Little Known London - The Sounds of Columbia Road

  • Posted on 25th May 2017 by Guest - Emma

  • If you’re in Shoreditch or Bethnal Green on a Sunday morning, you’ll be sure to spot a tote bag overflowing with tulips, a basket full of sunflowers or perhaps a yummy mummy lugging a lemon tree. You can bet they’re all on their way home from the floral haven that is Columbia Road Flower Market.
    This lively, colourful market takes place every Sunday just off Hackney Road. It’s crammed with locals and tourists trying to snag a bargain and market-sellers, specializing in seasonal herbs, flowers and bushes. It's the noise of the market that gets me every time. As you approach, the hustle and bustle hits you and then the yelling starts! Get there at 9am, and the market’s not yet fully going but the traders have started with their banter – ‘get your roses here, my darling!’ ‘look at these hardy Chrysanths’ by 1pm, the cries are more likely to be ‘three bunches for a fiver’  ‘here’s a box of 24 for twelve pound!’ It's a short day – it’s all over by 3pm so everyone is trying to make the most of the small window of opportunity.
    And don’t forget – it’s not only a flower market. Why not pop into one of the art galleries, antique shops or cafés that make up the community of 60 independent shops here? Pick up some collectable furniture at Two Columbia Road, peruse some vintage fashion at Glitterati, check out some Cornish art at the Columbia Road Gallery or keep the kids happy at gift and interior shop, Dandy Star. It’s also worth a pit-stop for some calamari at Lee’s Seafoods, serving fish here since World War II.
    If you’re on Columbia Road this Sunday, do take a moment mid-stroll to ponder on the history of this street. It was once a walkway for sheep from the rural East End heading to the slaughterhouse at Smithfields. It gained notoriety in the 1830s as the residence of the London Burkers. This gang would dig up freshly-buried bodies to sell on for anatomical study. It transpired that they also committed some murders in their house on this street, then Novia Scotia Gardens. It was such an infamous London crime, that the police charged tourists 5 shillings a head to visit their house, where they could also purchase souvenirs.
    Later, the area became a dilapidated, poverty-stricken slum, which, in the 1860s, prompted philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts, to build social housing here and start a market to help the residents earn a living. She was a lady of many talents – she endowed the bishopric of British Columbia (hence the name Columbia Road in honour of her) and was the president of the British Goat Society. What an important lady indeed. By Act of Parliament, the market’s trading day was moved from Saturday to Sunday, to help the local Jewish population. Flower traders in Spitalfields and Covent Garden saw an opportunity to sell their Saturday leftovers here and it had soon become a street synonymous with bargain flowers and also caged songbirds. The rest, as they say, is history.
    Columbia Road is the perfect place to stroll off a hangover on a summery Sunday morning – if that doesn’t work, pop into the Birdcage pub and drink yourself a new one. 

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