Aaah, Portobello Road market - opinion is strongly divided on this world-famous London attraction (particularly after the smash-hit ‘Notting Hill'). Fans rave about its energy, vibrancy, sheer range of goods (a little bit of everything) and unique atmosphere. Critics regard it as a parody of a street market, a misery to wander through (indeed, the crush can be hard to take on Saturdays) and a breeding ground for pickpockets, rogue traders and gullible tourists.
As a Londoner, and someone who’s been coming here for over 30 years, I’m sympathetic to both viewpoints. There are times I can’t help but feel joy, as I wander the market, rummaging through bric-a-brac, noshing on street food and gazing at the pastal coloured houses that are the trademark of the area. On other occasions, particularly when it’s pelting with rain or I’m being forced to elbow my way through heaving crowds, I can’t believe I’ve been fool enough to make the trip.
Yet still I return - more so now on Fridays (when it’s the vibe is far calmer) but still, occasionally, on a Saturday, losing myself in the energy that is part of any large market and particularly this one. This is a market with something for everyone - antiques, vintage ware, bric-a-brac, street food, tacky souvenirs, old vinyl (now making a comeback!), a bewildering range of clothing (from leather jackets to fancy hats, this market has it all) and football memorabilia.
I’m starting today in the antiques part of the market. To get there, come out of the tube, walk down Pembridge Road and turn left into Portobello Road. Stroll past the adorable mews houses, until you reach to the intersection with Chepstow Villa. This is the start of the antiques section, with endless stalls outside and many more inside the galleries. The Silver Fox, Admiral Vernon, Teapot Gallery and Rogers are some of the 1,000 dealers that ply their trade here each weekend. For real bargains, you need to be here between 8-9 am - a couple of hours later and the area will be extremely busy!
The antiques market has been running since the 1940's and when you talk to the collectors there, you’ll immediately feel their passion. Whether it’s Chinese lithographs, Art Deco glass, vintage jewellery or Victorian clocks, these people know their job. Many learned the trade from their parents - including my good friend Marion who runs ‘Delahar’ at 146 Portobello Road. Her astonishing store store has been open for close to four decades and, as god is my witness, what she doesn’t know about her items can be written a postage stamp. Just popping in and seeing what’s new on her shelves is a fine art lesson in itself (Marion, like most of the traders, is up at 4am on Saturdays and at the market by 7am, walking around the area and with her trained eagle eye, pouncing on bargains!)
Unfortunately there is a darker side - in the last decade, developers have moved in and in their quest to make money are driving out more and more individual traders, replacing them with stalls that sell tacky clothes, bags and everything else that has nothing to do with antiques. This is a tremendous pity. Luckily, dealers like my friend Marion are putting up a fight determined not to be driven out. Here’s a great link to the manner in which she agitated and galvanised support against one of these devils…
Each Saturday (and sometimes Friday) you’ll find Marion and her fellow traders in their regular spots, ready to give you the story behind any particular item. For those who want to buy, I would say that haggling isn’t acceptable (just don't go overboard, that's all!) There’s pretty much nothing you can’t stumble upon - on my last wander, for instance, I browsed through old stamps, war souvenirs, toy soldiers, antique cufflinks, Art Deco mirrors, 1930’s style telephones, crystal goblets, and sterling silver cutlery…to name but a few items.
Bottom line - the antiques market really is a wonderful place to visit, whether you’re a serious collector or - like me - simply curious. For sure, it’s easy to spend a few hours in this section of the market alone…good job there are plenty of places to grab a cuppa (or a latte) and rest your weary feet before resuming your search for that elusive bargain. Officially, trading ceases at 5pm but, in reality, stalls begin shutting up at 4pm.
My advice - go, but go early! (And by early, I mean before 10am!)
Next time I’ll be back on Portobello, but wandering in the food and vintage parts of the market…