Bliss to be up at sparrow o’clock
Since 2007, when I started out as an events organiser, I’ve been a regular at New Covent Garden Flower Market. Everyone has heard of it, but apart from savvy church flower arrangers and DIY brides, few people outside the flower trade and catering and entertaining businesses know that they are welcome at the vast site, nestled between the high rises of Vauxhall and the towers of Battersea Power Station.
Think of it as an edgy garden centre-cumcool greenhouse. It is the place to find bargain flowers, plants and all the props. I love it.
On a visit last week, I bumped into Rob Van Helden, a renowned London florist whom I know from my time at the party planners Table Talk. He was stocking up on sprays of heather, thistles, hydrangeas, myrtle, astrantias and blackberries, along with ornamental cabbages, dahlias and veronica. As chief florist for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews this weekend, he was planning a Scottish theme with bouquets of brilliant blossom and beautiful table centres inspired by the landscape. He didn’t seem too fazed by the task: Rob and his assiduous workers do this sort of event at least two or three times a week, and spend a lot of time here.
The original market was, of course, in Covent Garden in the West End, where it had grown from a kitchen garden serving Westminster Abbey in the 1600s to a bustling ‘fruit ‘n’ veg’ and flower market. Since 1974, it has been located at Nine Elms on the south bank of the Thames. Today it is the largest market of its kind in the UK and the flower warehouse is home to more than 30 wholesale traders who work from 4am to 10am, Monday to Saturday.
It’s a place that every Londoner and visitor to the capital ought to experience – but it is one for the larks: 6am to 7am is prime time. Go earlier if you can (traders start packing up from 9am) to get the pick of the bunches. On the plus side the early rise means you get to see the city in the small hours, when the streets are sleepy and you can burn over the bridges. Be warned, it’s not warm in the market at sparrow o’clock at any time of year. The entrance fee is £5 if you bring a car, and you can park right outside. First impressions are underwhelming: there is no hint of colour or fragrance in the grim industrial surroundings – but step through the swinging doors and you enter an Aladdin’s cave of horticultural treasures.
Flowers of every hue fill every corner, aisles abound with foliage and shrubbery and the air is deliciously perfumed. In bunches, boxes and buckets, the variety is breathtaking: the florist’s favourite, traditional hybrid tea roses, are available in every possible shade – I love the sophisticated pastel ‘Quicksand’. Other favourites are the delicate nigella, or love in a mist, Golden Shower orchids, pots of mind-your-own-business, ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies and chincherinchee (also known as star of Bethlehem).
I usually grab a coffee and bacon buttie and talk to the always friendly and generally flirtatious traders. On this visit, Dennis, one of the sellers, presented me with a cluster of white roses with a beautiful heady scent which I accepted (blushingly, of course). The traders are a great source of information and, I’ve always found, happy to answer any question you have on flower care: for example, why do my orchids keep dying and how can I prolong the life of the (sadly, infrequent) bouquets that land on my doorstep?
Now I know to use sterilising tablets to keep vase water clean, understand the benefits of resting an ice cube on orchid soil once a week to release water slowly to the roots, and how to 1. Top read: From Nature to Plate by the Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin. Yummy recipes with Scotland’s finest ingredients, from grouse and venison to skate wings and scallops. 2. Demijohn: a specialist drinks deli founded in Edinburgh. Their bramble whisky liqueur is pure nectar. demijohn.co.uk 3. Paul Mounsey: a Scottish composer whose gorgeous song North featured on Visit Scotland ads. I recommend the albums Nahoo and NahooToo. 4. Highland Cross: I did this epic, 50-mile duathlon (20-mile fell run, 30-mile cycle) two years ago. It takes place annually, in June. 5. Academy of Flowers: This Covent Garden school offers fantastic flower-arranging courses. To book, call 0207 240 6359. make cut flowers last longer by searing the ends. (Cut off the stems by about an inch then dip them in boiling water – just the bottom 10 per cent – for about 10 seconds, then leave them in a deep bucket of water in a cool place, preferably overnight. Once they’ve had a good long drink you can arrange them to suit.) And as for the magic of Chrysal Professional Glory – a spray mist that enhances the life and colour of flowers (not faces, I’m afraid) – florists swear by it (£7.50 per bottle; find it at the market or online). I’m keeping a record of this floral wisdom; it’s a useful addition to my repertoire of world-renowned tips (“Be sure to point the nozzle of your Glory spray at the flowers” etc).
Most flowers at New Covent Garden are imported from Holland. However, there are a few specialist suppliers of seasonal Britishgrown flowers and foliage. GB Foliage is one of the best known. David Gorton has armfuls of outdoor-grown foliage which has a natural feel and reflects our seasons more closely. Pratley is another specialist that works with dozens of growers all over the UK. But distance is no object to florists, which perhaps explained why my friend Rob was lugging his Scottish flora all the way from London to St Andrews. I asked him how he chooses his flowers: “I look for the sizes of the heads, particularly for roses,” he said. “The stems have to be clean and I choose the traders that have the best variety of colour. For a job like the Dunhill, it’s not only about decoration, but also about timing. Flowers must be in their prime for the event. Some need a week to open, so we put them in a warm room to start the process”.
The market offers more than flowers and floral small talk: if you delve deeper you’ll find all the paraphernalia of flower-arranging, how-to books and every accessory you can imagine, from vases and ribbons to wire and wedding favours, baskets, wreaths, pillar candles and votives, storm lanterns, faux flowers, coloured pebbles, moss and bark, plus seasonal and festive decorations, and plenty of delights to titivate a canapé tray.
Inspired by what I’d seen, I was delighted when Rob invited me to his studio to try a little flowerarranging myself: with special florist scissors in hand, I confronted a birch wreath (purchased from the market) filled with Oasis and a bundle of heather-hued, sturdy and characterful shrubbery.
Obediently, I started with foliage first, then layered in my Scottish species as directed by Paul, who works with Rob at RVH Floral Design. “Arrange flowers in groups, not individually, for maximum impact,” he said.
To be honest it took more sweat and blood out of me than my recent foray in the boxing ring – artichoke thistles are lethal, while wielding the wire to firm up the stem of heather sprigs to stick into the Oasis had painful consequences. Of course, I carpeted the floor in foliage. It was not very different from attempting to decorate a cake for the first time, clumsy and chaotic but, dare I say it, the end results weren’t a far cry from what the golf pros and bystanders are enjoying at the Dunhill as you read this.
I fared better with the flanking decorations I made: submerged stems of astrantia and myrtle in cylindrical vases topped with a floating candle – minimum effort and maximum result. It was great fun, and starting the creative experience at the flower market made it a far more satisfying achievement. Much like buying a Christmas tree at a nursery, the picking and pruning are part of the enjoyment. Next stop, a flower-arranging course. Maybe I’ll be a DIY bride?
See more pictures of Pippa’s flower arranging online, exclusively at telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle
Standing tall: Pippa’s flanking decorations