Mad Poms and Antique Dealers go out in the Noonday Snow
Intrepid collector (and playing cards tragic) Nick Thomas takes a winter trip to one of the UK's biggest antiques and collectables fairs, and finds that the stiff upper lip is even stiffer in blizzard conditions.
Name the odd one out: Crow Eaters, Mexicans, Banana Benders and Yellow-Bellies. If it helps, here are some hints: Mathew Flinders, Sir Joseph Banks, George Bass and his cousin Admiral Sir John Franklin (one time Governor of Tasmania) were all 'yellow-bellies. As, by the way, were Mrs Thatcher, Isaac Newton and Lord Alfred Tennyson, but to my knowledge none of the latter three ever went sailing in Australian waters two hundred years ago.
The answer, of course, is 'yellow-bellies', because if you are born in the UK county of Lincolnshire that is what you are known as. Why, exactly, is a bit of a mystery, like one of those urban myths that takes hold and nobody ever quite knows the true reason. I mean, have you ever seen a South Australian eating a crow, or a Queenslander bending a banana? Although come to think of it, if you go to the Sydney cricket ground for a test match you'll see a lot of sombreros!
But back to Lincolnshire. 'Yellow bellies' apart, this eastern English county is not just famous as the birthplace of so many eminent pioneers of Australia. It is without doubt the epicentre for antiques and collectables in this country. In fact the county is just one giant drive-thru antiques supermarket, where you can do all your antique shopping in one place. Even though it is the second largest county - and here it must be remembered that in geographical terms, 'large' doesn't mean what it does in Australia - you can drive through, around and across Lincolnshire in a day. So if you're planning an antique hunting trip to the UK and time is of the essence, you need go no further than here.
Not only does it host three massive antiques and collectable fairs several times a year, it's also home to the largest antiques centre in Europe: The Hemswell Antiques Centre. The Centre houses literally hundreds of different dealers, with their stands occupying seven large buildings and refurbished hangars on what was once a wartime airfield. You can spend several hours there easily. And in the small towns and villages across the county, from Stamford to Boston, Skegness to Gainsborough there are as many antique shops as there are butchers and bakers. In the little town of Horncastle alone - population 6800 - there are more collectable, vintage, architectural, retro, bric-a-brac and junk shops, stalls, sheds, barns and centres than streetlights. Even the church has become a thriving antiques market! You can spend a day in Horncastle and not get round them all.
Newark, which is home to probably the most famous of the three massive antique fairs, is not strictly in Lincolnshire, but is just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Newark itself is much closer to Lincoln - eighteen miles away - than it is to Nottingham. The other two huge fairs: Swinderby, and the one we're heading for today, The Lincolnshire Antiques and Home Show, most certainly are in Lincolnshire, smack bang in the middle of it in fact. Run by Arthur Swallows Fairs, the Lincolnshire fair is fast becoming one of the largest and most popular fairs of its type in the world. It boasts three thousand stalls, inside and out, and is held six times a year, no matter the season or the weather.
Ah! The weather! I'll bet you wondered when that would get a mention. It is true, very little polite conversation between strangers would take place in the UK were it not for the weather. No subject is more debated, discussed and analysed, yet over the centuries the British have devised a cunning plan to cope with this seemingly never-ending problem; with a legendary stiff upper lip and 'soldier on' doggedness (otherwise known as utter contempt for reality) they just don't take any notice of it. The odd horse race might be abandoned in the winter to protect the horses, but fetes, local football matches, jumble sales, even weddings are rarely disrupted or postponed due to the weather, and rain only stops play at village cricket matches if someone drowns. 'Carry on Regardless' might best describe how the British face their nemesis, and the wise visitor will also very quickly adopt that approach if they don't want to go insane.
Another perennial hurdle the British have to cope with - and which has to be considered when planning a trip anywhere - is the traffic. Residents of Melbourne and Sydney might think they have the worst traffic problems imaginable, but at least in Australia when you drive an hour or so outside of the cities it's relatively plain sailing. Not in the UK, it isn't! To be fair the motorway system in Britain is very efficient, but when the weather is bad many of the road systems experience gridlock and the knock-on effect can make driving a nightmare. There are more missed flights, dental appointments postponed, goods delayed and job interviews torpedoed because the applicant was late caused by traffic hold-ups than anything else. Okay, so we're only going to be a couple of hours late for an antique fair but it still creates some agitation.
So here's the scene: It is early February, eight o'clock in the morning, still dark and the roads in and around Lincoln are jammed with rush hour traffic. Not that we're going into the city, but you have to go around the ring road to get to the showground where the fair is held. Outside it is minus 7, the roads are like sheets of ice, sleet is falling, the 'viz' is terrible, as divers say, and heavy snow is forecast. The queue tailing back from the roundabout two miles ahead is crawling along - like the queues have been for the last three roundabouts - and the bloke in the flashy BMW we've been stuck behind for an hour and a half obviously has an obsessive compulsive disorder as he keeps spraying his windscreen. Perfectly sensible thing to do, you might say, given the conditions - but every twenty seconds! And each time a great shower of spray goes right over the roof of his car, ending up on our windscreen and forcing me to clean our windscreen, yet again! I am having what my sons call 'a senior's moment' and only threats from my wife of spare rooms and making my own dinners for a month prevents me from getting out and starting an international incident.
At last, an hour later, we join the queue going into the showground. A vast sea of white tents and marquees stretches out before us for what looks like miles. It is very slushy and there's mud everywhere, but wouldn't you know it - the sun is trying to come out!
Nevertheless the two fine gentlemen in the top hats pictured outside their stand are prepared for anything, which was just as well, for anything was coming. The heavens opened and snowflakes as big as maple leaves cut visibility to meters. Within fifteen minutes the entire showground was engulfed in snow and virtually empty. Amazing sight, it was. It was so sudden and heavy that there was no time to cover the outside stalls, although it has to be said there wasn't much inclination do so! Most stallholders just retreated to their cars and vans, while the punters headed for any cover they could find.
Not that the inside of most of the sheds was any better, as the two lovely ladies pictured discovered; it was as cold indoors as it was out! But at least they were relatively dry and, perhaps more importantly, so was their stock. When the snow stopped falling and we ventured outside the scene was magical, amusing and amazing all at the same time. Dealers stood surveying their stock buried beneath six inches of snow, but yet again the 'carry on regardless' defensive mechanism kicked in, and since it was pointless to complain, humour took over.
"How much do you want for the red chairs?" I asked, just out of interest really.
"I'll buy you a cup of coffee to take them away," the dealer said, face expressionless.
"Really!" I exclaimed, suddenly looking more closely at them.
"No. Not really," he grinned. "One hundred pounds."
"A hundred pounds! But they're covered in snow, they'll be ruined when it melts."
"So will I," he grinned again.
I suppose there's a sort of moral to this story: Don't drive to antique fairs in the winter, perhaps. But that would be wrong, for there are still bargains to be had at these giant fairs, even in appalling conditions, and sometimes because of those conditions. Late in the day we came across a stall with several tables that the dealer was still clearing up, with a resigned air. On one table was a shallow glass-topped display cabinet, and wiping the snow off I spied, amongst several other little items, a complete pack of early nineteenth century playing cards. Now I don't know a great deal about other antiques, but I do know about playing cards, and these were worth at least two hundred pounds. I thought to myself, if I can get them for seventy or so, that would be a serious bargain.
"How much do you want for the cards?" I asked.
"Oh, ten quid?" the dealer shrugged, preoccupied with his cleaning up, his interest in the day clearly over.
Bad weather? Traffic jams? I didn't notice a thing driving back to the hotel.
This information first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit