Once upon a time, there was a lazy tourist who’d visit London year after year, but never set foot in Portobello Market. It required of her all the things she hated: an early start, a belly packed with a large English breakfast and a bladder of steel. But one Saturday, she just upped and did. And lo, it was a sight to behold!
The market on Portobello Road is a 150-year-old institution and Europe’s largest flea market. On offer is just about everything: kitsch, antiques, fashion, souvenirs, décor and hand-crafted design, plus street artists and musicians. Many traders run businesses that are three and four generations old. They’re are always willing to open up and chat.
First-movers get the best deals; late risers get crowds and crabby traders. Reach between 10am and 10.30am so there’s scope for a cup of coffee before you start. The market begins to wrap up by 4pm. It gets fairly packed, but the crowds are far from rowdy.
Know where to go
Portobello Market essentially runs between the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill tube stations, making the tube the most convenient way to get there. Those aiming to head for the clothing sections should get off at Ladbroke Grove while the new goods and antiques section are better off alighting at Notting Hill.
How to bargain
At Ladbroke Grove, under the Westway flyover, is the treasure trove of younger designers and second-hand steals. This is where you can try (and most likely succeed) at bargaining. But do it with finesse. This isn’t Linking Road or Sarojini Nagar. It doesn’t help to walk away because no one is going to call you back! Instead, strike up a conversation, ask the price and start swooning over how gorgeous it is. At the precise moment you have the trader’s attention, start low but not unreasonable, and rise up to a price that is agreeable to both. Add an elongated ‘please’, bat your lashes. If it still doesn’t work, you’re probably too much of a cheapskate for Britain. Catch the next flight home and get your precious kadipatta free with dhaniya from the local grocer instead.
Spot an antique
Move quickly through the fashion section, unless something really catches your fancy. You’ll need to conserve your energy and brace yourself for Portobello Market’s star attraction: antiques! This section sprung up after the Second World War, and was established by the ‘Rag and Bone’ men who collected unwanted household items and set up stalls here to sell them at low rates. It’s morphed into an abundant never-ending supply of bric-a-brac and second-hand stuff.
A few stalls are a treat, like one exclusively for cameras, or the man selling clocks who has set up his stall every Saturday for decades and recounts tales of how “back in the day” they travelled about 1,000 km each week, looking for antiques. You can get Art Deco bookends for 150 quid and cuff links for about 25. Bargaining here is tougher, luck plays a bigger role in finding a steal; and if the item is authentically antique, expect to bargain longer and harder. Or head to a shop called Alice’s. If you’re lucky, they’ll put up an anything-for-4-quid stall outside the shop the day you visit! For serious antique collectors, this has the potential to be paradise. For lesser mortals, it’s a treat for the eyes, at least!
There are other shops selling new goods that make for better souvenirs than those Oxford Street “My aunt went to London and all I got was this lousy...” T-shirts. It costs more, but the gifts are more thoughtful, and there’s enough and more to trigger off a shopping spree. If you’ve succumbed to the charms of Portobello Road, you’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last.
Make the most of it
If you’re only coming for antiques, take a taxi and get off at the cross-section of Westbourne Grove and Portobello Road. Exit the market at Elgin Crescent.
If you don’t want to see antiques, head to the market on Friday. The antiques section is closed.
Just across the Westway flyover is the Golborne Market which also has fashion items and better bargains.
Stop at The Hummingbird Bakery, for their cupcakes. Also, Gail’s (in the antiques section) is known for its sandwiches and bread.
From HT Brunch, November 3
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