If people were to ask me what the first thing is that they should do after arriving in London for the first time, I would tell them to go check out the weekend flea markets. Besides finding some pretty good bargains on some pretty rare stuff, it’s the perfect way to see London up close and personal.
But there are so many of them! I hear you say. How does one choose which ones to go to? If you’re pressed for time, I’d say go check out the ones that are nearest to your hotel or temporary residence. There are many flea markets in various locations across London, such as Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Petticoat Lane, Bricklane and Brixton, and each of them is different in terms of offerings and ambience, but if you are one of those who would insist on the best, you should head down to Camden Market – the biggest, liveliest market in London.
I can still remember my first trip to Camden Market. It was about a week after I had arrived in London for my studies. From Archway, we took Bus No. 134, which had only cost us a little over a pound for a 15-minute journey. London buses are plentiful and by far still the cheapest mode of transportation in London. Other buses that pass through Camden Town are bus No. 24, 27, 27, 31, 134, 135, 168, 214, 253, 274 & C2. Alternatively, one can also take the tube (London Underground trains) on the Northern Line, stopping at Camden or Chalk Farm station, but I prefer not to as the London Underground is pretty much congested and stuffy during the weekends with massive crowds, especially in this part of town. Camden Market opens every day all year, except on Christmas Day, but while there are fewer crowds to deal with during weekdays, the bulk of the action happens during the weekends where all stalls are open and street performers lace the Canal area. If you’re not sure where to head to as soon as you get off the bus or come out of the tube station, the rule of the thumb for first-timers when it comes to London’s markets is: follow the crowd – chances are, they are there for the same reason.
We arrived in Camden a little after 10 a.m. and were feeling quite overwhelmed upon our arrival with the choice and variety on offer. Never in our lives had we seen a market this huge, this colourful. Rows upon rows of stalls line the Camden High Street, stretching all the way down to Chalk Farm tube station from the Camden tube station. We’ve never seen so many people in one place before; and how amusing some of them are, too – punkheads in fluorescent mohawks and spiked Doc Martens, goth princesses in midnight-hued get-ups and blood-red lips, quirky anime-styled costumes on snow-white girls and dangerous-looking femme fatales in red and black patent leather. We couldn’t help but feel a little bit intimidated – and underdressed.
From Camden High Street, we moved on to the cluster of stalls at Camden Lock. It was filled with all manners of arts and crafts – fine, hand-made jewellery; exquisite hand-crafted stationeries (even the paper used for the notebooks were home-made!); paintings and sculptures; embroidery and other needlework; hand-blown glassware; ceramics; objet d’art from Africa, Spain, Japan and other countries; and beautiful woodwork that weren’t even half as pricey as they looked.
After haggling our way through some purchases which included a couple of hand-sewn notebooks and some crystal bracelets (you can get even greater prices by haggling – some stalls are pretty flexible with their prices), we headed over to Camden Stables. Its array of alternative fashion is astounding – as well as awe-inducing – from quirky psychedelic pieces by underground designers to exclusive one-off vintage items at affordable prices. There were dark-lit shops selling goth clothing, brightly-painted shops selling various sex paraphernalia and fetish-wear in latex and PVC, and cyber-themed shops selling clubbing gears, complete with large cyber sculptures and live dancers.
After buying a few items from a hippy/ethnic clothing store, we headed for our final destination for the day: Camden Canal, which can be entered directly from the canal towpath. Here, we took a break at one of the many cafés by the canal, mulling over our purchases and the extent of the damage on our purses over a cup of hot chocolate. A mime artist was performing nearby, attracting a handful of kids, all giggling and clapping at his performance. Camden Canal has a relatively-smaller market with over 150 stalls selling a variety of goods from fashion accessories to music memorabilia.
At around 6 o’clock, with some of the stalls already closing for the day, we decided to head home. We were knackered to the bones, but elated at the same time. Must be the rush we got from our very first Camden experience.
Either that or the bagfuls of wonderful bargains we have each scored that day.