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Vintage hunting in London

Portobello Road, the city’s most famous antiques market, has stalls that specialize.

ISTOCK PHOTO

Portobello Road, the city’s most famous antiques market, has stalls that specialize.

I’m wandering past the low-rise Victorian railway arches of Bermondsey, South London, bleary-eyed at 6:30 on a Friday morning. The rising sun has smeared pink down the nearby Shard, the city’s newest, tallest tower, and London is waking up, starting to buzz.

I’m here for the weekly antiques market. Bermondsey is the first stop on a long weekend exploring London’s flea, vintage, and antiques fairs.

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The city has had an affinity with thrift ever since traders sold cast-off clothes on old London Bridge in medieval times, and in recent years a resurgence of interest in secondhand goods, born of trend and straitened times, has given the city’s antiques and vintage markets a new lease on life. Each has its character, each its deep connection to the neighborhood. Indeed, browsing around London’s recycled, upcycled, and venerable old stock is a great way of getting to know the different parts of the city.

The affable traders at Bermondsey Square Antiques Market have seen more changes than most in the last decade. They describe how the area, a 10-minute walk south of Tower Bridge, has shaken off the dogged dereliction of postwar neglect, having been restored and developed into a mix of rejuvenated warehouses and new apartments. The antiques market continues to take center stage every Friday morning, as it has since 1948, albeit now with a reduced cast of two dozen stalls where once there were hundreds.

It’s the place for genuine but affordable antiques, for silverware (cutlery in particular) and jewelry (both costume and antique), but also for more prosaic objects, such as box Brownie cameras, cigarette cases, and shoehorns. And it’s one of the few surviving London antiques markets to keep its predawn kickoff — trading can begin at 4 a.m. and is all but finished by lunchtime. Hence my early start.

“I’ll give you a pound if you can tell me what’s inside this stick,” said one of the traders. Unscrewing the egg-shaped top of a walking stick he pulls out a small white tube, attaches it to the ivory top and mimics puffing on the assembled miniature pipe. Hymie Blechman, like several of the traders in Bermondsey, has been setting up here in the middle of the night for decades. “Been traveling up from Dorset each Friday since 1965,” he confirmed. “And it’s still worth it; reducing the size of the market has improved the quality of what’s being sold.”

Brick Lane Market, running up to Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch.

Andrew Whittaker

Brick Lane Market, running up to Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch.

I passed up Hymie’s deal on the walking stick, but did buy two 19th-century postcards that showed neighboring Southwark in its pre-Blitz patchwork of dense, darkly stained buildings. With the market fully explored (you can get round it in an hour), I followed another trader’s advice and walked up to the river, to Butler’s Wharf, where the brick warehouses, gantries, and alleyways offer a teasing glimpse of how Thameside London must have looked in the days of Dickens.

On Saturday the focus for pre-loved markets moves north. Stepping off the Tube at Notting Hill Gate, I began the walk toward Portobello Road, moving with the tide of people flowing past pastel-painted townhouses. London’s most famous antiques market is a vibrant affair. Really, it’s a string of small markets, each with its specialty, from antiques to food to vintage. I found the genuine antiques stalls running down the hill at the southern end of the road, in front of the antiques shops and arcades. The shops sell the rarefied goods — collectible pewter, porcelain, and prints — but the market stalls are more interesting, with their vintage luggage and trays of hand-weathered printers’ blocks.

Farther up Portobello Road, where the Westway roars overhead, I found the vintage traders huddled under the freeway and selling everything from gramophone players to fur stoles. Here London’s love of vintage comes to the fore: bits of mid-century modern furniture, vinyl records, 1980s sportswear, and a fine selection of secondhand Barbour jackets, one of which fit me perfectly. I paid the asking price after a half-hearted haggle (most stallholders here seem happy to negotiate, but don’t expect or demand bargains).

The farther up Portobello Road I walked, the more offbeat the goods became — old prams, crumbling picture frames, wooden-frame tennis rackets — and eventually I reached the scruffy pitches of Golborne Road, a stretch of neat Victorian symmetry crouching under the weird brutalist beauty of the Trellick Tower, where the bric-a-brac sellers lay out the detritus of modern life in crates on the sidewalk. The walk was worth it for the van selling Moroccan fried fish, a local landmark on wheels I was told. I headed for Ladbroke Grove Tube Station clutching a Styrofoam box full of grilled sardines.

The best Portobello Road stalls for vintage are found under the Westway. This stall specialized in old gramophone and record players

Andrew Whittaker

The best Portobello Road stalls for vintage are found under the Westway. This stall specialized in old gramophone and record players.

In Islington, the bijou Saturday antiques market in Camden Passage (not to be confused with the extensive, tourist-thronged markets of Camden Town) was more manageable, easily covered in two hours’ browsing.

Camden Passage has been an Islington institution since the 1960s, and the antiques and vintage shops that mark its route confirm its pedigree. The alleyways of the Passage take you back to pre-car London, and the elegant roads behind make for a fine ramble after the market. The stalls here crowded the sidewalk, pushing tea sets, jewelry, and stuffed animals under my nose. The feel was comfortable, genteel — the traders happy to chat about the way the market had changed over the years.

By contrast, the Sunday morning market in Brick Lane felt like a boisterous upstart. Right in the heart of the old East End, the lane unravels like a metaphor for modern London. At one end the migrant Bangladeshi community is celebrated for its culture and food (dubbed “Banglatown” no less); in the middle the cafes and vintage clothes stores cater to the cool East London crowd; and dotted throughout, tucked under dank railway arches or in lock-ups packed to the ceiling with stuff, the remnants of Brick Lane’s old working class community scratches out a living. Setting up along a stretch of the northern end of Brick Lane, the Sunday morning flea market binds the elements together.

There’s little point in getting to Brick Lane early. I did, and spent an hour in one of the lane’s cozy coffee shops, bacon sandwich in hand, waiting for the action to begin. When it did, it was haphazard and full of color — a flea market at its best. The stalls set up in any available space in and around the lane: in car parks, on building sites, in old warehouses.

You won’t find antiques here, but you will find pretty much anything else with a previous life, from vintage clothes and furniture to electric drills, cellphone chargers, and picture frames. One stall seemed to specialize in gas masks and Barbie dolls, the connection not immediately obvious. I found myself paying for a scuffed pair of genuine 1980s Puma Meteor kicks, size 10. Perhaps I’ll grow into them.

It’s a 10-minute walk from Brick Lane to Old Spitalfields, where the Sunday vintage market is more polished. The houses passed along the way are some of the oldest in London, dating from the area’s 18th-century incarnation as a haven for Huguenot silk weavers. At Dennis Servers’s House on Folgate Street, preserved in its original state, you can apparently see (and smell) how the weavers would have lived. I passed up the opportunity in favor of a pint of bitter in The Ten Bells on Commercial Street, a pub once frequented by two of Jack the Ripper’s victims, possibly even the Ripper himself. The Victorian tiles and weathered wood (and, unfortunately, the washrooms) generate an intoxicating 19th-century ambience, even while the clientele is modern-urban.

The large, covered expanse of Old Spitalfields places vintage and retro goods alongside craft stalls and fashion students selling their latest creations. It’s a lively area, the central section of the market given over to cafes and restaurants, and the surrounding streets packed with interesting independent shops, from delicatessens to the Duke of Uke, the only store I’ve ever seen that specializes in ukuleles.

My three-day tour had taken me to parts of the city that wouldn’t otherwise have been on my itinerary. The markets are full of life and characters, and hugely varied. Just make sure you check your baggage allowance before buying or you might end up handing a prized pair of ill-fitting sneakers to a man in uniform at the airport.

Andrew Whittaker can be reached at www.andrewwhittaker.co.uk.
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