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Columbia Road Market 74

December 18, 2011
by the gentle author

Carl Grover

The forest has come to Columbia Rd. Even before you arrive you can smell pine, drifting upon the breeze, and once you step onto the cobbles, there are needles underfoot. At either end of this narrow thoroughfare, a forest has grown overnight, filling the street with luxuriant green undergrowth and bringing the atmosphere of mystery and romance to the market which makes this Sunday before Christmas unique. You wonder – as you walk between the crowded, glistening trees –  if you might emerge into a magical landscape, yet – even as this reverie takes you – sonorous voices are heard. “Is this the call of the woodland folk?” you ask.

In fact, it is the magnificent resounding tone of Denise Burridge, the diva blessed with the fullest voice amongst the hardy chorus of traders that compose the clamorous symphony of Columbia Rd Market. This is where your expectations, hopes, wishes and dreams of plants and flowers can be fulfilled, and it is all going for a song.

At the Eastern end of the street, Christmas trees are sold by the Burridges, the family who have been more involved with the history of this market than any other for generations – while, selling trees at the Western end, you will find the Hartnetts who have claim to be the longest standing traders here, for over a century. Yet, at the Western extremity, also keep an eye out for the cheery face of Albert Dean, the fourth Albert Dean in succession in his family to be selling flowers from this pitch – which means that for more than a hundred years you could have here and bought flowers from an Albert Dean on this corner.

As you make your way amongst the throng down the centre of the street, sensations crowd upon you – losing sense of yourself in the horde, the stalls appear to float by like tableaux populated with the extravagantly good-humoured spirits of flowers and herbs, offering their beneficence. (Today, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Jeremy Freedman has captured these familiar market characters in their wintry guises.)

Advent is a season of ritual and tradition, and the Sunday before Christmas is my favourite time to come to Columbia Rd in anticipation of carrying off a tree, a bough of mistletoe, branches of holly, cut flowers, house plants and pots of bulbs – because, as we reach Midwinter, it tempers my sadness at the tender loss of Summer to fill the house with greenery and assure myself that life sustains itself yet, out there in the silence of the greenwood.

Mick Grover

At A.E. Hartnett & Sons Ltd

Albert Dean

Billy Burridge

Dennis Madden

Denise Burridge and admirer

George Burridge and Luke

Lisa Burridge

Sue, Frankie and Georgia Burridge

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    December 18, 2011

    How nice to be taken down Columbia Road again and to smell the smells, see the sights and meet the stallholders this Sunday. Lovely piece and photographs.

  2. joan permalink
    December 19, 2011

    We got our tree from Columbia Road yesterday. And of course we did that classic thing of buying one so fat that my 6ft 4 ” partner (fast approaching 50) had to accept that we weren’t going to make it to the car. My daughter and I stood rather self consciously on Ravenscroft Street while he went to fetch the car (just big enough with the back seats folded down) from the other side of the Hackney Road. I suggested we sing carols while we wait, which got the sort of eye-rolling response that girls aged 10 going on 15 can do so well. I’m sure that this is a very recognisable scenario to many. We then had that other family ritual of constructing a Jenga style base for the tree out of old bits of wood from the garden shed. I like the idea that people all over the country and beyond were doing something similar.

    What I really like is that our house now smells of pine rather than teenage boys. It’s only our second year with a real tree and while I miss the inevitable family row that would accompany assembling the B&Q plastic one (section E doesn’t go there!) it is rather lovely.

    Best wishes,


  3. Frank permalink
    December 20, 2011

    I also ventured to Columbia Road this Sunday to buy my Christmas greenery.
    Denise Burridge – a diva blessed – truly makes this market hum.
    Many a Sunday morning as I walk towards the market from the Hackney Road, her tune the is one I hear first. It is often the only sound I can hear on the final stretch of my walk.

    Merry Christmas and goodwill to you all!

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