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.