It was all so easy when I first started collecting ‘old stuff’. For one thing, it wasn’t that old – in the late 70s and early 80s, stuff from the 50s and 60s was at most 30 years old and much of it was simply classed as secondhand, rather than collectable. Charity shops were almost unknown, and the outskirts of most towns boasted at least one ‘junk shop’ where items from house clearance could be picked up for a song, with only the genuinely intrinsically valuable set aside as ‘antiques’. Then there was the jumble sale – table upon table of donated items to rifle through on a Saturday afternoon, long before the eBay phenomenon and endless daytime TV programmes convinced everyone that anything old was going to pay for their next foreign holiday. Now we’re as much a sucker for a good antiques centre as the next man, and it’s great fun looking for that ‘must have’ item at a fair price, but there’s the underlying knowledge that everything you’re looking at has been carefully sifted out by the proprietor for retail, and that you’re a long step behind the house clearance or auction from which it was sourced.
But there’s still one source for the undiscovered gem, and that’s the big flea market, and we’re lucky enough to be just a short hop from the one held regularly at the Three Counties Showground at Malvern. It’s a perfect venue – loads of parking, a row of huge agricultural sheds that can house dozens and dozens of stalls, and acres of ground outside for open air stalls. There’s an informal pecking order (driven, I suspect, by pitch fees). In the well-lit and heated shed, you’ll find the more specialist traders with deliberately themed stalls; of course, this means that the prices tend to be a little higher, but the items tend to be more carefully selected and there are some bargains to be found given that they’re not paying shop overheads. In the n
eighbouring unheated shed, the collections tend to be a good bit more varied – everything from general collectables traders, to upcycled items, to true house clearance. Indeed, on our last trip, there was a real house clearance operator – anything for a fiver, right down to the contents of someone’s drinks cabinet! The cheaper end of the market continues outside, where it meets those dealing in large or outdoor items.
I’m no expert (and I haven’t even got a suntan), so I’ll not try to give you any David Dickinson top tips. We have learned, though, to keep moving fairly swiftly, trying to scan what’s on offer – otherwise the day disappears and you’ve barely covered a fraction of the stalls. There’s a tension, though – spot a desirable item on one stall and you might find a better or cheaper version on another, but delay and you could find the first one snapped up while you’re thinking about it (we’re still kicking ourselves over that 50s vanity case). Of course, bartering is the name of the game – and we’re truly rubbish at it. In fact, I was almost embarrassed at the way the price of a rather nice 50s portable radio was coming down as I discussed with the trader how it could be pressed into modern use; whether he mistook my deliberations as a bartering tactic, or whether he just wanted me to have it, but the pounds fell away steadily. In the end I bottled out – until I’ve worked out how to rebroadcast from my stereo on a spare Medium Wave frequency (that’s another article in the making), i can’t really justify any more old radios!
So, what gems have we found? Well, our collection of vintage board games has done very well, with very nicely boxed 50s/60s versions of Cluedo and Monopoly, plus a nice old Mah Jong set (but thankfully not ivory). There’s a regular trader there who, as she freely admits, deals in the kind of gifts that got put in top drawers and never used, which has provided me with a mint pair of Dent leather gloves and a couple of pocket squares. Mrs M’s got an eagle eye for vintage brooches, picking up a lovely trio of marcasite items for a song. She’s also set me a restoration challenge with a rather sorry-looking Scotty dog lamp, now stripped, repainted, rewired and gracing the top of the piano. My resistance to old electrical goods hasn’t been too good, though – in a previous trip we picked up a rather nice reel-to-reel tape recorder (the sort that’s deemed portable on the basis that it has a handle on it, despite weighing more than a large suitcase) and on our most recent trip we were lucky enough to be passing one outdoor stall just as an early model Dansette record player appeared off the back of the truck. And let’s face it, you can never have enough record players, can you?
One of the advantages of the Malvern site is that there are plenty of amenities, so you’re never far from tea, coffee, snacks or loos, and with Malvern itself just up the road, there are plenty of places for a spot of grub afterwards while you compare your finds. You’ll find details of all the forthcoming fairs on the organisers’ website. See you there, but play fair if we see the same ‘must have’ at the same time!