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.
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.”
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. Continued...