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Bargains by the pound in London

The dance of hawker and patron endures in the city's colorful, always-evolving street markets, some of them in business for centuries.

November 30, 2003|John Lee | Special to The Times

London — Petticoat Lane is still the best place for a hot egg and bacon sandwich at 7 a.m., sold from a rusting roadside van seemingly held together by layers of old cooking fat. Camden's warren of markets remains the best spot for browsing a kaleidoscope of trendy arts and crafts, and Portobello Road still operates like a giant open-air bric-a-brac museum.

It's been 15 years since I was a London street trader, hawking cheap Indonesian handicrafts on a table covered with a bright red batik sheet. But a recent visit to several of the capital's greatest outdoor and covered markets brought back vivid memories of some of my favorite haunts.

Late last May, on a cloudless blue-sky weekend that could have been in the height of summer, I visited some of the markets I had once worked, along with a few others that I had never seen. I wanted to see how things had changed since my street-vending days and also find out each market's specialty, where the best shopping was and, of course, what was available to eat besides the early-morning greasy sandwich.

London has 62 diverse street markets, and many, like the gentrified huddle of arts and antiques stalls along Covent Garden's cobbled walkways, have been around for centuries. None of these markets rests on its laurels. With their ever-changing roster of vendors, they're always adapting to the times and needs of their patrons.

Petticoat Lane

Perhaps the most famous and -- judging by the crush of locals and out-of-towners when I visited on a Sunday -- certainly among the most popular is Petticoat Lane Market in the city's rough and ready East London area. It's touted as the largest market in Europe, although this may be a stretch of the truth worthy of some of the hawkers who tout their "designer" goods here.

Petticoat Lane, which snakes through unremarkable back streets lined with cheap tailor, milliner and luggage shops, is predominantly a market for inexpensive clothing and housewares.

When I visited, dollar-store pots and pans jostled for space with "Calvin Sport" underwear at many stalls, and there was a whiff of black market illegality that prompted several traders to look nervous when I pulled out my notepad.

But spotting the most ludicrous fake and wannabe designer goods is a fun way to pass time. Where else can you buy a $9 "Polo Lauren" golf shirt or pick up the latest watches, accessories and sweaters from such nonexistent design houses as Senate, Swiss Skier and Roberto Bertalicci?

Longtime stall holders at Petticoat Lane also add to the entertainment. A few families have been trading at this market for years; their prime pitches -- as the space for the stalls and tables is called -- and slick sales patois have been handed down through generations.

When I worked here, I was awed by several stooped, elderly stall holders who kept up running commentaries on their products, engaging passersby with their brazen banter and incredible offers.

These old-school market traders -- and there are still some working today -- were as entertaining as music hall comedians, and I escaped my stall as often as I could to watch them, all the while making sure I kept enough distance to avoid being roped into making a purchase.

There was a dedicated street for temporary pitchers, or sellers, like me when I worked on Petticoat Lane in the late 1980s.

A collection of irregular traders turned up at 7 a.m. Sundays, hoping the surly market superintendent would hand them a stall.

There was usually enough space for everyone -- the market seemed to spread at will throughout the surrounding streets -- and even if the regular traders kept their distance from the "temps," the customers were always pleased to see a new stall.

Camden Lock

It was much harder to win a space at Camden Lock Market in northwest London. Camden contains several markets along its busy High Street, some tumbling into each other so that the lines between them are blurred. Camden Lock Market, where hundreds of indoor and outdoor pitches mingle in a combination of bustling hippie utopia and craven commercial success, is the main market.

When I worked here, temporary traders had to arrive at 8 a.m. on Saturdays or Sundays and enter their names in a hat. Those drawn could rent pitches for the day.

Today's Camden Lock Market has a more artsy and eclectic collection of goods. Hand-decorated glass vases compete for attention with bizarrely painted vintage leather briefcases, while flower petal pendants and carved picture frames populate many stalls. For the kitsch-minded, Jesus action figures and Che Guevara T-shirts and coffee mugs are also for sale.

Although the goods at this market are great for browsing, the food is a definite buy. Of all London's markets, Camden Lock has the best and most international selection. Its two outdoor food courts, with dozens of stalls, feature huge pots of spicy Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisine.

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