Sunday, 16 August 2009

Go east

Columbia Road is a small kernel of London greenery. We may be feted for our parks, gardens and tree-lined avenues, but here is a nugget of lush, growing urban outdoor life, flourishing in a very ungreen, densely populated part of town. It's as as much about the people as the plants; as every city space should be.

From the overstuffed balcony of foliage that graces the tenement flats at one end, to the other where this small street is crammed with market stalls selling plants that most regular garden centres wouldn't touch with a long-handled rake, it's a feast for urban gardeners.

I went in search of a deckchair and Sunday morning atmosphere, both of which are unavailable at my local diy barn. And, a once regular market-goer, I was also harbouring some wistful thoughts of Sunday morning's past. I promised myself I wouldn't buy any plants (is there ever such a thing as no more room in your garden?). So I came away with an old lampshade, a vintage ordance survey map of Land's End, an off-beat-designer blouse and a selection of culinary herbs. And an armful of summer blooms.

I could point out that things ain't what they used to be, and rail against the tide of gentrification that is engulfing our quirky urban corners. I could mention that my favourite coffee shop was still there (along with at least a dozen new ones), but its staff were grumpier than I rembember; that there seems to have been a proliferation of gift shops specialising in mugs (how many mugs do people need - really?); and how my ideal deckchair carried an £89 price tag.

But all of that distracts me from the Flower Market, which is what Columbia Road has staked its reputation on. Shoreditch overflow apart, those stalls are still stuffed with an abundance of plants and people walk away from Columbia road with as much of these floral wares as they can carry, trailing a thread of greenery out into the city. All the evidence suggests that even in these financially challenged times, the market is still doing a roaring trade.

Not for Columbia Road the fate of Covent Garden, overrun by shopping mall shops without even a hint of its former life as a flower market. Where else can you can buy a half dozen enormous sunflowers for a fiver? Somehow on a grey August Sunday morning, that seems like a good old-fashioned bargain.

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