29 Jul London, Part IV: antique hunting

(Note: we went to London to search out the history/life of John Marshall, for whom the Marshall Islands were named.)

As London sits atop thirty layered feet of its ancient past, Londoners are always digging up stuff–a handful of roman coins, a medieval dolmen, a Druid bog man. “Old” for the Brits is very different than old for us Yanks. So Jill and I were eager to do some serious London antiquing. On Friday, we made the pre-dawn flea market at Bermondsey, just south of the Thames, in the warehouse district–which includes the old leather-tanning district (where, yes, I found a street named “Tanner”). The market wasn’t large but it was interesting. I saw an indenture on sheepskin, dated 1656. I picked up a way-cool little book, published in 1821, titled “The Voyager’s Companion; or Shell Collector’s Pilot with Instructions and Directions where to find the finest Shells; also for preserving the skins of animals; and the Best Methods of Catching and Preserving Insects, &c, &c, &c.” It has a couple of hand-tinted illustrations.

The book seller asked me if I was going to Sunbury on Tuesday. Jill and I looked at each other in surprise. Sunbury? “Oh, yes,” he said. “You’ll have 700 antiques dealers there. Happens every fortnight.” I nearly swooned (not because he said “fortnight”). Jill had to prop me up. Where is this place? We made him repeat, then spell, the name three times. We were not going to miss out on London’s biggest antiques show. Tuesday morning we were up at 3:30 A.M. Now wary of British transit systems (see previous post), we did thorough research and learned that, a) at that hour, we could get to this distant suburb only by bus–actually 3 buses; b) the bus wouldn’t take us all the way; c) there would be some walking; and d) we should give ourselves at least two hours’ travel time. Jill drew a map and took copious notes.

At 6:30 A.M., as the gates of Kempton Race Track–the site of the show–opened, we were among the crowd, most of whom seemed to be antiques dealers themselves, which pleased us immeasurably because it meant we were in for the Real Thing. It was as large as any flea market we’ve been too–three buildings, three large parking lots. Mind you, this was exclusively antiques, not junk. So prices were mostly high. The Brit dealer shares a lot of similarities with the American dealer. They’re a scruffy, wily lot. Theirs is a world of chance and scramble. That makes them edgy. They are itinerant, traveling far and wide for the good find. More than a few look like they live in their vans. Some are charlatans, some are unfit for anything but self-employment. A lot of them are “characters,” like the near-toothless French woman selling jewelry, hoarsely calling her bargains to passersby. Generally, antiques dealers give the impression that little stands between them and ruin.

The exception, of course, are dealers with chi-chi shops, those dark, low- ceilinged floor-creaky places that reek of furniture polish and pretension. Jill and I look at these like museums. We’d rather be in the fields and parking lots with the hard-scrabble gypsies. And so we were at Sunbury. Typical of an English summer, it was raining hard by 10:00, which made me pity the dealers but I figured they were used to it. An hour later, it was sunny. Jill and I showed remarkable restraint until I pointed out a way-cool impressionistic oil painting. She made me pull up AskArt.com on my smart phone for some quick research. Turns out the artist, a nineteenth-century Scot, is “listed.” So we brought home the painting swaddled in a towel, Jill carrying it onto the plane like a baby.

Before leaving London, we visited the Foundling Home museum, which was created in 1729 to take in London’s growing crowds of homeless children. Many single women gave up their children in order to work and, if lucky, get a new start on life. But these women left keepsakes with their children so that, years later, the children could locate their mothers. Or so the mothers hoped. Actually, the Foundling Home administrators collected all the keepsakes and the children never saw them. The museum exhibits several cases of these heartbreaking mementos.

Jill and I got in the habit of eating incredibly rich food for snacks and lunchtime sandwiches. A favorite was chicken liver pate and mushrooms, with some Irish cheddar on “brown bread,” followed by some raspberry-almond tarts. OMG! At our Baltimore Safeway, you can only buy raw chicken liver and it’s none too appetizing: purplish jelly-like organs in a plastic container. Jill became a fan of “cream tea,” which means you get not only the usual kettle of brain-stunning black tea but also a fist-sized heart-clogging scone with a double-rich butter spread called, ominously, “clotted cream.”

One afternoon, while strolling, we encountered a cat and took time to make his acquaintance. I said, “Too bad we don’t have anything to give him.” Jill said, “But we do!” She still had a pastry container with a leftover dollop of clotted cream. That’s how bad we were–there was always something in our bag, either a remnant of a heart-clutching goodie recently consumed or a sweet we’d soon consume with moans of eye-rolling pleasure and nods of confirmation that, my god, life is short and we should live like this every day.