The Business of Buying in the UK: Part 1 – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2003
by Ed Welch
Buying in the United Kingdom is not complicated or expensive once you have solved the problems of shipping, lodging, transportation, and discovering the best places to buy.
Hotel rooms in London are expensive. A cheap room is $150 per night. A comfortable room is $250 per night. First-class hotels are much more. The best accommodations for an antique dealer on a buying trip is a bed and breakfast, many of which are located throughout central London. Room rates range in price from $65 to $120 per night and include a full English breakfast. The big breakfast is important because food in the UK, especially London, is expensive. More on saving money on food later.
You can search the Internet for a list of B&B’s in London. Many such businesses have websites with photos of their rooms, directions to the nearest Underground (the London subway) station, and information about the neighborhood. Make sure you use a B&B that is within easy walking distance (5 to 10 minutes) to an Underground station.
I will now do something that I rarely do: recommend one business over another. I recommend that you contact Anne Rouach in Fulham and stay at her B&B, which is located between two antique shopping areas with a third close by. The bus station into central London is a five-minute walk; the Underground station is a ten-minute walk. The neighborhood is safe at all hours and there are many restaurants and pubs nearby.
Anne will arrange to have you picked up at the airport for half the price you would normally pay. She will direct you to all the antique markets in London. She will arrange to get you to the correct railroad station if you plan to attend an antique market outside London. Moreover, she will guide you to the inexpensive pubs and restaurants the locals use, help you get inexpensive theater tickets, and much more.
My wife and I, my daughter and her husband, our in-laws, and our antique dealer friends all stay with Anne. The only drawback is that you must make your reservations early. She is always busy. Her room rates are moderate for London. You can find less expensive B&Bs but you can do no better if you are looking for a friendly, safe, and comfortable place to stay in London. Finally, Anne puts on the biggest, full English breakfast available. You could not possibly eat everything she has on the table. Because food is so expensive in London, many dealers discover that if they eat a large breakfast and grab a sandwich in the early afternoon from one of the many cafes, they save much money. Dinner will be the most expensive meal of the day and you can save money by patronizing one of the many local pubs.
Antique dealers on a buying trip to the London area have three unrelated transportation problems to solve: transport to and from the airport; getting around London; and rail transportation to and from out-lying antique fairs.
If you fly into Gatwick Airport, you must take a train to Victoria Station and then hire a taxi to take you to your room. It is difficult to use the Underground or bus carrying luggage. If you fly into Heathrow Airport, you may take a taxi directly from the airport. But beware. It can cost $120 for a taxi from the airport into London. However, if you have your host of hostess arrange this service, the price is generally around $50 including the tip.
Transportation from London back to the airport always costs less, usually $40. London cabs come in three sizes, small, smaller, and smallest. Be sure to tell your host or hostess the number of people and the number of pieces of luggage. Two adults with four suitcases and two carry-ons will need the largest cab possible.
A weeklong Underground pass for zones one and two is a must-have and should be purchased the day you arrive. This pass will give unlimited use of the Underground system as well as the bus system and costs about $30. To purchase an Underground pass you will need a copy of your passport photo. If you do not have an extra copy of your passport photo, have one made, and take it with you.
The London Antique Markets
Portobello Road is the most famous antique market in London. It is also the largest. Held every Saturday beginning one hour before daylight, the market continues until late in the afternoon. The first two blocks of Portobello Road are overcrowded with shops and with outside stalls. The venders operating from outside stalls tend to be less permanent then the dealers inside the many arcades. I like to shop the outside stalls first and then shop the inside markets. About several thousand dealers are displaying antiques and collectibles in this two-block section. The first three or four buildings of the third block features large multiple dealer shops plus the outside stalls. In addition to the shops and stalls on Portobello Road, one can find literally hundreds of vendors on the side streets that intersect Portobello Road.
About half way through the third block the focus of the market changes to food. For the remainder of this block and an additional two blocks one can find literally any type of food, vegetable, or meat. At this market, you can buy something to eat on the spot or to take with you. It is nearly impossible to pass the bakery shops without buying some type of pastry. Do not spend too much time in the food market just yet. You can always return for a snack, lunch, dinner, or all three.
Just beyond the food and vegetable section, you will notice an overpass that carries heavy traffic above the streets in this section of London. On the other side of the overpass is where the cheap merchandise and the real flea market begins. If you like to find sleepers and bargains, this is the place to look. The stalls tend to be cluttered. Nothing is cleaned, polished, or arranged. Most of the offerings are pure junk of the worst kind. Look over, under, and behind everything. Pick and paw through the box lots. I make two or three purchases in this section of Portobello Road every year, but I wish I could shop it every week.
Dealers, you must do this section of Portobello Road early in the morning using a flashlight. You will not be alone. All the fancy dealers from up the road will be here too. This section of the market runs from the overpass up Portobello Road to the village of Portobello. The market continues along the main street of Portobello. Dealers searching for inexpensive, in the rough, furniture should visit this section of the Portobello market.
Directions: Take the Underground to Notting Hill Gate. Exit the station to your right. At the first intersection, turn right and walk two blocks straight ahead. You will see the sign for Portobello Road across the street to your left. Walk down this road for five minutes until you come to the antique market.
Bermondsey market is held every Friday. This is a small antique and collectible market that is over by 11 a.m. Dealers should visit at 6 a.m. This is a true antique and collectible market, so there is no new stuff. Chances of finding a sleeper or under price item are excellent, but be careful of reproductions and fakes. Bermondsey Market is small, and all the outside stalls and inside booths can be visited in two hours. This market is no secret and many of London’s most prestigious antique dealers arrive early with flashlight in hand. My wife and I shop this show in the morning, take a nap in the afternoon, and attend the theater in the evening.
Directions: take the Underground to London Bridge Station. Exit London Bridge Station on the right hand side. When you exit the station turn right. The first business you should see is London Dungeon, a tourist trap that offers displays and exhibits about murder and torture in Medieval London. Walk straight ahead two or three blocks until you find a street sign for Bermondsey Road. Turn right and follow this road to the market. Walking time is between 15 and 20 minutes.
Camden Passage Market, held every Wednesday, is a small laid-back market that does not really get going until 9 a.m. The exception is the squatters, the illegal vendors, who display on blankets on sidewalks without a license.
I visit Camden Passage around 7 a.m. and shop the squatters if possible. The squatters keep one eye on you and the other eye out for counselors and the police. They can quickly grab all four corners of their blanket to gather their merchandise, which they throw over their shoulder, and disappear into the crowd if they see any authority.
Squatters pick dumps and the dredgings from the river Thames. Most of their merchandise is junk. But, every now and then rare items do turn up. This is the reason they are tolerated by the local antique community. Many squatters are street people and therefore, there is an unwritten rule that says “pay what they ask, do not dicker, do not pay more.” I have bought several antiques from squatters. I always pay the asking price without dickering, but I always feel as if I have cheated them.
Camden Passage is located in alleyways and walkways. Many of the shops are so small that only one person at a time can get inside a shop. The shops are so full of merchandise that it is sometimes impossible to see anything. Ask for what you want. Three multiple-dealer shops are located at Camden Passage. In these shops, dealers have more space and things are displayed in an orderly fashion. Still, it is best to ask for what you want. With the exception of the squatters who are gone by 9 a.m., Camden Passage is a quality market offering fine antiques. I purchase many items here every year.
Directions: Take the Underground to “Angel.” Exit the station to your right. Camden Passage is a five minutes walk straight ahead.
Covent Gardens market is held every Monday. This market is a combination of old and new. Plan to be at the market around 6 a.m. Some dealers will be set up that early, and many more will arrive between 7 and 8 a.m. The best way to shop this market is to keep circulating because the market is small. All the stalls, except a few located on the street, are easy to see. Buyers simply wait for a new vendor to arrive, go to that stall, and watch the dealer unload. Shopping is over by 10 a.m.
Directions: Take the Underground to Covent Gardens. The market is held in a large covered area within sight of the Underground station.
Be sure to pick up next month’s Journal of Antiques and Collectibles for Part 2 of this article, which will cover London antique centers, districts, roads, and many large markets outside London. Also included in Part 2 will be the names addresses, phone numbers, web pages, and email addresses of the show promoters, antique centers, and dealers covered in both articles along with the names and address, telephone numbers, and e-mail address of the B&B that I use along with web page listings for other lodgings.. Finally, I will include the names, addresses, and phone numbers of shippers who will deliver your purchases to your doorstep.
Portobello Road Antique Dealers Association maintains a booth along this road. Information on the many dealers, arcades, and markets is available at this information booth. You can purchase a copy of Portobello Road Antique Dealers Association booklet by telephone at 011 44 (0)20 7229 8354. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to information on Portobello Road, you can find flyers and brochures on other UK antique events.
Continue to The Business of Buying in the UK, Part Two