In April 2008 My Girls and I moved into a three-up-two-down on Wimbolt Street just yards away from Columbia Road, Bethnal Green. It is here that the world famous flower market takes place every Sunday.
Despite our proximity to the market, we never heard a thing on Sunday – until we ventured forth to the packed street lined with that increasingly rare breed of shops, the independents and colonised by market stalls. The stalls here begin setting up at dawn; I know this from the occasional foray home, early doors. On weaving through the melee of trucks, trolleys and trellises, the traders often had a coffee to offer along with a friendly word.
As this Sunday street fills with people, Londoners and visitors intermingle, spending their hard-earned cash on everything Columbia Road has to offer, from flora and fauna, pots and plants to coffee, crockery and other nick-nackery. Myriad foreign tongues fill the air; Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Chinese. The street teems with men, women and children, wide-eyed at the organised chaos of this crazy local landmark.
We adored our little house, as did our two black cats who would sit one at either end of the windowsill, for all the world like elegant black bookends. Before long, they made friends with Lara-the-dog-across-the-road; the three of them would hang out together on Lara’s ‘sill. It was that kind of a street. It’s that kind of a ‘hood.
Time passed. My Girls grew up, slipping from their Mother’s embrace into the world. Happily, fate intervened for as my children fell out of the maternal home, their Mother fell in love. Change beckoned and before long my empty nest was abandoned for the making of a brand new home on Barnet Grove, now with Beautiful Boyfriend.
Two years of bliss followed, our happiness dampened only by a regularly flooding basement, which the landlord did not see fit to fix. Mouldy belongings featured low on our wish-list, so we upped sticks and moved around a few more corners to Brick Lane; not the Ibiza-meets-students-union stretch, but a little-known residential idyll where peace reigns along with dry, light and spacious rooms.
So fond are we of this neighbourhood that leaving the close-knit streets was inconceivable; we looked at a reasonably priced Peckham penthouse – but even that light and panoramic possibility in a vibrant and emerging part of town couldn’t tempt us.
Our position on this famous street is urban indeed with rear windows that overlook a honeycomb of life, colour and eye-popping garden ornaments. Mai’da around the corner tempts us on those days when cooking seems a stretch too far. The Shoreditch Spa and its high-pamper treatments lies nearby; on locking myself out one evening I sat with a glass of wine at a vantage point in Casa Blue from where I spotted BB turning the corner to our home – just a few short steps and I was by his side.
Brick Lane has kept us close to our old neighbours; meantime, we are meeting new ones. Happily, we remain party to parties and dinners that pop up here and there – often around our own dinner table, for I am never happier than when cooking for friends.
This sunny Saturday morning I walked to Columbia Road for a hair makeover. An experienced craftsman of exceptional talent, John Birchall has created less salon, more lifestyle; his banter and humour combined with the steady popping-in-and-out of chatty locals make for a compelling hour or two – and the cleverest of cuts to boot.
Any foray to this wonderful stretch of independent businesses can include a stop at family-run Maks News for the weekend paper, Pavilion for coffee and warm, fresh bread, a chat and browse through fashionable finery at Precious, provisions from the Flower Supermarket, medicinal needs met by the lovely people at Columbia Pharmacy … and finally a swing round the corner to seek out gardenish things from Les in his treasure-trove at Organics.
All of this lies just moments from home; familiar streets and friendly faces who greet you by name make this corner of London a truly wonderful place to be. Long may it last.