Great British traditions: the boot sale


Let’s play a word association game: I say “great British traditions” and you say what? Tea on the lawn? The queen? Baffling parliamentary traditions? Heads on a pike outside the city walls? Chasing a cheese down a hill? Running a race carrying a flaming barrel of tar?

I’ve written about a good part of that and dutifully stuck in the links because that’s what bloggers do. I’d be banned from the internet if I didn’t. I’d But forget them all. They’re trivial. We’re talking serious British tradition today. We’re talking about the great British boot sale.

The first time Wild Thing and I visited Britain, we rented a car and drove maniacally from one end of the island to the other and then back to London along (roughly) the opposite coast until we’d made a full circuit. It’s a small country, right? We could see everything.

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

We saw a hell of a lot less than we would have if we hadn’t tried to see so much, but it was enough to draw us back. And more importantly, to introduce us to the boot sale. Why, we asked each other as we drove past yet another Boot Sale sign, are they selling all these boots? And why only one? Who buys single boots? What happens to the other one?

Hey, we know how to ponder the deep questions life throws at us. But not necessarily to answer them, because we didn’t stop to find out what a boot sale was. We were in a hurry. We had something else on our list of things to not-entirely-see that day. So the mystery remained in place until we passed a variation on the sign, which said Car Boot Sale.

Aha. Got it. The boot is the trunk. They’re selling car trunks.

No, they’re selling stuff out of the trunks. It’s a flea market!

I love a flea market.

We still didn’t stop. We were in too much of a hurry to have fun. I mean, hell, it was a vacation.

So we’re making up for it now. On a recent (and a-typically dry) spring Sunday, Wild Thing and I went to the local boot sale, which is held in a field and raises money for the community hospital. When we first moved here, we went this boot sale regularly. It was a great place to look for things we knew we needed and find things we didn’t know we needed until we saw them. Used stuff, new stuff, hand-made craft-type stuff, who-knows-what-and-why-does-it-matter? stuff. We bought kitchen canisters, bakeware, a teapot that I broke and then its replacement, a two-seat wooden bench for the front yard. Plants. Eggs. Flapjacks, which if you’re not British I should explain aren’t pancakes but sweet, heavy oat bars that leave you licking your fingers for the next half hour because they always  leave just a little more syrup than you found last time you licked. And the syrup always escapes the paper.

No, there’s nowhere to wash. It’s a field.

This time, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, it was just a social thing. We just wanted to wander through, see what was for sale, let the dogs say hello to other dogs. Dog people always end up talking with other dog people, so we got to do a bit of greeting ourselves.

We came home with two pictures that Ida bought for their frames, a knitted doll for a toddler who’s about to become a big sister, a couple of plastic cars for the toy box, and some little china cottages, which are the real reason I’m writing this.

The cottages were displayed in a small basket on the ground and I only bent down to look through them just to kill time while Wild Thing was looking at I have no idea what. We didn’t want to get too far apart or we’d never find each other again. The place was crowded, and Wild Thing’s cell phone doesn’t like me. Any chance it gets, it blocks my number. Wild Thing swears it’s not her doing and I shouldn’t take it personally.

I turned a couple of the cottages over in my hands and noticed a typed (you remember typewriters?) label on the back of one: Shakespeare’s cottage. A poet friend in the U.S., J., had asked not long before if I could find her a Shakespeare tee shirt, since we are endlessly commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. (He seems to have taken a very long time to die.) I’d just ordered her one, and here I was looking at a tiny replica of his cottage.

Or what claimed to be a replica. How would I know what his cottage looked like? When I looked further, I saw two other cottages that were identical and weren’t labeled Shakespeare’s cottage or anything else, but I was willing to be convinced. I mean, somebody had typed that out and pasted it to one of the cottages. How could it not be true?

So I asked how much it was.

The woman selling it said I couldn’t buy just the one. It was the whole lot (twelve or so) or nothing.

Fine, then: nothing. I put Shakespeare’s cottage back in the basket and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the damned thing. Because J. wants a Shakespeare tee shirt. And because the cottages had a dollhouse quality that meant I couldn’t keep my mind off them.

Wild Thing and I used to build dollhouses for the kids in our lives, and every adult who came to the house when we had a partly finished standing around, no matter who they were, no matter how tough they were or unlikely they were, ended up moving the furniture around. They couldn’t help themselves.

And I couldn’t help myself. As we wandered around the rest of the boot sale, I argued with myself about the cottages: They’re collectibles, I told myself, meaning the seller would want too much for them. That’s not really Shakespeare’s cottage. At least not unless he was very, very small and could fit through a molded china door. J. will think it’s silly and then feel like she has to keep it because it’s a present.

Just as we were leaving, I lost the argument, as I’d known I would, and went back. How much did the seller want for them?

Five pounds.

I could probably have bargained, but having lost the battle with myself I wasn’t about to fight with her. I handed over my money and tried to give her back the basket.

Nope, I had to take the basket too.

I tell you, that woman drove a hard bargain.

I left with the cottages, the basket, and the tissue paper lining the basket, and we ran into another great British tradition: generosity in traffic. I know I lured you in with the promise of one tradition, but I can drive a hard bargain myself. Today if you read about one tradition, you get another for free.

Pushy New Yorker that I will always be at heart, British drivers amaze me, even after ten years in the country. Wild Thing and I were in a kind of feeder line, hoping to edge into the line of cars that were inching their way to the exit, and somebody held back and made a space we could pull into. As I’d known someone would but even so I was breathless with gratitude, because anytime I try to pull into traffic some tiny voice in my head starts a drone: This is going to take forever. It’s going to take longer than forever. We’ll die here and our skeletons will turn to dust before the traffic thins out. But someone always makes space. Such generosity. Such public-spiritedness. Such a sense of cooperation.

I was basking in all that good feeling when someone ahead of us made a space for a car that was waiting in the next feeder line and I snapped back into New York (or maybe that’s American; I’ve lost track) mode: You mean this applies to everyone here? We’ll never get out. Even the memory of our skeletons will turn to dust…

Well, yes, it does apply to everyone. If you’ll read the small print, right there at the end of page two…

Okay, I was ashamed of myself. So much so that I let someone in ahead of me.

I told Wild Thing I was going all British on her.

“You didn’t let the car behind them in,” she said.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’m not that British.”

And there, my friends, we leave our ongoing saga, The Britishization of Wild Thing and Ellen. They have encountered two great British traditions and managed to not to embarrass themselves on the public stage, even if one of them reverted to type, swore roughly as much as usual, and on top of that snuck a case of spare Z’s past customs and planted one of them right here in this paragraph, where a Brit would use an S.

85 thoughts on “Great British traditions: the boot sale

  1. I’ve done many boot sales both as buyer and seller..So many weird folk, nice folk, canny folk, rich folk and poor folk.
    As a seller, very often people would haggle and beat you down from £1 to 50p for a small.item. They would then produce a £20 note. ‘Can you change this OK ?’ Bastard.
    That’s what I thought but never voiced such. Well you don’t do you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Strange creatures, aren’t we? All that haggling just so they could they could walk away telling themselves they got a bargain. I still have a voice at the back of my head saying I should bargain and it doesn’t seem to think it needs to give me a reason. Just ’cause, as the kids on the block used to say when I was growing up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know how I stumbled upon this blog but I’ve been reading it for a few months now and it’s always rather entertaining. It’s the only blog I read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Periodically I try to convince myself to take relevant photos. I lose the argument. Always. When I do have a relevant photo, it’s strictly by accident. And British quirks? Absolutely. I love this place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who has read “Alice in Wonderland” far more often than I have visited the UK, my first thought to your question was the Great British Tradition of playing croquet using flamingos instead of mallets. It was my second thought, too.

    In fact, I’m now so entranced by the image of you and Wild Thing with your closetful of domesticated flamingos kept for afternoons when you and your friends decide to while away your time playing lawn sports, that I really hope you don’t correct me.

    If any correction is even needed, that is.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “that’s not really Shakespeare’s cottage”…hysterical. But I would have bought it as well. I’m still not sure of the connection with the word “boot” ??

    I walk flea markets here all the time, mostly for the outdoor exercise, and the eavesdropping on some revealing conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I would find it hard to pass up a Boot Sale. I wouldn’t find it hard to let drivers in line in front of me, but it would be weird not hearing the guy behind me honk, as if I had let the enemy past the checkpoint. What did you do with the other 11 cottages?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sent six, because that’s how many I could fit in the little box we happened to have. I still haven’t figured out what to do with the other six. One has a chip. Two are three are replicas of the Shakespeare cottage. Right now I’m not sure where they got to. One of these days I’ll get organized and find them. And wonder what to do with them and put them back exactly where I found them.

      Drivers here hardly ever honk. Even when they should, as in to let an oblivious walker (that would be me) know that a car’s rolling along behind me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Those cottages. Be grateful they were china and not resin… I had the misfortune of doing an extended work interview (read ‘unpaid labour’) on those a few decades back. Sort of like a poor person’s version of the ‘Lilliput Lane’ series. (Which are probably done the same way.) What a con. Boot sales I can only think of as car-boot sales or I, too, think of sales of boots. Does my head in.
    I had a thought (just the one?). A bit off topic. You know how you have sometimes asked for ideas for posts… well, I wondered if you’d fancy doing one on the daft alternative political parties that stand in elections. Like the Raving Loony Party and the Bus Pass Elvis party, et al. Might be amusing. Though may be best to leave it until after the June 23rd extravaganza.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Last year, when we announced to the kids that we were going back to the UK for a month, the first thing they asked if we could do while there was go to a car boot sale. There’s a massive weekly one on an airfield near where my brother-in-law lives. The kids feel like Indiana Jones searching for treasure when they go. Plus there’s burgers and chips and strong tea at 6am. I had not appreciated how strongly connected they felt to that tradition until that moment.

    I rarely find anything I want to buy at a boot fair but I do love to wander around and just look at things. The kids and I have a contest to find the ugliest, most horrific, or most depressing thing for sale. Obviously we have code words so as to not insult the sellers. Baby dolls with wonky eyes often win but one memorable winner was one of those appallingly racist “black face” coin eating things. Actually most memorable was the stall selling second hand sex toys but I quickly whisked my kids away from the stall so it was never in contention.

    I’ve been to flea markets here in the Philly burbs but it’s not quite the same for some reason. There aren’t quite the bargains you would expect either. On which subject, my youngest two have been approaching stall holders and asking, “What’s the best price you can give me for this?” since they were tiny. Such bargain hunters. Last time we went to a flea market they were trying to strike a deal for a bundle of dog equipment until I intervened and reminded them we were not getting a dog.

    Finally, yes to the British driving etiquette thing. I’ve been shocked here many a time by how unwilling drivers are to take turns in merging or otherwise letting people out. I think in Britain it’s as much a pragmatic thing as it is a question of being polite: we all move faster if we take turns and don’t cause a bottleneck through being stubborn. The other day I halted my car to let a driver out in front of me and the chap looked confused to the point of fear by my unexpected act. Very odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Driving first: I don’t think Americans really believe other people belong in their country–or at least not on their roads. It’s mine and the rest of you can go to hell. So yes, everyone gets there faster, etc., as you said, but the argument won’t convince anyone, no matter how true it is.

      What I’d love to know is what your code words are for the worst stuff you find.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Having visited Shakespeare’s actual cottage (or one of them at any rate) on my own hurried circuit of Britain, I’m curious whether the miniature ended up resembling the real thing?

    And I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t notice the rogue Z until you pointed it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never been to Shakespeare’s cottage (and didn’t think to Google it before I sent off the ceramic one), so I don’t know. It looks convincing, that’s all I can say. I’d guess that enough people would know if it was wrong that it would pay them to get it right.

      I see -ise spellings so often now that my own -ize ones seem to jump up and down, screaming.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What did you do with all those little ceramic cottages? I’m dying to know. I’m a clutter-phobe (grew up in a house full of hoarders) and if I can’t eat it, wear it, or need it for work, it does not come into my house. An exception has been made for our two pet cats, but who knows? They may fall into that first category at some time, if our situation gets desperation enough.

    A thought occurred to me as I read this post: what’s it like driving on the wrong, I mean, left side of the road? How long did it take you to get used to that? I’ve been driving on the correct, I mean, right side of the road for a long time–I don’t think my brain could adapt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sent six of the cottages to my friend who wanted the Shakespeare tee shirt. She wrote back, saying, “My own English village!” She’s not a clutter-phobe but lives, by choice, in a very small apartment, which limits what she can acquire. She and her husband used to live in the woods, in a tent during the summer and in a temporary shelter they built each winter. That limited the amount of stuff they could own even more tightly. So I did hesitate to send the cottages but I’m glad I did.

      Driving. I should write about that, really. Thanks for the suggestion. Or maybe I did, somewhere, already. I think I created a category on driving. Anyway, if I haven’t, I will eventually. The short answer is that I thought it would be terrifying, but it’s easier than I expected. Basically, the traffic will keep you on the side where you belong. The hard part is figuring out where the edge of the car is, since you have half a car where you’re not used to having half a car. And putting on the seatbelt. I can’t tell you how many times I reached into midair expecting to find my seatbelt.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a great concept- boot sale! It does sound very British. I can’t resist a good flea market either. Welcome to PitStop, I enjoyed finding you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I enjoy the PitStop–especially since it doesn’t require me to think about what to say, I can just leave my link and it’ll present it as professionally as my irrelevant photos allow. So thanks for the work you put into it.

      As for flea markets, they’re a great way to dip into another culture. Or your own.


  11. When you wrote ‘car boot’ I thought of those iron clamps the cops put on a car when it’s going to get it towed. This got me to thinking, what do the Brits call the hood of a car? The shoe? The heel?

    The other tradition I find interesting is when I see a British movie that involves Christmas time and they’re all wearing colorful paper crowns. First, I thought it was NY Eve, but that’s not it (because my frame of reference for Brits is BJ Diary, Notting Hill, et al).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hood is the bonnet. And the glove compartment is the glove box. And tire is spelled with a Y.

      People really do wear those paper crowns at Christmas. And if you belong to some sort of social group that holds a Christmas dinner (and all of them seem to feel compelled to), then you end up sitting around with more people wearing paper crowns, even though it’s not Christmas yet. At some point, a few people will quietly get rid of theirs, but sometime during the meal I always seem to look around the table and think how ridiculous we look.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I guess so. It always strikes me as funny that we all do wear them, though, for exactly that reason. And at some point during the meal, everyone’s looking sober and wearing funny hats, which makes it even funnier. Or maybe I happen to know a particularly sober-faced group of people.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. I have to say, having moved to England from Ireland I was shocked by the rudeness of the drivers. I feel like NO ONE ever lets you in there, whereas Irish drivers are always very kind and forgiving. Maybe it’s a regional difference?
    Also want to throw in my favorite English tradition: I was living in Oxford when Will and Kate got married, and one of my friends was from Abingdon, a small town about ten miles south. In Abingdon they have a tradition of throwing buns from the roof of the town hall to celebrate royal occasions, so we all went and stood in a crowd in the town square while three very dignified-looking people threw currant buns down at us. It’s just one of those quaint and bizarre rituals that makes you very conscious of the fact that you’re not in America anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I wish I’d been there for the currant bun throwing. That’s just completely bizarre and–well, why not? Sure. Royal wedding. Throw currant buns. Of course.

      I don’t know if the difference in driving is a regional difference or a difference in expectations. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the latter.


      • Yeah, apparently they’ve been doing it at every royal occasion for 600 years or something.
        You’re probably right about expectations vs. regional differences although there are A LOT of rude people in Oxfordshire (and London, where I lived for my last two years in England, which kind of goes without saying probably). I have a feeling Cornwall is more relaxed.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Well, what a treat it was to read your blog post and all the comments, too. I feel like I’ve had a good counseling session with all my cares and woes laughed and giggled away.

    I too get obsessed when I see something I just know a friend should have. Last fall it was martini glasses with orange blotches all over them that I found in a shopping center called Jackalope in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I don’t even drink martinis but I had to possess those glasses and give them to the friend who loves orange and is, apparently, an expert martini maker. Yesterday I spied a fabric panel that can be sewn into an apron for a martini maker. It has lemon and lime slices, olives and happy little martini glasses all over it. Well, now that panel is here, cut out and I am struggling with my lousy sewing machine to sew it up and give it to her. Another friend commissioned an 8-foot tall metal pink flamingo for her garden. I see flamingo stuff everywhere now. I’ve already bought her napkins and a plate. I must stop. I should say that we live in a mobile home park so her front garden flamingo is sort of the ultimate expression of trailer living. She had the smarts to invite everyone in the park to celebrate the installation of the bird. Once they were full of her libations and little appetizers, their attitudes toward the pink flyer just glowed with compliments. If I could figure out how to do it, I’d include a photo of the bird. It makes me smile every time I see it which is pretty much all day, every day. So, between your blog post and this big flamingo, I’m in a darned good mood!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I didn’t know letting someone in line after you’ve been let in was a British custom. I do it all the time and insist my husband do it too, yet I’m originally from Colorado. Of course, if I had my druthers, I’d be living in the UK. I love Europe in general, seem to get along with Brits well, and I can’t seem to get the whole handle of any other language other than English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not exactly letting someone in after someone’s let you in. It’s more like allowing two lines of traffic to merge like a zipper–one from this line, one from that. When it works (and people tell me it doesn’t always but it happens often enough to impress the hell out of me), it’s smooth and simple.

      Liked by 1 person

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  16. I went to a number of boot sales in Britain back in the last century. I have a ceramic Scottish cottage, but I cannot understand how to tell the difference from an English cottage, or a Welsh cottage. There are black and white sheep dogs. Been to Shakespear’s cottage as well. The interesting thing is I still remember it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My best guess–and keep in mind that I know zilch about architecture–is that the only way to tell a Scottish cottage from an English one from a Welsh one is to look at the map. Which doesn’t help when you’re dealing with little ceramic cottages. So I’m going to make a reckless guess and say they’re interchangeable. I trust someone will let me know if I’m screamingly wrong here.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. I hate selling stuff at car boot sales. Your treasured, precious, memory-infused items are scorned, and the MacDonald’s Happy Meal figurines sell for more than the meal cost. It felt degrading, so I take all my clutter to a Charity Shop.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I hope we will get to see a picture of the charming miniature cottages in a future post–as non sequitur images, of course. Also, what have you decided to do with the extras? Leave them anonymously on neighbor’s porches? If they have porches, that is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh, I never thought of taking a picture. Clever you. I’ll see if I can get anything other than reflections. No, first I’ll see if I can still find them. Then I’ll see if I can get anything other than reflection.

      People don’t tend to have what I think of as porches here (and neither do the houses), although some people use the word to describe a covered area in front of the door. I hadn’t felt any real need to dump the remaining houses, though. They’re small.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The small houses could have imaginary adventures in people’s gardens. You’d start a garden-gnome-like phenomenon. People would speculate as to who was leaving miniature domiciles and what it all means. You could start a movement!

        Liked by 1 person

        • We (and a few other people in the village) had something like this going on for a while with garden gnomes, and I have to say it was fun. The little houses may be too small for people to notice, but it’s tempting.

          Liked by 1 person

            • Ah, it was your question. I read your other comment first and thought it was someone else’s that you’d run into. So I don’t need to answer the question, just say that yes, they’d look gorgeous on top of a mailbox (known here as a postbox). I’d also seriously piss some people off, since there are people out there who “collect” them–not as in hauling them home but as in noting which ones are marked with the initials of which kind or queen. I somehow don’t think they’d find the little houses as cute as I do if they were superglued to the tops.

              Liked by 1 person

  19. Well, darn. I was hoping the boot sale would include the British Doc Martens. ;) But your explanation actually sounds like a lot of fun, too. And maybe you can sell the other 11 cottages on ebay. Or say they are replicas of Shakespeare’s neighbors’ homes. How cool would it be if you found out later that the basket was actually worth 95 pounds? :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be very cool, but I guarantee it’s not.

      A few of them could pass as Shakespeare’s neighbors’ houses, but then there’s the one that says “Old Curiosity Shop,” which is out of Dickens. Maybe his literary neighbors.


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