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Eric Knowles - Towneley Hall Eric Knowles - Towneley Hal Eric Knowles - Towneley Hal Eric Knowles - Towneley Hal

A month in the life of Eric Knowles

Greetings, dear reader, from a diary coming to you live (well, it is as far as this writer is concerned) from the 15.32 Eurostar train to Paris Nord.

I am presently ensconced beside antique dealer Mr Paul Hayes, known to many of you 'Down Under' for his extensive appearances over the past ten years on the long-running TV series Cash in the Attic.

Having said this, tomorrow he will be my opponent as we scour and rummage our way through the Reims Marche aux Puce - that's Flea Market in our parlance - for our overseas programme in our present series of Put your Money Where your Mouth Is.

The good news is that we both hail from the County Palatine of Lancaster, I from Nelson and he from Morecambe, so we are able to converse in north country brogues that make use of decent flat vowels.

The bad news is that at 6ft 2in, the bloke towers above me, and to top it all my mother is one of his biggest fans. Now I'm none too sure if you're watching any of our previous offerings from the past four years, but today we are talking about the most-watched programme on BBC2 TV here in the UK.

As I am regularly asking myself upon arrival at the top of our staircase at home, 'Why on earth did I come up here?' there is also every chance that I have explained the premise of this same programme to most of you before, but for the benefit of our new readers let me tell again. Both I and my worthy opponent start each five-programme series with the grand sum of £3,500 of our own money, which we then spend at four various buying venues.

We began the present series last week, buying at the massive outdoor antiques fair at the Three Counties Showground in Malvern and where Mr Hayes amazed me by squeezing a massive pair of stained glass windows into his estate car. Tomorrow, however, we are both going to be buying in Reims - which is uncharted territory - with the added disadvantage of having a minimal command of the language. More on that at the end of this diary, which I am determined to close on our return train journey back to London.

So what has been happening for yours truly in recent weeks? The fact is that as a joint and founding partner in the 'Knowles Family Preservation Society', I have over the years had to become something of a multi-tasker. I am, in fact, probably the nearest thing to being a woman! Although I readily admit that I am a total failure when it comes to listening to two conversations simultaneously, and never feel the need at a function to head for the toilets in a pair or a pack. Lady readers please resist the urge to respond, as some things are a better left as a mystery for the opposite sex to forever question.

Since the arrival of our northern hemisphere spring I have been busy making two other TV series, performing my one-man theatre show, checking off the proofs for my book on Lalique glass and jewellery (due to be published in the autumn of this year), given several lectures, acted as auctioneer at three charity balls, entertained sixty Americans on the eve of the Royal Wedding, and visited London, York, Manchester, Birmingham, Burnley, Blackburn, Lincoln, Tamworth, Southampton, Bridport, Towcester, Northampton, Wimborne, the Lake District and my dentist.

Despite having spent over twenty years growing up some thirty-five miles north of Manchester, the city's road network continues to confound me even though I have made five visits in a six-week period. One reason for making repeated forays to this 'oh-so-hip' city, I am pleased to report, is the BBC's decision to re-commission another series of Antiques Master.

This is essentially a quiz whose mission is to seek out the UK's top amateur antiques expert. Hosted by the exceptionally quick-witted Sandi Toksvig, yours truly is on board to act as adjudicator. As the lovely Sandi is Danish by birth and your diarist is a Lancastrian, it has been suggested that we have been paired together on the rumour that English is the first language for neither of us!

Although great fun, my job is also to ensure that all the information required is absolutely watertight and with no room for error - so no pressure, Eric, eh? The UK, I can tell you, is literally awash with 'experts' should anything remotely close to disinformation be suspected, with some deciding that it is of national importance to put the record straight.

Fortunately, as an old married man of some thirty-five years I am quite used to being told that I am 'wrong', so have developed broad shoulders and can only hope that not a single snippet of incorrect information has slipped through our muslin net. Once again all the action takes place back in my old neck of the woods, at the ancient yet splendid pile that is Towneley Hall - a veritable treasure house of pre-Tudor vintage.

It might be considered heretical for this particular Lancastrian to admit, but if asked which is my favourite city? I have little hesitation in naming the fair city of York - just think War of the Roses! This is the place where, as a small boy, I became fascinated with my country's past - a fascination that continues to the present day, and which eventually led to my present day career.

Back in those days of hot summers and ice cream, I well remember our first family trip to the place and seeing York Minster encased in scaffolding, which my father advised my brother and me was there because they hadn't finished building the place. Even today I get a buzz just walking around the winding streets that lead you through the maze of the city centre and then out through the medieval city walls.

The reason for my recent visit was at the behest of my former Bonham's colleague, Jennifer Middleton, who today runs a highly successful PR agency called Lemon Zest - please don't ask! Not only is she married to another former 'Bonhamite' and old mate in the guise of Andrew Middleton, but their surname is connected through Andrew's father to she who is now the Duchess of Cambridge.

Jennifer lays claim to handling the PR of York's finest china and glass retailers - Mulberry Hall. Situated in Stonegate, a straight lane that sits upon the Roman road that back in 150AD led straight into the forum of the city then called Eboracum, the store is also housed in the most beautiful medieval black and white timbered building (and boasts a cosy cafe on the first floor).

My role for the day was to help promote Royal Wedding memorabilia at a street party held in collaboration with several of their neighbouring retailers. Now normally I might expect to do this sort of thing aided and abetted by lots of fascinating images, and with a seated audience. I don't mind admitting that it came as something of a surprise to find that my brief was to simply grab a microphone and then stand out in the side lane and wax lyrical about the history of Royal memorabilia for four twenty-minute sessions.

Fortunately my ten years of working on BBC Radio 2 helped to carry me through the day in so far as working with sound but minus the luxury of pictures was concerned. Never really a problem for a chap forever content to listen to the sound of his own voice! I was, however, mindful that standing alone in a street and speaking aloud to passersby was normally the prerogative of either preachers, or the type of women my father warned me about. Having once been described as a media tart, my sympathies (but not custom) have to be with the latter.

So here I am again on board a Eurostar train hurtling towards London St Pancras, having just worked a 14-hour day in search of the affordable and then attempting to make myself understandable in order that I might buy from the affable. Yes, dear reader, despite what you might have been told, as far as this diarist is concerned the French are invariably a pleasure to do business with - even Parisians!

Unfortunately things got off to a bad start when cameraman number two went down with a worrying case of food poisoning - and to think I was going to go for the burger myself the evening before. However, both Paul and I had other concerns when we arrived at the market and discovered it was but a fraction of the size of the Malvern outdoor fair we at which we had bought the previous Sunday.

I am pleased to relate that our fears turned out to be totally unfounded, as we both managed to buy good objects at good prices for selling on once back in the UK.

That said, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating - and if we learned one important lesson this weekend, it will be to forever keep clear of French cheeseburgers.

ALL ABOUT ERIC: A 30-year veteran of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow programme, Eric Knowles is a man of many talents. He has written a number of books on antiques; presents talks and lectures; has his own one-man show called Antique Antics; and is currently seen on UK TV in Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is and Antique Master, as well as his continuing appearances on the Antiques Roadshow. A consultant for Bonhams and individual valuer, he is also an ambassador for Moorcroft and Lalique. Later this year Eric will be hosting an Art Deco tour in New York, as well as several Antiques Breaks throughout the UK. www.ericknowles.co.uk

Images top left: Towneley Hall, Burnley's jewel of a museum and art gallery.