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Waiting for the ghost bus
by Avis Fenner
Its 6.55 am on a cold, drizzly, Sunday morning. Oblivious to the weather, a group of late revellers wait for The Nelsons Head to open. Round the corner, trucks roll up. They have been coming in for an hour or so from places like Reading, Billericay, Kings Lynn. Name anything to do with gardens and they are loaded with it: bedding plants, cut flowers, compost, fruit trees, herbs, house plants, shrubs, soil. The traders have long been resigned to a Saturday night in to be here for their most important trading day of the week at Londons biggest flower and plant retail market, Columbia Road.
Columbia Road market was originally part of a development financed in the mid-nineteenth century by the wealthy philanthropist Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. The baroness financed the slum clearance east of Shoreditch church and erected Columbia Square Buildings to provide low rent accommodation for 183 families. She then turned her attention to the Cockney costermongers and stallholders who appalled her by their dishonesty. She believed the way to improve ethical standards was to provide a purpose-built, indoor market that would regulate trading.
The result, seven years later in 1869, was a huge mock-Gothic market building, decorated inside with moralistic aphorisms such as Speak everyman truth with his neighbour. However, it was a complete failure and the small traders remained outside. The building was returned to the baroness within five years and subsequently let out as workshops.
Jim, who was born in Brick Lane, and now runs a cafe at the end of the Columbia Road, remembers its demolition and replacement by a block of flats in 1960. Today, the oldest trader is 87-year-old Fred Harnett who has been selling plants in Columbia Road since he came with his dad when he was ten. Like many of the stallholders, having a pitch in Columbia Road is a family affair. Fred still drives his own truck in every Sunday morning from Billericay and flogs trays of bedding plants with undiminished enthusiasm. For Fred and many of the other old timers the way of trading has changed profoundly.
What was once a market supplied by a cottage industry, where flowers and plants came from local nurseries on a seasonal basis, is now a year-round international business. Most of what you see on sale today in Columbia Road - and many other retail outlets - comes from the same source, the gigantic Dutch plant and flower emporium of Aalsmeer just outside of Amsterdam. Retailing shops may buy from wholesalers in New Covent Garden or Spitalfields but the traders in Columbia Road, keen to cut out the middleman, go once a week to Aalsmeer to buy for their Sunday trade.
And theres no doubt, compared to other retail outlets, buying in Columbia Road is good value but, as many stalls sell the same product sourced from the same place, variety in pure plant terms is limited and you will be hard pressed to find anything really unusual or rare. Traders say the market has survived because of the peripheral items; the decorated pots or the accessory knick-knacks in the bijou shops. Its these add-ons that have helped to keep it going all year round. Dennis, whos been trading here for 30 years, says people seem to be buying more plants than ever before and offers up the logical explanation that more people live in flats without gardens. Plus we no longer see flowers as a luxury item but as a interior design necessity.
At 10.30 the crowd, despite the weather, is thickening and Freds vocal chords are finally warming up. Two boxes of lovely pansies for one! Trading officially ceases at 2.00 pm. Those who want a bargain arrive for the last minute ditching of stock.
Why did Baroness Coutts get it wrong? The traders without doubt resented the patronising attitude levelled at them and almost certainly recoiled from notions of regulation and interfering bureaucracy; I was asked several times in the space of 15 minutes if I was from the Inland Revenue. More importantly, I think its hard to imagine the baroness haggling over the price of a pound of Coxs Orange Pippins with a costermonger. And if she did, it seems she missed the spirit of street trading. Street traders here are probably sharper than most because trade is swift and they have to be on their feet.
Im back at Dennis stall and he has some beautiful red lilies for £6 a bunch. The punter says Ill give you £10 for two bunches. Youre robbing me, girl! he replies, but hes smiling.