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  • Debra Palmen

I Never Joke About Shopping

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

These super-early morning starts are almost behind us.

I think the Lincoln International Home & Antiques Fair is my favourite of all the events we attend. It’s a close call because the others are a lot of fun. But Lincoln is always a relaxed affair, lots of people bring nice dogs so there’s plenty of patting opportunities, and the dealers offer many excellent semi-industrial pieces, just the type of stock I’m looking for.

So what’s a girl to do but shop ‘til she falls down dead?

It was a chilly start to the morning. Living in the sub-tropics, we don’t often get to see our breath mist in the morning gloom. But a good jumper and lots of shopping was enough to keep me warm.

First stop was Zoltan the Magnificent, from whom I buy many pieces of great enamelware. He always gives me a secret discount and I always buy up big, so we always enjoy seeing each other.

But there are other dealers selling good enamelware at this Fair, so you have to move quickly to visit them all before too many other people get to them. Zoltan provides a good supply of the ‘regular’ enamelware I look for, but his pieces rarely come in the wild colour schemes that add a special touch to a collection. So off I skipped to see what everyone else had to offer. They had a lot to offer.

And, my dears, I bought it all.

Well I bought an awful lot. I have yet more beautiful enamelware, from bowls to storage vats to those nice wall buckets everyone likes. Now I have yet more wooden well buckets, together with a lovely big wooden fruit and flower drying rack. And, having seen none in the past, I am now the proud owner of four metal fire-fighting knapsacks, two copper, one brass and one galvanised.

The charming French bistrot in Bath where I had my birthday lunch had one of these knapsacks turned into a very cool semi-industrial lamp, which I deeply coveted. So now I can have one. And there was more – so much more. Doug tells me I set a new record for my spending at this Fair, and it took two full van-loads to the shippers to get it all there.

Then on to the Newark International Antiques & Collectors’ Fair – the biggest antiques fair in Europe. And now I’ve changed my mind. Newark is actually my favourite Fair.

Heavy rain and thunder in the early hours didn’t suggest a promising start, but the skies cleared and we enjoyed unsoggy shopping. My first job was to find kettering tray man, way-away at the far end of the Fair. This Fair covers 84 acres, so way-away is a long way-away.

Kettering trays are large, shallow wooden trays with slatted bottoms, which look best when stacked. They were used to store potatoes, although some up-market interior decorators prefer to call them apple storage shelves. Wrong.

Apples do sound less “peasant” in your designer kitchen than potatoes, dahling, don’t you think? But they were used for potatoes.

Anyway, last time I found kettering tray man it was a few hours into the Fair and he only had a few good ones left, so I bought ten. Then, when I offered them on the internet, the internet broke. I was inundated with responses, although the first person who responded bought them all, and everyone else declared themselves Wait Listed.

So now I have 60. Yes, you read that right – I was the first to kettering tray man, and I bought 60 of the suckers. Doug couldn’t believe it. I told him the night before that if I could buy 50 I would, and he said Yes, Dear. He thought I was joking. But I don’t joke about shopping. I never joke about shopping. And guess what? Dealers from America and Japan bought all the rest.

The van was pretty full, so it was off for an unscheduled visit to Andy at the shippers, who also couldn’t believe it. But Andy is always polite, unlike the hot French Customs dude who looked at our old copper and enamelware – admittedly a bit grubby at this point - and said (in a charming hot French Customs dude accent) People buy thiz sturf?

Yes, hot French Customs dude, people actually love thiz sturf. I will offer the kettering trays when they arrive in Australia, but in the meantime if you want to Wait List for one (or more) let me know. They're $22 each and I’ve already sold a dozen.

I also found three lovely old wooden book rests from the Bodleian Library (pictured below), dating from about 1930. The Bodleian is Oxford University’s main library and one of the oldest in Europe, so they were lovely finds with great provenance. Doug has decided he wants one, of course, so lucky I have three.

I scooped up more lovely enamelware and old French copper, and a few Victorian-era ceramic carpet bowls balls. I’ve been looking for these nice old ceramic balls because they look great in wooden bowls, ever since I bought a seriously old big wooden bowl down at Shepton Mallet.

I also found a large wooden hare that is kind-of bizarre but also strangely compelling. But my eye kept coming back to her, and if something’s good enough to draw my attention and I can afford it, it’s good enough to buy – that’s my rule of thumb.

I’ve been finding all things honey-related this trip, and at Newark I topped up with more large glass honey dispensers, and pretty ceramic honey pots. I’ve decided to include either a chapter on Bees in one of the up-coming Animal-Lover’s books, or a chapter on Honey in one of the Foodies books. I can’t decide where I’ll put them at the moment, but bees and their produce will end up in one or other publication.

At Newark we met Vincent, a great a new contact who lives in Brittany, from whom we bought lots of copper kitchenware at great prices. He also showed me a beautiful, beautiful enamel cistern, this time seriously rare because its floral design was incorporated into the enamel as it was painted on, rather than painted on top after the enamel was fired. So even though I already had two excellent cisterns, that had cost me a fair bit because they’re so hard to find, I had to have the floral one as well. The other two cisterns are already pre-sold, so at least one might make it into my next pop-up shop.

Vincent was lovely and his prices fantastique. He said he doesn’t normally sell privately, but we got on well and he invited us to visit him for some exclusive shopping the next time we’re in France. So we shall work in visits to Vincent and Serge on our way into Paris. I’m already looking forward to the next trip!

As usual, we staggered away from Newark fully loaded with interesting stock like the charming little milk glass mermaid jug I've photographed. So we were well pleased with ourselves. We considered travelling to Norfolk to attend the auction house in Diss we like so much – if you have my book you know the Diss auction is so good it has a chapter all to itself. But the online catalogues didn’t inspire me, so we decided for the first time to visit the Newark Fair on its second day – Punters’ Day.

Entry to Punters’ day is only £5, compared to £20 each on Dealer’s Day. And wow, you wouldn’t believe the difference. A huge number of sellers don’t attend Punters’ Day, and most of the dealers we bought great things from were no longer there. So the punters would never know that kettering trays had even been offered, or most of the enamelware, or many of the more interesting pieces that we – and the hundreds of other dealers – scooped up on Dealers’ Day. Many large tour groups come to Punters’ Day, but while we found it nice to relax and stroll about – in sharp contrast to the day before, when it was move, move, move – really you have to come to Dealers’ Day if you want the best things at Newark.

We had a quick bite of lunch while we considered spending rather a lot on an ancient French mustard-glazed terracotta confit pot (the smaller, undamaged one in the photo). Even though it was offered to us at less than half the usual price, it was still expensive. But while chatting and laughingly congratulating ourselves on our other great purchases, we were approached by an ITV Producer for a new television program called Masterpiece, to see if we’d like to appear on the show.

We’d never heard of it, but apparently you compete with other teams to identify treasures hidden among a bunch of dross. These things are never as easy in real life as they seem in principle, so she was effectively offering us a chance to be humiliated on international television and have our professional reputations trashed. Mmm, sounds appealing.

Seeing how we’re heading back to Australia next week she said we couldn’t be in the next series, but asked us to email her so we could arrange to perhaps appear in the next series. We’ll consider it, but I think not. But yes, we bought the confit pot. And yes, we’re keeping it. It still counts as my birthday while we’re on the trip, and this is a great birthday gift. Yes another birthday gift. Shut up about the birthday gifts!

On Saturday we called on some guys from a salvage yard in Grimsby who Doug met at the Lincoln Fair, but jeez it was full of junk. Not even close to their advertising. Then on Sunday we decided to visit the now traditional Last Market of the Trip, a tiny affair wedged between Lincoln Cathedral and Lincoln Castle. Finally our coats were required, but we walked away with two charming old wooden tulip bulb trays, and two French lidded glass butter dishes.

Exploring a little further, we walked down – and then back up! - Steep Hill. This street was originally part of the old Roman town, but built-over in the Middle Ages. It sure is steep – they provide hand-rails to help keep your balance on the way down and then haul yourself back up. But surely they could come up with something more creative than bog-boring Steep Hill?

And anyway, it’s not as steep as a hill on the road between Eumundi and Noosa, which is known locally as Misery Hill. And it’s not as steep as part of our own driveway, which we call Heartbreak Hill. It would more accurately be called Fall-down-gasping-as-your-heart-explodes Hill, but rather than get all literal we called it Heartbreak Hill. Perhaps Steep Hill sounded better in Roman times. Ardua Montis has a certain ring, don’t you think? Even if you don’t speak Latin it’s still evocative. I might steal that name for another part of our driveway.

So now the shopping is done, the packing is done, tomorrow we're heading back to London, and then the early, foggy starts are done. We fly back to Hong Kong on Tuesday morning, and having rediscovered Wedding Dress Street (now I remember it’s actually called Kimberley Road), we’re staying there. There is a good restaurant in that street, so if I can remain conscious at least we’ll have a good dinner before continuing on to Australia. Jetlag is a bitch, though, so we’ll see how I go.

More soon!

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