Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The flower market, minus Eliza Doolittle

New Covent Garden Flower Market, photographed last year. That's not me on the left, by the way. Neither is it Eliza Doolittle

Owen asked me the other day if I would say a bit more about New Covent Garden Flower Market. I mentioned in my last post that I'd been there last week, and I know a lot of people are rather intimidated by the thought of going themselves. Will they have to buy flowers by the lorryload? Is it cash only? Are private individuals allowed in, or do you have to be in the trade?
For those of you who don't know, New Covent Garden is London's fresh produce market, providing fruit, vegetables and flowers to the capital's traders. Not meat or fish, though, those are still sold at Smithfield and Billingsgate.
In the olden days, from the 16th century onwards, the flower, fruit and veg market was located in the original Covent Garden, beside what is now the Royal Opera House (also, confusingly, known as Covent Garden). If anyone has seen the film My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn, it's where Eliza Doolittle plied her trade as a flower girl.
However, in 1974, the markets left their old home for Nine Elms Lane in Vauxhall to become New Covent Garden. It's not as romantic a setting (and there is absolutely no sign of any flower girls) but it is much easier to get pantechnicons in and out of Nine Elms than it was to manoeuvre them round the narrow streets of Covent Garden.

How do I get there?
The Flower Market is separate from the fruit and veg bit, so if you're going by car, it's best to approach from the Vauxhall one-way system or Wandsworth Road, travelling west (ie towards Battersea Dogs' Home). Look for the slip road on the left, just as you get onto Nine Elms Lane.
Parking costs £4 per car, and they like you to have the right money if possible. They'll give you a thing to hang over your rear-view mirror to show you've paid. Make sure you display it, or you might get clamped.
If you want to go by public transport, it's about a 10-minute walk from Vauxhall station (mainline and Underground), and dozens of buses stop at Vauxhall. Remember, tube and train services won't be running very early in the morning, though, so probably worth going by car. The market itself is not in the congestion charge zone.

When is it open?
The market opens at 3am, and shuts at 11am Monday to Friday and is open 4am to 10am on Saturdays. The best time to go is about 6-7am and best days to go are midweek - Wednesday or Thursday, as it's not quite so busy then, but there's still a really good selection.

What are the vendors like?
In my experience, the stall-holders are extremely friendly and helpful. ("Can I leave this stuff here while I take the other lot out to the car?" "Course you can, love") Try to have a vague idea what you want before you approach them, as they don't really have time to stand around while people dither. Don't try to haggle with them, either - they don't really appreciate it. This is the wholesale end of the trade, so the mark-ups aren't high. And keep your feet out of the way! You'll find there are trolleyloads of plants constantly going backwards and forwards, though you do a get a shouted warning: "Bums and tums, ladies!"

I thought it was trade-only?
It's a fairly safe bet that you won't be the only ordinary punter there. Lots of church flower arrangers go there to buy stuff because it's much cheaper. The week before Easter, when I went, it was particularly busy with church ladies, all earnestly discussing the merits of zantedeschia over oriental lilies (zants don't stain surplices, but lilies smell so lovely) and whether to restrict the colour palette to yellow and white, or perhaps add a bit of blue or pink ... 

What sort of flowers will I find?
Every kind you can think of, plus a few you've never heard of, depending on the season. There might be English-grown cottage-garden flowers alongside orchids and other exotica, such as heliconia (lobster-claw flower) and strelitzia (bird of paradise). If you're worried about how long things will last, the stall holders are usually really good about telling you which are today's flowers and which are yesterday's. They don't mind you feeling the flowers either to see if they're fresh and firm. Aim for Door 10 (nearest the car park entrance) and start there.

And greenery?
Usually sold separately, unless it is soft flowering stuff like guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). Varies from boughs of flowering cherry to huge palm leaves, and includes mosses and phormium leaves, pittosporum and good old ruscus, depending on what's in season. Aim for Door 4. 

How do I pay?
Quite a lot of the stallholders accept plastic, though it's polite to ask first, just in case.
Take cash anyway, because it's just much easier if you're buying different bunches from different stands. Whatever you buy, no matter how small, and however you pay, you will get a hand-written receipt, even if you're paying by credit card. VAT is added on to the price afterwards, so watch out for that.

Don't I have to buy in bulk?
Not flowers, usually, though they won't split a bunch. Watch out for things like bedding plants, such as geraniums. I wanted some lemon thyme last week, and had to buy a tray of eight. But they were lovely bushy plants so, since I wanted at least four, and the total cost was about £12, I got them anyway, and gave away the spares as Easter presents. I also bought two standard lavenders (oh, the self-indulgence!) for £10 each, which was half what they were in the garden centre.

So I can buy plants too?
Yes, though there isn't the same range available. There's usually a good selection of herbs, bedding plants (in season) and orchids, as well as houseplants. It's mainly the sort of stuff a big florist might stock, because it makes good presents. The orchids are particularly good - an amazing array of colours, and sizes, some beautifully planted up with moss in glass cubes.

What else is there for sale?
An astonishing array of vases; sundries such as ribbons, wedding favours and flower-wrapping paper in dozens of different colours and designs; wire and string; pots; baskets; wreaths; books on flower-arranging; bamboo poles - you name it.

Isn't it better to go nearer to closing time?
No, because all the best stuff will have gone, and although the market technically doesn't shut until 11am, it's pretty quiet by about 9.30am. It can be cold too, so hanging around when it's half-empty is a bit depressing. There are loos (lovely clean ones - look for the sign near Door 2), but not much else in the way of facilities. I advise packing a Thermos and a fleece in the back of the car.

Houseplants for sale at the flower market. They look good, don't they?