Like many Columbia Road merchants, Steve Burridge feared the worst for the east London flower market when the coronavirus hit and business ceased. “At one point I thought it wouldn’t come back this year,” he says.
In September, however, the longtime Columbia Road trader will leave his grounds reopened on Sundays in the care of his nieces to travel west to Chiswick, where London is set to gain its first new outdoor flower market since 150 years.
With the country still in the midst of social distancing and economic recession, it may seem like an inauspicious time to launch a new flower market, but the outdoor setting may be just the thing to capitalize on the dozens of new gardeners inspired during lockdown. As the site of one of the earliest examples of an English landscape garden at Chiswick House, as well as the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society in the 19th century, Chiswick is a natural setting for this volunteer-run enterprise.
“It helps that it’s outdoors, and of course when we started Covid wasn’t a thing – we didn’t know that actually people would rather go to something outdoors than to inside,” says Bridget Osborne, one of the market’s three co-directors. Previously a BBC journalist for three decades, Osborne is joined in the business by Karen Liebreich, co-founder of gardening charity Abundance London, and Ollie Saunders, a commercial surveyor. Established as a community benefit business, all profits will be reinvested directly into the market and the local community around Chiswick High Road.
Their aim is to attract as wide an audience as possible, catering to both experienced gardeners and those simply looking to add a bit of floral charm to their homes, and demand for stalls has been high with around 20 traders are already listed, including several from Columbia Road. — which means there is a waiting list for other locations.
“From the start, we wanted to not just sell all cut flowers, not just sell foreign flowers,” says Osborne. “We deliberately went for a mix, so we have bedding plants, cut flowers, houseplants, and we even have a few dried flowers. [sellers] as well as.”
Burridge is particularly concerned with bedding plants, which he grows by the thousands in his own nursery, and at the first market on September 6 he will offer late-blooming perennials – salvias, alstroemeria, anemones – before moving on to plants which will bloom all winter months.
Now 44, Burridge is one of many traders who have worked regularly at the Columbia Road Flower Market since they were teenagers. “I left school without qualifications and my father had a stand there,” he explains. Today, of the 52 stalls operating on Columbia Road, Burridge is linked to 26 of the traders. He laughs: “It’s all my cousins, my nephews and nieces.
The Columbia Road Market began in a Gothic structure erected by philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1869 – a cathedral complex with courtyard, colonnades and clock tower that once stood further down Columbia Road. Spectacular and inappropriate in equal proportions, shoppers shunned it for the familiarity of street traders.
Lack of demand saw the market closed in 1886 and eventually demolished in the 1950s, but the modern street market rose from its ashes – first a Saturday affair, but later moved to Sunday to accommodate the Jewish population growing in the region.
“Of course, that changed over the years, because before, people were actually coming just for the plants,” Burridge says. “Over the past 10 or 20 years it has become a tourist attraction.”
Higher footfall might not seem like a problem, but a 2017 study of city markets by the Greater London Authority identified tourists and browsers as one of the biggest challenges facing traders: rather than increasing revenue, selfie hunters crowding stalls often deter genuine customers from spending money. Covid, of course, put a temporary stop to that.
“There are fewer tourists now, so there’s a little more room for customers to walk around,” says Shane Harnett, who now runs the Columbia Road stand his great-great-grandfather opened in 1937. “There is no scrum, there is no pushing and shoving.”
Whether thanks to tourists or locals, before the pandemic, London’s markets were actually on the rise: in 2010, there were 163 retail markets; by 2017 that figure had risen to 280. Before the pandemic, this represented a contribution of £247.6 million to the city’s economy each year.
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Once synonymous with value and local produce, street markets are increasingly trying to provide a shopping experience to compete with supermarkets and online retailers. “We realized you have to offer something that’s an experience — not just sell things you can buy online — if you want people to come,” Osborne said of Chiswick.
Columbia Road does not lack a sense of occasion. At 8 a.m. on market day, early risers arrive for a little chat with their favorite vendors, who are already doing a vocal trade in herbs and shrubs. Tourists are hard to spot. A man struggles in front of the stalls with a eucalyptus almost as tall as he is; As I prepare to leave my apartment, I opt for something a little less permanent: bright clusters of limoniums, advertised as “eternal” by an optimistic trader.
By 11 a.m., the street is packed with customers, perhaps half of whom are wearing masks and tentatively following the new one-way system. Precautionary measures like this may seem innocuous, but they risk hitting the high-volume market hard: In August, traders faced major rent increases at London’s Greenwich Market, which, according to the manager Knight Frank estate, “was operating at a considerable loss”. The number of stalls has been reduced and a rotation system has been introduced in order to respect social distancing rules, compounding the loss of income due to reduced attendance.
However, the city’s flower trade proves surprisingly resilient. During the lockdown, Burridge actually found himself working longer hours than ever. On the day markets closed, he uploaded a Facebook post offering his stock online and was soon receiving 150 to 200 orders a week where he expected 10 or 20.
“So everyone was locked up at home, all the garden centers were closed and everyone wanted plants,” he says. “It was one of the new hobbies of lockdown, so even people who hadn’t gardened before suddenly got into gardening.”
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Before the pandemic, Nick and Jackie Winter were regulars on Columbia Road and often made the two-and-a-half-hour round trip from their home in Datchet, Berkshire. They first returned in August after being initially put off by images of crowds on the news. “Gardening saved me during lockdown,” says Jackie, who was made redundant from her job earlier in the year and has found solace in the garden. When asked what they are looking for today, they answer in unison: “Instant color”.
Organizers of the Chiswick Flower Market are also hoping to capitalize on this renewed interest in horticulture, offering Londoners a more sustainable and socially distanced way to shop. Not only will there be a plant nursery for larger items, but volunteers on bikes will be on hand to deliver purchases to homes for free. “People are at home, on leave. . . the only thing they can do is improve where they live,” says Osborne. “In this sense, a flower market or a plant market is perfect.”
Flower markets around the world
Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok
Bangkok’s main flower market, Pak Khlong Talat is open for wholesale and retail. Its name refers to its canal-side location in the city center, and if you go early enough (the market is open all day), you’ll see the boats unloading orchids, jasmines and hibiscuses, as well as imported flowers.
Aalsmeer is a wholesale market and the largest flower auction in the world, but visitor tickets are also available for tours (currently self-guided, due to the pandemic) every weekday morning from 7am. If you’re looking for a more aesthetic experience, try the floating Bloemenmarkt in neighboring Amsterdam.
Queen Elisabeth II Flower Market, Paris
Nestled on the Île de la Cité in the heart of the city, this Parisian market was founded in 1809 but renamed for Queen Elizabeth II after a visit in 2014. Open daily with a range of plants and shrubs available, on Sundays the market expands to also welcome sellers of rare birds.
Jamaica Mercado, Mexico City
Beyond the food and souvenir stalls, you’ll also find more than 1,000 plant and flower vendors at Mercado de Jamaica, just south of central Mexico City, with around 5,000 varieties on offer. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and specializes in extensive wreaths and funeral arrangements.