Sunday morning on Columbia Road takes one back in time and out of the city. Its hundred yards of temporary vegetation create a peculiarly sedate and bohemian atmosphere just off the Hackney Road, an unlikely setting for an impromptu garden centre. Although exact dates are unclear, flowers have been sold here for at least 100 years and some of the shops and traditions are doubtless of that period, too. S Jones Dairy on Ezra Street sells English goat's cheese from its period interior as well as round sunflower loaves and granary bread. The Royal Oak keeps market hours and offers a keenly priced cooked breakfast which puts its precious Camden/Hampstead equivalent to shame.
The market is best approached from Old St or Shoreditch Tube, but with the current state of the East London Line, Aldgate East is a prudent alternative. A 10-minute stroll up Brick Lane - pausing at the stupendous Beigel Bake for coffee, chopped herring beigels and cheesecake - takes in the scenic route via Hackney's other stalwart Sunday morning market. At the very top of Brick Lane, or indeed, on any other approach, the market's location becomes self-evident and directions are redundant. A stream of proverbially happy shoppers trip along, their vision obscured by giant palms, rubber plants and, of course, Christmas trees.
Hackney rarely looks as beautifully green and serene as it does here on Sundays. The low terrace street gives the impression of a lush ravine, brimful of exotic plants and flowers. Most of the road is taken up with greenery, but a heavy flow of punters cruise along good-humouredly, their London haste seemingly chastened by nature. Buckets of carnations and lilies compete for floor space with hundreds of bags of bulbs, elegant palms and dracaena. Bargains are there for the taking, or so traders tell you - a 15ft palm for pounds 25, and the flowers are cheaper than typical London street stalls. Pots, stained glass and pine furniture are also sold in some of the houses behind the green curtains on either side of the road.
The old Columbia Market was between Baroness Road and Columbia Road, now the site of a grim-visaged council estate since it was knocked down by the GLC in the late 1950s. Its original aim was to "promote habits of industry and thrift among the humbler class of trader" as well as being a rival to Billingsgate. However, to the humbler class of trader such patronage was unwelcome and its founder, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, was left with a pounds 200,000 white elephant which closed in 1890. The building itself, if not its concept, was deemed a success by some - architect Nicholas Pevsner called the market "easily the most spectacular piece of design in Bethnal Green".
Columbia Road was once the upholstery district of the East End - Quilter Street and Pelter Street being reminders of this. But the gentle irony is that this part of London has resisted modernisation and improvement - as Baroness Burdett-Coutts discovered to her cost.