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The Reopening Of Columbia Rd Market

July 12, 2020
by the gentle author

Carl Grover, Herb Seller

When people asked me what I missed most during the lockdown, Columbia Rd Market was always top of the list. So you can imagine my delight now it has re-opened. Photographer Andrew Baker went along before dawn last Sunday to create this photoessay, recording the historic moment when London’s best-loved flower and plant market reawakened after slumbering since March.

It is a different world now and the market has been reconfigured to permit social distancing, with stalls further apart and all on one side of the street, and a one way system from the west to east. As the flower sellers met for the first time in months, many mourned the loss of George Gladwell and Lou Burridge to the Coronavirus – both highly respected market seniors who had traded in Columbia Rd their whole lives.

My friend Carl Grover, the herb seller whose family have been in East End markets for generations, was there with his father in a new spot where Columbia Rd meets Barnet Grove. “We were on our old pitch for forty-seven years,” he confided to me with a nostalgic grin, “Yet I understand that the council have to make changes to accommodate for social distancing. I remember the days before the pitches were marked out in the eighties, we all knew where we were by the cracks in the pavement.”

Then his mood lifted, admitting, “We thought, ‘We have to make the best of it.’ And as soon as we had set up, somebody bought some herbs and Dad said, ‘We’ve broken the ice, we’ve cracked it!’ It seemed like a new beginning. Then more customers arrived and they were rolling off lists of what that they wanted. Someone said to me, ‘Your herbs kept me going during the lockdown.’ We were quite pleased. I think people will be growing their own vegetables more now, even if it means keeping pots of herbs on their window sills. Next week we are going to have aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers and chilli peppers on sale.”

When I revealed to Carl that Barnet Grove was where the flower market began as a place for weavers to exchange plants in the eighteenth century and where – famously – a rare tulip bulb was sold for £200 in 1820, his face broke into a wide smile and he declared, “We’re going to be selling tulips next year!”

The hustle and bustle of the old market has been replaced by a Sunday calm, although plenty of East Enders turned out to carry off a bunch of flowers to brighten their homes after the long months of lockdown. Many were grateful that the hordes of tourists who come to take photographs were absent. As with the Borough Market, this ancient gardeners’ market has returned to its origins as a source of produce for Londoners, at least for the time being.

After half a century on the corner of Ezra St, Carl Grover has moved to a new pitch on the corner of Barnet Grove where the market began in the eighteenth century

Photographs copyright © Andrew Baker

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. July 12, 2020

    The market looks beautiful. It’s good to see people are starting to get out and take up where they left off before the devil came knocking . Not enough PPE and distancing though. Caution is still very important. Folks cannot become cavalier about safety. Look at what is happening over here in the US…states that opened early and allowed people to get too comfortable are having a 2nd wave of this horror. Everyone please stay well and healthy.

  2. July 12, 2020

    Beautiful Flower Garden to buy so many types of Flowers!!!????????

  3. Amanda permalink
    July 12, 2020

    Hooray !
    A new dawn for a favourite atmosphere
    Wonderful news on a Sunday morning.

    Plant buying rituals should be calm as your photos depict in this refreshed, lush green Eden, minus the hustling sightseeing mass.

    Carl’s new spot will be very auspicious – with the exact red gazebo l had in Spain so regulars knew where to find to my stall to cool off in the shade.

    Strolling by Carl’s new spot last year, an artist stopped me to compliment my coat and we discovered we shared exactly the same fairly uncommon Irish surname. A first in my whole lifetime.

    The next moment l was speaking to
    someone in Spanish.
    Total synchronicity on this corner.
    The exciting incredulous interlude flashes across my mind often.
    Carl will do so well from his enforced change. (€200 tulips is a good idea ?)

    Prayers for the familes who suffered the loss of their very missed loved ones.

  4. Bailey Jones permalink
    July 12, 2020

    Great to see the market open again.

  5. MD Smith permalink
    July 12, 2020

    I was so happy to finally get to the Columbia Road market last summer, at the end of my stay in the UK. Although I could not bring any of the plants back to the US (they would not have survived the trip in my luggage anyway), the market was so crowded with people yelling and shoving and reaching over my shoulder to grab a plant off the rack, that I left without buying a thing. I am glad to see the carts on one side of the road, and one-way pedestrian traffic. Maybe that and some enforcement of social distancing will teach people some manners. I do hope for those £200 tulips for the sellers! In fact, I hope for a hugely profitable season for all the sellers.

  6. July 12, 2020

    Where are the tower blocks? Up by the old gas holders/canal, or am I looking the wrong way?

  7. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    July 12, 2020

    Oh gosh, beautiful! It makes my heart glad to see these photos. I think I shall have to go out and buy some potted herbs and flowers (although I will have to go to New England Nurseries Garden Center, instead of this magnificent market).

    I am happy to see the evidence of such resilience!

  8. July 12, 2020

    Wonderful news! A sign of Hope.

  9. July 12, 2020

    Not enough masks for my liking !!!

  10. July 12, 2020

    The low rise terraces are so much more conducive to relaxed happy socialising. Holding such a market in a box ticked “green space” of typical of building developers would simply not generate such a warm atmosphere.

  11. Helen Halladay permalink
    July 15, 2020

    It looks lovely but it’s early days so fewer people. As soon as the tourists return this will change. Hopefully it will not get too crowded which will make it feel unpleasant and unsafe, and in this scenario, even though it is outside, all should be wearing a face mask perhaps?

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