempting tarts with their perfectly flaky pastry and caramelised brown tops dusted with cinnamon are etched into my memory and will no doubt lure me back.
Like any great art gallery or world-renowned museum, Columbia Road Flower Market, and its equally alluring surrounds, can soon induce sensory fatigue. The diversity and utter abundance to be found here will undoubtedly overwhelm you in the most delightful way. This lively east London neighbourhood will unveil itself to you with each new visit – so slow down and simply let yourself be guided by your intuition – there is always next time. Whether you visit on a Sunday for the flower market or choose to meander aimlessly through the warren of alleyways on a quieter weekday, you will surely find a myriad of wonderful things to see and do. So, with my new flowers pressed close to my chest, we begin the journey home with an obligatory detour along the infamous Brick Lane with its vibrant street art and tempting food stalls. But that’s a jaunt for another day!
I hope you enjoyed exploring Columbia Road with The Sunday Londoner. Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
How to get there
We caught the tube to Bethnal Green station and walked about 20 minutes to the market. You can get to Columbia Road Flower Market by Bus, Train (overground) or Tube (underground). These are the lines and routes that have stops nearby -Bus: 26, 388, 55, 8Train: OVERGROUND, TFL RAIL Tube: CENTRAL, DISTRICT, NORTHERN
Lovely things around Columbia Road
Delicious things to eat
The Royal Oak Expect no-nonsense pub grub and an impressive selection on the beer front.
Thaispice London Bridging the gap from the streets of South East Asia to the Streets of London. Fresh, quality Thai food and well priced.
Hermanos Colombian Coffee Roasters is the story of two brothers, Victor and Santiago Gamboa, whose passion for specialty coffee and in-house roasting is second to none!
Funk East London’s very own Cheese Shop, specialising in British cheese, small producer & natural wine, craft beer and fine cider.
A Portuguese Love Affair Mouth-watering Portuguese inspired brunch menu, and their pastel de nata were voted the best in the UK. I’m obsessed with Portuguese custard tarts, and these are bloody delicious!
Oyster Boy shucking oysters around the corner from Columbia Road on the equally lovely Ezra Street every Sunday. Grab a bloody mary or a room temperature Guinness and pull up a stool.
Brawn A neighbourhood restaurant on Columbia Road serving exquisite European inspired dishes.
Story Deli Tasty organic, artisanal pizza with a hefty reputation for best pizza in London (some say the world – I’ll let the Neapolitans decide that one!).
Campania & Jones Campania focuses on the region; cooking traditional and modern dishes from southern Italy.
Lily Vanilli Bakery Tucked at the end of a cute little alleyway behind Mason & Painter and serving delicious baked goods. It’s definitely quality vs quantity here, so get in early before they sell out!
Atsuko’s Kitchen Atsuko has been sharing her knowledge and Japanese cooking skills with a series of classes, which introduces family favourites, alongside the art of sushi making.
Beautiful things to buy
Jessie Chorley The picture perfect shopfront and studio of artist Jessie Chorley is awash with hand made stationary and stitched keepsakes.
Mason & Painter Owner and buyer Michelle has filled her charming shop with an assortment of vintage wares and antique furniture sourced from France and the UK.
Colenimo Women’s clothing label by Japanese designer Aya Nakagawa using traditional fabrics in modern, classic designs and made in the UK. Beautiful timeless British pieces with a Japanese sensibility.
Nom Sustainably produced, hand made artisanal homewares, ceramics, wooden spoons, and baskets.
Vintage Heaven Charming little shop brimming with vintage bric a brac and a tiny cake and coffee shop in the back.
Angela Flanders Founded in 1985 the shop is now run by Angela’s daughter Kate. This unique perfumery has grown quietly over the years, becoming a destination for those in the know, who appreciate the art and craft of fine artisan perfumery.
Straw London Vintage straw, wicker & crochet. All unique, one-off pieces with a story.