In converted warehouses and under disused railway arches across London, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and independent start-ups are breathing new life into Britain’s traditional trades.
The air in New Covent Garden Market is heavy with the scent of a thousand blooming lilies.
The biggest wholesale flower market in the UK, New Covent Garden spans across a 23-hectare (57-acre) site in Battersea, South London. In the 1960s, the bustling shop floor was packed with buckets of British-grown blooms, from Scottish bell heather to Cornish snapdragons. Florists, event planners and shopkeepers would arrive at the break of dawn to bid on the flowers, shuttling their finds to high streets and café tables across the city.
But starting in the 1970s, the British cut-flower industry began to suffer. Demand for out-of-season flowers – peonies and daffodils in winter – meant independent farms couldn’t compete with the cost and quality of imported flowers; flourishing under government-supported programmes, the Dutch market and its subsidised greenhouses grew to dominate European supply.
While the UK still spends around £2 billion ($2.6 billion) a year on cut flowers today, around 90 percent of the blooms sold are imported. At New Covent Garden Market, it is Dutch, Colombian and Kenyan flowers that rule the halls.
But now, thanks in part to digital start-ups such as Florismart, British flower farms are blooming once more. The London-based business, founded by florist-turned-entrepreneur Steve France, is the world’s first online buying platform for florists. The portal makes domestically grown flowers more accessible by directly connecting florists with farms and allowing consumers to search by postcode for shops that stock UK blooms.
It also leverages social platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest to try and convince consumers of the benefits of buying British. Piggybacking on the popularity of food industry trends such as ethical sourcing and seasonal and local production, Florismart’s Instagram feed is peppered with posts about the freshness of its UK flowers, which haven’t been mass cultivated, sprayed with preservatives and transported across time zones. While imports still rule New Covent Garden, UK-grown flowers have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, slowly clawing back part of the market.
But it’s not just Florismart. Across the capital, entrepreneurs are turning to innovation as much as tradition to breathe new life into age-old industries as diverse as knife forging and fish smoking. Whether they’re using social media as their shopfront, insisting on processes that respect the area’s landscape or carrying on the lineage of local makers, London start-ups are revitalising Britain’s traditional trades.
“Up until the late 1980s, London was teeming with small craft companies producing prestigious items for many of the top luxury shops and world export,” says Alison Winfield-Chislett, founder of education and skills studio The Goodlife Centre. “Southwark, Shoreditch and the East End contained a wealth of suppliers – but as property prices rose, the small companies closed down and the last generation of skilled manual labourers had to retire.”
Now, in an effort to revitalise these once prevalent trades, The Goodlife Centre offers workshops in skills such as upholstery, woodwork and carpentry, furniture restoration, and traditional handicrafts. A large, light space with slanted roofs and lots of metal windows, the studio has retained the majority of its original features – “so that the space feels inspirational and inviting to the making process”, says Winfield-Chislett. “We want learning craft skills to be infectious and spread to the future generations to keep Britain’s tradition as a provider of luxury crafts alive.”
Since launching in 2015, Wood Green-based Mark + Fold has provided an alternative to mass-market stationery.
“I’m a Londoner and the business has always been based here,” says founder Amy Cooper-Wright. “We’re proud to handmake and finish our products here in London, which seems an increasingly rare thing.”
The start-up’s range of modern notebooks are bound in Britain, Europe and the Mark + Fold studio in London, while their elements are made across the UK. “We’re proud to support some of the last surviving paper mills in Aberdeenshire and the Lake District. They make some of the finest papers in the world, and their processes respect the local landscape and environment. It can be difficult to persuade people to pay a little more for this, but it makes a huge difference, not least because we can say that we have visited and seen with our own eyes how these materials are made, rather than sourcing them from the other side of the world, without really knowing what processes have gone into them.”
Housed in a Peckham railway arch with a long history of metalwork artistry, Blenheim Forge creates high-quality, hand-forged kitchen knives favoured by London’s best chefs.
“There’s been a working forge at Arch 229 for at least 30 years and probably longer,” says co-founder and bladesmith Jon Warshawsky. “We definitely see ourselves as continuing a long line of local makers.”
The founding trio of self-taught smiths began knife-making as a hobby in their back garden, eventually moving into their current space after its previous owners let them use it to practise on weekends. Today, the start-up produces everything locally, including the majority of the tools and machines it uses.
“I think people are showing an increased interest in the provenance of what they buy and use, both in terms of what kind of production process is used and where it takes place,” says Warshawsky. “This is coupled with a growing tendency to prefer products that are made to be maintained and repaired over years rather than disposed of and replaced. We offer a knife that needs more looking after, but it will outlast and outperform anything mass-produced.”
Founded in 2012, independent eyeglass manufacturer Cubitts creates handcrafted frames, lenses, glasses and sunglasses, constructed with custom pins.
Headquartered in King’s Cross, the spectacle workshop was the first to open in London in three generations – “a small step in our attempt to revive the traditional craft of bespoke spectacle-making, once clustered around just the Clerkenwell area”, says founder Tom Broughton.
“We make our frames in the traditional way, with pin-drilled hinges, rather than the more common heat sunk. We believe in tradition for purpose, not nostalgia – [pin-drilled] is better because it means a frame can easily be repaired should the hinge break.”
Referencing the area’s heritage, Cubitts incorporates design details from King’s Cross into the frames themselves. Named after Lewis Cubitt, the civil engineer who designed King’s Cross railway station, the company uses “the shape of Lewis Cubitt’s original architectural butterfly rivet, which can still be found in Granary Square, for the structural pins in all our acetate and horn frames”, says Broughton.
In London Fields in the city’s East End, Secret Smokehouse founder Max Bergius hand-cures and smokes salmon, trout, kippers and haddock using traditional methods and oak sawdust.
“It’s all about heritage and tradition,” says Bergius, who hails from the West Coast of Scotland, where he began smoking fish at a young age. Awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2017 – one of three European designations created to protect regional foods that have a specific quality and reputation – for their London Cure Smoked Salmon, Secret Smokehouse supplies clients including two-Michelin-star chef Claude Bosi, and The Marksman, Wiltons and Ellory restaurants. “That’s as good as it will ever get from the elite of chefs,” says Bergius. “We just do one thing well, and [it’s] what we love.”