More For Your Money: Columbia Road, E2

The green shoots of growth
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The Independent Online

The Columbia Road flower market, and the residential area surrounding it in Bethnal Green, are prized London assets. In recent memory, the wrecker's ball nearly destroyed both.

In the 19th century, traders sold fish and general goods from an imposing Gothic building that did unfortunately get the chop, in 1958. But the Columbia Road market has survived, albeit Sunday-only and mostly horticulture-only.

As it grew in popularity with gardeners throughout greater London, it decreased in the affections of its neighbours, annoyed by the crush of trucks, cars and shoppers.

"We had to fight off a lot of public pressure to close the market altogether," says George Gladwell, a veteran trader and chairman of the Columbia Market Residents Traders and Shopkeepers Association.

Linda Wilkinson grew up in a rented flat on Columbia Road in the Sixties, and moved away in 1975. "I lived in Italy and then in a flat in Tottenham, and then in Barnet. I hated it and moved back to this area in 1986. It's a people community."

Now living in the hip and handsome Jesus Hospital Estate conservation area, it was "a real slum then", Wilkinson recalls.

"Flats had cold water only and no heating, and some houses had gaslights. There are still some poor elderly people around here, and one house still has gaslights. When I left in the Seventies, many houses were boarded up, and the council was going to clear the entire area. A local association was set up, and it stopped the council."

The local authority's compulsory purchase orders never saw the light of day. Private owners stepped in (one developer alone, David Pearl, bought 330 freeholds), and most properties today have been extensively refurbished.

"Until 1840 this area contained watercress beds and a large farm," says Wilkinson, currently chair of Amnesty International UK and a writer whose Watercress but no Sandwiches (2004) is a history of the estate.

The Columbia Road area never actually had a Jesus Hospital. "The name derives from a Hertfordshire philanthropic trust in the 17th century." The area is better known - and defined - by the road that hosts the popular flower market. Diamond, a work of fiction by Wilkinson, focuses on Diamond Lil and Maisie, real-life post-war drag queens who performed in East End pubs and lived in the Jesus Hospital Estate for 40 years. Already aired as a BBC radio play, Diamond began a limited run yesterday (to 29 January) at the King's Head, Islington.

How much will a flat cost?

The Jesus Hospital Estate has several high-rise local authority towers in which former council studio flats sell for about £120,000. Cityfish Property Services has one-bed ex-council flats for £164,950. Property Bureau is selling a two-bed ex-council flat on Diss Street for £169,500. High-rise former council flats can offer excellent value, but obtaining a mortgage on them can sometimes be tricky. A one-bed, ground-floor flat in Lion Mills, a former cotton mill on Hackney Road, is £195,000 at Keatons.

What about houses?

A two-bed 624-square foot period cottage on Ezra Street, with walled patio garden and a conservatory currently used as dining room, is £365,000. Another freehold house with similar specifications on Quilter Street is £399,950; both at Davey Stone. Cheaper but modern, and on Mansford Street just east of the conservation area, is a three-bed house for sale at £247,500 through Cityfish.

How's the transport?

Buses on Bethnal Green Road and Hackney Road serve Liverpool Street station (which is a short walk from Columbia Road in any event) and the West End. The nearest underground stations are Shoreditch (East London line), southwest of the Jesus Hospital Estate, and Bethnal Green (Central line), to the southeast. In between is Bethnal Green national rail station.

Tell me more about the flower market

Trucks begin arriving as early as 5am but trading hours are 8am to 2pm.

The market has 52 pitches, complemented by about three dozen shops mostly orientated to gardening and leisure. "At the height of the gardening season we might have 3,000 or 4,000 visitors, possibly more, moving through the market during the morning," says George Gladwell, a 77-year-old who has traded in the market since 1950.

How is the park life around here?

The estate's only green space is a garden square where houses once stood. Hackney City Farm is located at the southern edge of Haggerston Park, just north of Columbia Road. The large, splendid expanse of Victoria Park, with its ponds, lawns and tennis courts, is nearby.

How's the shopping?

In addition to the markets at Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane, Broadway Market north of Hackney Road has a Saturday farmers' market. The estate has its own cafés and pubs, and many ethnic restaurants and music and theatrical venues are located in neighbouring Hoxton and Hackney.

And one for the pub quiz...

Which famous benefactress founded the original Victorian market?

Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906). The granddaughter of banker Thomas Coutts, she donated millions to charities, was the first woman to become a baroness due to her own achievements, and lived in Holly Lodge in Highgate.

Cityfish, 020 7739 1414; Davey Stone, 020 7729 2476; Keatons, 020 8981 7788; Property Bureau (Islington), 020 7354 4004