LONDON — While there are many outdoor markets in London, three are of special interest to the traveler. Portobello Road, Camden Passage and Bermondsey Market offer a wide variety of good merchandise at reasonable prices. And shopping there is entertaining.
Portobello Road, oldest and most famous of London's flea markets, is good fun. It's half market and half circus, a combination that has made outdoor antiquing a popular pursuit in London.
The milelong market, between Chepstow Villas and Golborne Road in London W1, has more than 2,000 stalls and a wide range of dealers. Some offer a wonderful blend of bric-a-brac and entertaining chatter. Some are more serious, specializing in such collectibles as Wedgwood and other English porcelain, antique lace and linens, oak furniture, silver, Victorian hardware, clocks and watches, toys or model trains.
Portobello Road actually is made up of several sections. Most posh is a five-block strip north of Chepstow Villas. Called the Collector's Corner, it is the oldest covered arcade and one of the market's best and priciest areas. It also is usually quite crowded.
Near Lonsdale Road, the market is filled with stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables imported from around the world. The area has an almost tropical ambience.
From Tavistock Road north to Golborne Road, there's a glut of secondhand junk: used clothing, costume jewelry, books, records and household goods. Saturday bicycle auctions are held in the shadow of the Westway highway overhead. Viewing begins at noon, and the sale starts at about 2 p.m. Sometimes there are also baby buggies and other vehicles for sale.
Portobello Road's storefront shops are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Saturday is market day and the place really springs into action near the make-shift stalls. At about 8 a.m., vendors begin unloading vans, setting up stalls and doing business with early customers, including London antique dealers scouting for unusual pieces at great prices. More casual browsers arrive at about 10:30 a.m. By noon, the market is a swarm of bargain hunters.
Activity winds down by about 4 p.m., and the market is closed by 5:30.
Bargaining is the sport at Portobello Road. For best prices, bid early in the day with the serious dealers, or very late, just before stall owners begin to pack up.
The Portobello Road market grew during the 1880s by selling inexpensive produce to locals. Antiques were introduced in about 1939, and arrived in force during the 1950s. Since then, Portobello has become quite fashionable.
Now, folk singers, jugglers and other street performers entertain erstwhile shoppers. The browsers themselves, a mix of dapper yuppies, tourists, suburbanites, spectacled gents and '60s holdovers, put on a pretty good show, too.
But mind your wallet. Portobello Road is a noted haunt for pickpockets.
Another of the market areas--Camden Passage, between Islington Green and Islington High Street (London N1)--is a newer, fancier and less-crowded market with higher prices than Portobello Road.
The first Camden Passage shop was opened in 1958. In 1960, John Friend, a local resident, put awnings up over Pierpont Row and Charlton Place and invited antique dealers to set up their wares in the area. By the early 1970s, a disused warehouse at the north end of the passage was converted into galleries and renamed Georgian Village. Then the old tram shed at the southern end was turned into the antique center called The Mall.
Camden's storefront shops are open weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The excellent roster includes:
Strike One, 51 Camden Passage, which sells clocks made before 1870, especially tavern clocks and English long-case clocks dated 1675 to 1820. Prices begin at about $4,000 and soar, but the museum-like shop is worth a browse, even if you can't afford to buy.
John Creed Antiques, on Camden Passage, specializes in restored pine furniture, including dining-room tables (from about $400), chests (from about $250) and chairs (from about $100) that can be shipped to your home.
Heritage Antiques, 112 Islington High St., sells 17th- to 19th-Century oak furniture and brass fittings, including andirons (from about $125), door knockers (from about $40) and trivets (from about $40). Some are reproductions, so ask before you buy.
Tadema Gallery, 10 Charlton Place, sells jewelry, paintings, ceramics, glass, furniture and other items from Jugendstil to art nouveau . Its Liberty jewelry collection includes rings (from about $150) and necklaces in gold (from about $900) and silver (from about $300).
Those who enjoy the thrill of investigating stalls should stalk Camden Passage on market days: Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is when the passage is crowded with makeshift stalls containing furniture, jewelry, books and curiosities.
The third market--Bermondsey Market, in Bermondsey Square near Abbey Street (London SE1)--attracts antique dealers who buy for resale at higher prices.