In your checklist of London-y activities to do — including tea time, drinking a pint, red telephone booth selfies, making faces at the royal guard and oppressing the working class — a stroll up Portobello Road market on Saturday is up there. While there are stalls every day of the week, Saturday morning is where the scene is at maximum strength, and maximum crowds.
Forget visions of a leisurely stroll down quaint streets like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. The area has some of the highest rents in the city and that mom & pop store has been replaced by a Starbucks. With that said, you can still find some wonderful antiques and artisan eats among the chain stores and nonsense.
Obviously, antiquing is not for everyone. The veracity of the goods in some of the stalls can be debatable. You’ll see a stall with old rugby and cricket balls with their attractive aged-leather skin and early-1900s typography. Then you walk a few stalls up the street and you see the same old rugby and cricket balls. As much as I would love a real or fake rugby ball, I’m not sure how I would get that back home. As a conversation piece, I think that conversation would last more 30 seconds.
What I have bought in the past are some cigarette cards and vintage maps. Cigarette cards were a precursor to baseball cards where they would show a variety of subjects like flowers, insects, sportsmen and (what I bought) automobiles. The real vintage ones will cost you a small fortune, but the pre-matted recreations are reasonable. Rub some coffee grounds on it and tell people it’s vintage.
If I had the resources, finances and space in my house, I would buy up some World War II paraphernalia. We’re talking canteens, gas masks, holsters, compasses, buckles and medals. I’m sure British TSA wouldn’t mind me traveling with a gas-mask in my carry-on.
Beyond the antiques, you’ll find local artists selling the usual jewelry, screen-print t-shirt, canvas bags and embroidery. I spotted this fun stall on my last visit in October. It’s like the Fantastic Mr. Fox in tea towel form.
Food wise, you’ll find the usual assortments of treats, international foods, juices, veggies and grilled meats. These donuts are calling you.
I’ll give you a few store to check out during your visit. Located near the start of Portobello Road, Stumper & Fielding is a clothing, accessories and home goods store where you can live out your Downton Abbey fantasies. It’s all British-made, old world and filled tweed goodness. I have a scarf, wallet and Union Jack fabric place mats from them.
The name Books for Cooks says it all. You can find any cookbook and in any category you think of, while browsing their selection of antique and out-of-print cookbooks. It’s on Blenheim Crescent off the main road.
Finally, the original Rough Trade record shop is located on Talbot Road towards the north end of the road. It’s small and doesn’t have the selection of the main store, but if those walls could talk.
As far as being a tourist hell, it’s just become ungodly crowded year-long. You have all sorts of tourists walking at a snails pace as they crowd along junky souvenir shops selling tat even before you get to the main area of Portobello Road. The earlier you go to the market on Saturday, the better. The action starts at 9am.