East London has a rocky and infamous history. Associated with the Jack the Ripper, workhouses, and over-population, the east side is no stranger to negative connotations. I’ll fully admit that in my two plus years living in London, I have ventured to the east side only about a half dozen times. It does have some of the best Indian food you’ll ever find in Brick Lane, but other than that, there just wasn’t a lot pulling me to the area.
But this last weekend, Jeff and I hopped on a train to Bethnal Green and joined the hipster masses at the weekly Columbia Road Flower Market. Only open on Sundays, the entire street on Columbia Road off Hackney Road, completely transforms into stalls of vibrant flowers and herbs. The voices of the burly men yelling out, “flowers for a fiver!” can be heard blocks away.
As we meandered from Bethnal Green through the mile of side alleys and tenement buildings, we found ourselves thrust into a throng of hundreds of flower-hungry people buying massive bundles of hydrangeas, roses, and peonies. The smell of the buds was intoxicating, and all I wanted to do was dive straight in.
We stood sandwiched in what seemed like three different lanes of traffic in a space no bigger than four feet wide listening to orders being shouted and repeated by some of the thickest cockney accents I’ve eva ‘eard. “What can I get you, luv?” “That’ll be a tenner, swee’art.” “I jus’ need one coos-ta-mah to buy fees flowers. They sell ’em for 8 quid down the way. I’ll sell ’em for a fiver!”
Jeff was having a bit of an anxiety attack swallowed by so many people, but I was loving it. It was exactly what I had anticipated: the throngs of east London coming together to buy beautiful things.
By no means were these flowers cheap. The sellers certainly know that they are in a coveted spot being featured on Columbia Road, so the price is definitely a premium. I spent £20 for a bunch of gladiolas and a bunch of peonies. But I justified it in getting the full experience of the market. The cost of entertainment.
In 1840, the Columbia Road area was a notorious slum thanks to the Resurrection Men: a gang of men who murdered people and sold the bodies to an anatomy school. But Angela Burdett-Coutts, a Baroness and philanthropist, bought the land of Columbia Road and completely transformed it by 1869. Her main focus was social housing as evidence by the straight line of Victorian houses that aren’t even separated by an alleyway, but she also helped establish a food market with 400 stalls.
The market thrived for many years in various forms offering all kinds of wares from fish to flowers but was heavily damaged during The Blitz that terrorized London. The market fought to come back and has done so famously primarily focusing on flowers and gardening equipment.
There are many shops set up on Columbia Road that are not to be missed by the tempting flowers and shouting business owners. One shop we ducked into was Glitterati. It wasn’t for the second-hand crystal or vintage fashion that we shopped. It was for the copious amounts of second hand books (to read about my favorite book shops, click here). Jeff and I love scouring second-hand books because they are so much cheaper, but also you find some really amazing hidden gems like historical books or titles you’ve never heard of. We walked away with three books that day and an armful of fresh flowers.
Other shops include one for red mud gardening pots, antique china and vintage flatware, but also hipster fashion. Most of the food on offer was not gluten-free, but I did manage to see one place carry a gluten-free chocolate cake with four layers and more frosting than I cared to analyze.
At the far end of the Flower Market sits the Birdcage Pub. The only reason I bring this place up is because it was built in 1760 and still stands today as a fixture on the road. I couldn’t grab a picture of the place because the throngs of people made it impossible, but nonetheless, its significance is no less important. The proprietors of the establishment claim that their clients live the longest, but then, when the war hit London, the pub became a casualty clearing station. Despite the damage and the blown out windows, Mr and Mrs Nat Joel, the owners at the time, kept the place open for patrons.
The Royal Oak pub is on the opposite side of the street and is a much larger and newer structure having opened in 1923. While it doesn’t have the longevity as The Birdcage, it is lovely to see so much of the original interior intact in the pub. While much has changed in the East Side since the Resurrection gang and even the war, it still shows many signs of its humble past.
If you find yourself in London on a casual Sunday, make a point in seeing an honest English tradition on Columbia Road. Open from 8a-2p, you’re bound to find something to buy and brighten your home.