Inside The New New Covent Garden Market

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 8 months ago
Inside The New New Covent Garden Market

"Oh I'm such a floral prostitute!" laughs Simon Lycett, as he moves through the aisles of blooms, pausing to point out his favourites.

"Those peonies over there typify that end of the winter period, and this beautiful lilac," he coos, picking up a bunch and burying his face in it, "that is just ... you could dive into it, it's so enormous and wonderful!"

Lycett — a florist to celebrities and royalty — has been coming to New Covent Market since 1990 ("all I deal with is very demanding clients," he assures us). Today is special, though. New Covent Garden has just got newer; the traders have moved out of the 1970s building half a mile down Nine Elms Lane, and replanted themselves in a bright new premises opposite Battersea Power Station. It's part of a complete overhaul that will also see a new fruit and vegetable market by 2022.

"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened," says Lycett, "To have this is a spectacular message to everybody, to say you can still buy from good regional wholesaler flower markets."

Some plants obviously get preferential treatment

In the dinginess of the old New Covent Garden — still open just a couple of days previously — it wasn't unusual for customers to have to take flowers outside to see what colour they were in natural light. Now, you will not find anywhere more sunny, more awake in London at 4am.

Another improvement of the new market, we're told, is that it's been converted into one big fridge, chilled at 14°C. The atmosphere, conversely, is warm as ever — that uncanny combination of bantery, mainly male traders and young, creative types shopping for window displays, events and big weddings (Lycett did a wedding yesterday using over 20,000 flowers, all sourced from here).

This is Ru's first time at the market. She works nights, and has been meaning to come to New Covent Garden for a while

John Hardcastle has been trading since the 1960s, although he never did get used to the early starts. "My dad always said to me 'don't worry, it gets easier as you get older,'" Hardcastle says, "When I go up there and meet him again," (he points to the heavens) "I shall tell him 'no it doesn't — not for me anyway!'"

This is the third incarnation of the flower market Hardcastle has worked at. His mum was a caretaker at the original Covent Garden, and Hardcastle awoke every morning to the sweet scent of petals. "My bedroom window used to have a fire escape that actually went down onto the roof of the flower market," he says, "That was it, fate sealed."

While these days, 90% of Hardcastle's produce comes from Holland, back in the 60s and 70s all of the flowers were grown in Britain — arriving into London by train at staggered intervals throughout the day. "It was a different time," says Hardcastle,  "the guys who worked at night would have all the people coming home from nightclubs, been out to theatres or coming out of the opera house.  You had all that going on at night, that was glamorous, especially in the 60s."

John Hardcastle surveys his third Covent Garden stall

Glamorous, maybe, but Hardcastle doesn't exactly remember the West End-based market with rose-tinted spectacles. Passers-by weren't exactly encouraged to use it.

"It was very frowned upon if you served the public," says Hardcastle, "you'd get a lot of stick. There might be a bit of flirting going on, the odd secretary would get a flower or someone getting a carnation for his buttonhole. But it was a lot rougher around the edges, not too many of the public would have been comfortable amongst it."

With today's florists constantly looking to wow and woo their own clients, Hardcastle spends up to six of his eight working hours scanning the internet for exciting flowers. He was the first to sell the Ecuadorian rose at New Covent Garden, he proudly tells us. Now everyone sells them.

And though business isn't as cut-throat as it was, there remains, admits Hardcastle, healthy competition among traders. "I always joke to some of my competitors, I say 'just bring a camera round, don't keep walking past! Take a picture of what I've got and go and order it — there's no need to be sneaky about it!'"

Luke Gilbert is one of Covent Garden's newest traders.

While traders like Hardcastle have seen the market rise and dip in fortune over decades, it's heartening to see a fresh crop of youngsters eager to work here; indeed there are a number of father-son outfits. Luke Gilbert gave up engineering to work on his stepdad's stall. "The atmosphere's good," he says, "everyone's happy and it's always a good laugh."

Like a hardy breed of flower, New Covent Garden has clung on and evolved. Whereas it used to deal with retail florists, the rise of the supermarket flowers (they're selling them in Waitrose a couple of hundred yards from the market) means the traders cater more to clients working on one or two big jobs at a time. Whole sections are now dedicated to foliage and artificial plants, while voguish plants like cacti don't get overlooked. No wonder the market now caters for 75% of the city's florists.

The location of this market might be different from the one that was set up during the reign of King Charles II. But although you can take the market out of Covent Garden, you can't take that inimitable feel of Covent Garden out of the market.

Dinosaur skeletons also for sale
Not everything is as it seems. This entire section of the market is artificial
Bryan Porter specialises in foliage. His family's been working at Covent Garden for 110 years

New Covent Garden Market, Nine Elms Lane, SW8 5BH. Open to the public Monday-Saturday, 4am-10am

Last Updated 04 April 2017