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  • Debra Palmen

Hello Jetlag, my old friend


I’m still slightly suffering jetlag's effects after being in England for six days. But has it stopped me from outstanding shopping? Hell no! It’s become apparent I can literally shop in my sleep.

Every time we come on a buying trip I’m reminded why we’re in this business. When the buying is good, it’s such good fun. And the buying has been fantastic. We’ve already been to the shipper’s to drop off a van load of good stuff and now we’re in the north of England, where the next of the big ‘must attend’ Fairs starts tomorrow.

After the Shepton Mallet Giant Flea we visited a few reclamation yards, including the largest one in the UK. We’re after good semi-industrial pieces and hoped reclamation yards could provide some good shopping. But no. There were very nice items, but by golly the prices were astronomical. It reinforced the importance of getting out there and finding these things ourselves.

I‘ve been looking for good garden figures – particularly the reclining hare I found last trip. It was snapped up super-fast, much to the chagrin of everyone who didn’t get it, so I promised to look for more. But so far, so nothing. I did find a big terracotta wyvern (like a dragon, but with only two legs). But take a look at him – looks like a crazed, cranky mutt with wings – ugly as. And he was £1550, so he’s staying in England.


We popped into Bath for my birthday lunch, to a charming little French bistrot. It has a striking selection of reproduction vintage French food and alcohol advertisements decorating many of its walls, some I have in the original and others I’ll have to hunt for now I know about them. Bath is such an elegant, beautiful city. It’s built in pale stone and brims with interesting history from the Roman to the Georgian era. Parking is a challenge, but we like it well enough that we’ve decided to stop for a nice French lunch every time we’re passing in the future.

Then back up to London for the Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton Park. If you’ve read this chapter in my book you’ll know how many interior decorators go berserk at Sunbury, but it’s for good reason. We arrived in the pre-dawn and milled before the gates with the crowd before stepping out briskly to the far end of the outdoor stands, where the best bargains can often be found.

But even with a quick march we still missed a couple of excellent buys, which I grumbled over a lot. But I regrouped and found some terrific pieces. I’m wondering how many French dealers we’re going to catch up with in France, seeing how so many of them are currently in England.

In the end, Doug had at least six trips back to the van. He tells me I’m now way ahead of schedule for my daily spend, but I’m here to shop and Sunbury offered a heap of interesting pieces. So now, among many other things, I have a nice French bench-top bottle drainer, a number of long (1.2m) wooden trays that were salvaged from the old drying room of the famous Aynsley pottery only last week, and yay a few large wooden well buckets – although not nearly as many as I want.

I snapped up a particularly lovely French iron altar cross that was used by a military chaplain on the northern battlefields during WWI. It has a beautiful green and ochre patination, and is a very simple but striking piece. But the very first purchase was a couple of large old metal English fire extinguishers, dating from about 1860. They have the most amazing riveted sides, and they’re going to make very cool lamp bases. I also found more unusual French copper and pretty enamelware, and some charming small wooden shoe moulds.

One of the things I’m considering keeping from the London expedition is a small bronze plaque of a Western dragon. I’ve just finished writing the Dragons chapter for my upcoming book, so I know how hard it is to find good antique pieces featuring Western dragons (as opposed to Eastern dragons, which are far easier to find).

I’m also keeping a French, very heavy cast iron lion’s mask – the face of a lion – which has been mounted on a metal plinth. It dates to the late 1700s and was originally part of a large old fountain in Paris, and I love it.

I tried to haggle with the seller for a better price, but he said this was his better price. I tried to plead the difficulty I face when trying to buy high quality pieces with poor little Australian dollars, but he was having none of it. He said he was offering it for the first time at Sunbury, but he has a shop in London and when he put it in his window he would triple the price and an interior decorator would still snap it up. And dammit, it's true.

Nonetheless, I flounced off in high dudgeon because it was too expensive, my ploys to get a better price hadn’t worked, and I’m trying to be well-behaved when buying things for myself. But then Dougie snuck back and bought it for me as a birthday gift. Yes, another birthday gift. Shut up about the birthday gifts! I deserve them all.

Finally, and this one is a “maybe”, I bought a large ceramic Japanese Saki keg that dates to the mid-1800s. It has a hole in the top for the cork, and a hole in the lower side for the tap, which will allow for an easy conversion to a lamp base. It will look fabulous as a lamp. I bought it as stock but Doug is very taken with it, so it might turn into a keeper. You can’t be in this business and not keep a few niceties for yourself, right?

But don’t worry, we found no shortage of beautiful things for everyone else.

Then it was time to head north. Travelling through Derbyshire sees a dramatic change in scenery, with slopes of pretty green woodland until you reach a plateau that is the Peak District National Park and emerge onto the wild and windswept moors. Very Wuthering Heights.

It’s a sudden and astounding difference in landscapes, with thick foliage and ancient, giant oak trees abruptly giving way to rich greens and muted browns and yellows and purples, with not a tree in sight. The moors initially look bleak, but their beauty is often found in the close-up - delicate moss and tiny, fragile-looking purple wildflowers contrast with raw rock, brown bracken and grey, fast-flowing streams tumbling down steep crevasses. Miles of grey, drystone walls are the work of generations, but the only living things you see on the moors are the hardy mountain sheep.

We visited a few new venues in Manchester (my old stomping ground from the days when I ran the Australian Consulate there) through to Preston. But it’s a sad, sad day when Manchester is more expensive than London. That’s a world turned topsy-turvy. The possible new venues were crossed off our list for committing the cardinal sins of being too boring and too expensive.

I hate it when no prices are listed and you have to find the dealer and ask the price for every single thing you’re interested in. This is only ever done for two reasons – laziness, and also so the dealer can judge how much they think they can hit you up for. Once they hear an Australian accent and know you’re there on a buying trip, Hey Ho they think. Some sellers immediately assume you have no idea what a good price is, and also that you’re so desperate to buy a large amount of stock you’ll pay delusional prices.

So we left Manchester and Preston feeling pretty grumpy. But oh well, you’ve got to try out new places; sometimes they work, sometimes they’re duds. Fortunately, a couple of new venues had some goodies and a few regular haunts delivered the goods.

Hebden Bridge was a new location for us. It's a charming, pretty little town - a sudden thickly treed valley in the middle of the moors - with incredibly steep, winding streets only one car wide. It’s hugely popular with tourists in summer, so thank goodness we visited in autumn. And who would have thought that in Yorkshire I would buy nothing English, but load up on French and Italian glass? Plus a couple of very cool large American lemon and orange crate labels. But nothing English.

By the end of a few days up north now we have beautiful French cookware and a lot – a veritable flock – of glass and ceramic lidded chicken pots. I always look for them because people sure do love their chooks, but I’ve never had this many before. They’re going to look great when grouped together.

A bit more hunting turned up the most enormous blue and white striped Cornishware cup and saucer we’ve ever seen – more suitable for soup than tea really, and a very beautiful salt glazed ceramic hare. I had to pay large for the hare, but my rationale is that if I can’t sell him I’m allowed to keep him. People love hares probably more than chooks, though, so offering him for sale is not yet confirmed. I also found a fabulous duck lidded pot, just like the chook pots I’ve found, but I’ve never seen a duck-shaped one before.

Most important of all – even though we reached Elsecar later than planned, there were still a couple of pork pies with stilton and caramelized onion left. Hurrah! These are the best ever pork pies, and worth the trek to Yorkshire just for them alone. So it's been a great few days touring the gorgeous Peak District, gathering up nice things and sampling delicious local food. Now we’re ensconced in Peterborough for the next of the big antiques Fairs we’re here to attend. I usually buy well at Peterborough, so fingers crossed I stay awake long enough to get the job done.


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