Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we take a few days to do not much but wander, shop, and pretend we’re locals.
14: A Quiet Weekend
We took the weekend off from day-trips, wanting to get some rest. We were really feeling the toll of two full weeks as full-time tourists. I know that this is a real First World Problem, but nonetheless, we were pretty well knackered by the time this weekend rolled round: aching legs, no stamina to speak of, and a definite lowering of patience. The only thing on our weekend’s must-do list was a trip back to the Saturday market at Portobello Road. Our last visit to London we went to the market and met Mike the Estate Guy, a jewelry broker who sells vintage jewelry at great prices, and my wife found a beautiful sapphire ring that she wears just about every day. Today, we were going back and hoping to find Mike again.
On any other day of the week, Portobello Road is a pretty normal neighborhood market street: it has a smattering of shops at the lower end, some fruit and veg vendors around the middle, and some cafés and trendy little gastropubs up near the Westway flyover. On Saturday, though, it becomes something else altogether. On Saturday, it becomes the biggest market in the city. Its full-mile length becomes pedestrian-only. The southern third is filled with antiques…and pseudo-antiques, but primarily really good antiques, both in shops, in stalls tucked back into stable-like depths, and on tables and kiosks set up along the sidewalks. The middle third of the road is still fruit-and-veg, but the vendors have multiplied, pushing out into the street, alternating their wares with those of vendors selling cooked food. And the northern third of the street becomes packed with vendors of clothing (new and vintage), accessories, shoes, boots, CDs, baubles, hats, scarves, tchotchkes, and all sorts of second-hand rubbish. And everywhere there isn’t a vendor or a beggar with his dog or (unbelievably) a parked car (who leaves his red Alfa Romeo parked out on Portobello Road on Saturday?) there’s a tourist toddling aimlessly in a general northerly direction.
We alit from our bus at Notting Hill Gate and walked the short distance to the start of Portobello Road. It wasn’t hard to find; if the signs pointing you in the right direction weren’t enough, all you had to do was fall in with the crush of people heading up Pembridge Street from the Gate. It was cool, but sunny. The street was surrounded by blooms—cherry, acacia, lilac, wisteria—and as we made our way past George Orwell’s home, we were in the thick of the press. We kept our eyes open, looking for anything familiar, trying to remember where it was Mike the Estate Guy had his stall; I remembered it was on the east side, back in a cave-like collection of stalls in the first third of the street, but that’s a big area and describes a lot of places. And, of course, we were getting distracted by all the wonderful vintage and antique items for sale all around us. We were snagged by a lace seller, her table covered with Battenberg and vintage Italian lace. We looked at several pieces, all beautiful, and settled on a 52-inch square of Irish embroidered linen with a crocheted border. First Blood.
Then, a short distance later, I recognized an antique print shop. We looked right and saw a deep collection of stalls, but it seemed too bright to be the correct place. We went in anyway, and soon we saw the grey-fringed head, the long-nosed face, and recognized Mike the Estate Guy. He didn’t remember us, of course, but he was pleased to have repeat business (even if it was only once every four years). My wife tucked into his offerings, trying this and that. He had pieces from the ‘70s, from more recent times, and in a special case, from Edwardian and Victorian eras. My wife found a ring (‘70s vintage) at about ½ the price it would command retail, and we made our second kill. Third kill came before we even left the warren of stalls: a locket of rolled gold, late Edwardian.
We headed up the street a bit more and I was distracted by a rack of walking sticks. I’d seen some great ones, earlier, but mostly they were ones with hidden blades, so antique or not, there was no way I would be getting one of those on the airplane. This rack looked even nicer. Beautiful they were, some gold-chased, several with silver or ivory heads. One in particular caught my attention, and at that point an old woman with a blind eye and a cane of her own maneuvered past us and settled herself in the chair behind the rack. “That’s an undertaker’s staff, that is,” she said. “Go ahead. Unscrew the top.” We did, and found in the hollow shaft a long hardwood rod, marked as a measuring stick. “Wasn’t good form to walk into the house of a recently departed with a ruler in your hand,” she said. It was great, full of character, with a great story and history, but it was dear—£350—and I had no idea if I could get it on the plane, so I passed it by. Other things caught my eye, too—wax seal stamps carved from semi-precious stone and set in rings or in pronged pendants, a Flynn English chain-drive pocket watch movement ca. 1800—but nothing I couldn’t live without, nothing that made my heart race.
Eventually, we made our way out of the antique section and stopped for lunch at a pizzeria. We each ordered a drink and a small “personal” pizza (25cm). The waitress came back with this little trestle that she put between us on the small table. In my estimation, whenever the staff takes your order and returns with paraphernalia, it’s a bad sign. At best, it’s going to be an embarrassing amount of food; at worst, singing will be involved. This turned out to be not as bad as I expected, since what they did was to combine our two 25cm pizzas into one long 50cm pizza with two toppings. It was served on a plank that rested on the trestle (the table was too small for it, otherwise). It was super-thin crust, top-notch ingredients, and very good.
We headed up into the fruit-and-veg section, got fresh feta swimming in olive oil, warm ciabatta, creamy hummus, tomatoes on the vine, and super-sweet red grapes. In the junky-stuff area past the Westway flyover my wife picked up a pair of pewter earrings, we got a bunch of flowers for the room, and by then we were done. It had taken us three hours to walk a single mile, but it was tons of fun.
Sunday, though, we did nothing. We took a walk through the gardens at Kensington Memorial, had tea at the St Helens Bakery, roasted a chicken, and I got caught up with my emails.
The weather had been threatening to improve even more during the coming week, which didn’t please us much. In all our visits to Britain—about 30 days, if you tot them all up—we have experienced a total of ½ day of drizzle. The weather is always “unseasonably pleasant” when we’re here, autumn or spring, and this coming week, it was threatening to top 70F. We’d brought clothing for mid-50s—we’d brought clothing for Spring, for crying out loud—but had been battling summer weather the whole time. We’d been washing my one short-sleeve shirt every night, the Brits were all complaining about “6 weeks without measurable rainfall,” and now it was threatening to get even BETTER! What rotten luck!
Tomorrow, another day-trip: Canterbury.