It’s one of the world’s most famous flower markets and supplies 75 percent of London’s florists. Heather Bishop visits New Covent Garden.
Covent Garden Flower Market dates back to medieval days when the Abbey of Westminster owned the ‘Convent Garden’ from which surplus produce was sold to Londoners. A regular market grew and in 1670, Charles II granted a charter to hold a formal market there. It proved so successful that it soon expanded and by 1830 a vast central stone market square was constructed in the neoclassical style. The Floral Hall, designed by E M Barry, was added in 1858 and by the end of the 19th century, it was considered the most important fresh produce market in the UK with over 1,000 porters working there. However, the narrow streets around Covent Garden couldn’t cope with the congestion and in 1974, the whole market moved to a new site in Nine Elms, Battersea. Then 40 years later the flower market moved again, to a new building opposite Battersea Power Station with a modern air-conditioned Flower Hall with bright natural light.
Currently, 33 wholesalers operate in the market, many of whom are third or even fourth generation flower traders. Between them they hold an exceptional level of knowledge and expertise on flowers, plants, foliage and sundries through the decades and from around the world.
Fed and watered
At the heart of the market is the Garden Cafe. Owner Djemal Yeshilleme, 37, opens at 2.30am six days a week, keeping the stallholders and buyers awake with coffee and bacon rolls. “You get to know all the traders,” he says. “I know nothing about flowers, but I know people’s orders, what they eat, what they drink, how many sugars they have in their tea!”
Sharing the load
Every evening from 10pm until 3am Dutch delivery drivers bring the flowers for the following day’s market in temperature controlled trucks. As well as growing a large proportion of the flowers, Holland is also the main European distribution centre for flowers from around the world. A team of ‘carrier ins’, as they are known, are waiting to unload the flowers as they arrive. “The turnaround from Holland is very quick,” says Padam Rai, 62, who has been a carrier here for four years. “Wholesalers order flowers online up to 4pm and they can be with us at the market six hours later.”
A family affair
Many of the current wholesalers grew up in the original market in Covent Garden and followed their parents into the business. John Hardcastle, 61, owner of Bloomfield, has been working in the flower market for 45 years and lived above the old Covent Garden site. His son Sam now works with him. “I was born and bred in the flower market. My mother was a housekeeper for the market office and my dad worked in the market. I used to run errands before I went to school for a few shillings. The clientele has completely changed. In the old days it was largely market traders. Now it’s contract florists, event planners and wedding coordinators. Most of our customers are high-end and it’s very fashion-led. I look at magazines like US Vogue to try to predict the trends and stay ahead of the curve.”
Florist Helen Clarke, 46, is at the market to buy stock for her three shops. “I like to come here in person rather than order online as it’s good to get new ideas and you see some unusual things, as well as building up a relationship with the wholesalers. I love it when a new season comes in and you see all the flowers change.”
Dennis Edwards was born in Drury Lane and is the longest serving wholesaler in the market after racking up 49 years. He supplied flowers for Princess Eugenie’s wedding, Diana Princess of Wales’ funeral and the memorial service for the 7/7 London bombings. “All my family worked in the fruit market but I preferred the flower market as it was friendlier. I started from the bottom and worked my way up – from sweeping up to portering, to salesman, buyer and MD. I’m 70 soon and I’m ready to retire. It’s been my life for so long and I’ll miss everything – except getting up at 1.30am!”
Edwin Martin is sales director at Dennis Edwards Flowers. He never comes to work without wearing a hat and has 200 of them. “My granddad and parents worked in the old market and I used to bunk off school to help them before officially starting at the age of 14. I love it and it never feels like going to work. Every day is different and you meet some brilliant characters. Whatever the customer wants we can source it from anywhere in the world.”
Florist Rachel Hamilton, 46, runs Bud Flowers in Finsbury Park and comes to the market three times a week. “Today I’m buying stock for the weekend for the shop then I come on a Saturday to buy all my corporate flowers for Monday. I do lots of displays for office reception areas and the suppliers give me advice about what type of flowers will last and look good all week. In the shop my best sellers are always tulips, freesias and anemones.”
Katy Yates and Andrew Ferguson are getting married in July and have come to the market to get inspiration for their wedding flowers. “Our florist suggested we come and get some ideas about what flowers and colour schemes we liked and it’s really helped. I was set on classic colours like white and cream but now I’m thinking blush pinks. We’d like hydrangeas and peonies, which we’ve found out will be in season when we get married.”
Katie Eversfield works in sales at Arnott and Mason Plants and was the first female saleswoman in the flower market when she started in 1981. “All the wholesalers were men and the businesses were traditionally passed down from father to son,” she says. “It was a very closed shop. Everyone was very suspicious and hardly spoke to me. It’s much more female friendly now.” She was a florist before she retrained in horticulture and says there has been a huge boom in plant sales. “The trend is for large 1970s-style plants like monstera (Swiss cheese plants) and fiddle-leaf figs. And cacti and succulents are hugely fashionable,” she says. “We provide plants for film and video shoots and supply stores like The Conran Shop and Urban Outfitters.”
As well as flowers, the market is also home to several self-contained shops. Paul Mitchell runs a business with his brother Grant that was named in memory of their grandfather Charlie Best. “We used to sell sundries, things that florists needed like dry foam, wire, ribbons and tools, but over the years we’ve diversified and our clients are now event planners and interior designers. We supply everything that event planners need to create an event – vases, candelabras, fairy lights, fake fruit and veg, shells and pebbles. We do a lot of oversize items like huge vases and vessels for large displays in hotels. We also provide home décor and accessories so interior designers can style show homes or flats. Faux flowers and plants are a growing trend. A lot of clubs, restaurants and bars want low-maintenance displays, so they’re going for fake as they look so real yet it’s a lot more cost effective.”
Sophie Hanna, 71, is a contract florist with a workshop in the market and is buying flowers for a big corporate event. She’s been a florist for 50 years and has done flowers for the Champion’s League final and celebrity weddings, including Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John. She also does garden design and planting with her husband Michael, 85. “We must be the oldest gardeners in the world but we enjoy it and it keeps us young! I still work full-time and I’m here at 5am most days. I love it, it’s like one big family.’”
Best of British
Saul Pattison is a salesman at Pratley Flowers and Plants Ltd, which specialises in British flowers and works with 300 independent small farms throughout the UK. “The British flower market is very seasonal and based mainly in spring and summer,” he says. “A lot of the growers are in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The flowers are so freshly picked we don’t have to put them in water, we just sell them straight out of the boxes.”
Saul also uses social media to showcase their stock. “The internet is such an important part of the business now,” he says. “Something might not sell in the market but I’ll post a picture on Instagram and all it takes is for one trendy florist in Hoxton to comment and everyone wants it.”
To keep the flowers fresh, the Flower Hall always has to be kept at an optimum temperature of 12 to 13 degrees. Every day mechanical supervisor Stuart Baldwin walks through the hall checking the temperature with a probe. “If the temperature goes above 15 degrees an alarm will sound,” he says. “We’ve got chillers on the roof that control the temperature of the hall and help keep it cool and heaters that kick in over winter as flowers don’t like cold or frost. There are so many people’s livelihoods at stake we’ve got to get it right.”
Bouquets of kindness
Penny Martin is one of 40 volunteers who work for a charity based in the market called Floral Angels. They receive donations of leftover flowers from florists that have been used once for corporate events and still have life in them and rearrange them into bouquets and displays that are then delivered to local care homes and community groups. The volunteers, who all have some floristry training, display them in recycled tin cans, which they decorate. “Today we’re working on eight dining room displays and 68 bedside arrangements for a local care home,” says Penny who volunteers twice a week. “It’s lovely to know our displays are bringing cheer to people that need it.”
There are 11 resident florists in the market who have their workshops on the first floor above the Flower Hall. Today, a team from Elizabeth Marsh Floral Design are working on arrangements for a Bollywood-themed event at a large London hotel. This huge floral elephant on wheels that has taken 36 hours to create and involves thousands of carnations, hydrangeas and moss.
Photo credit – Liz Gregg