Not seconds before, there'd been optimistic patches of blue overhead. But the weather in London changes faster than a young girl's heart and we're caught off guard when the sky unzips and it starts to rain.
We dash into the nearest thing with a roof. Which happens to be the Bug Lady's lair.
"The ghastly ones sell out first," the tall, dark-haired woman says as we examine a flying creature the size of a small rat mounted inside a glass-fronted box, "the spiders, the scorpions and the like."
Her name is Shanta Sutton and she sells bugs at the Michael Telfer-Smollett store on London's famed Portobello Road. Big, ugly, scary bugs, the kind you think live only in your nightmares. Not so, according to Sutton; they also live on bug farms in Africa and Asia, where they're bred, hatched, killed and boxed for our viewing pleasure.
"Bugs are a lucrative business," Sutton says. "Our biggest buyers are for little boys' bedrooms. I also think we're going to do a roaring business come April Fool's Day. You can put them out of their boxes and put them in ex-lovers' beds."
No, we haven't stumbled into a Monty Python skit, we're just at the Portobello Market, where everything -- including the music on the street -- is for sale:
Old cricket bats, new bottles of chartreuse nail polish, retired hotel gravy boats, brass beds, china chests, battered Mickey Mouse dolls, forsaken army medals, mannequin parts, toilet bowl cleaner, candelabra, spectacles, compasses, chickens (with feet and heads), tuna, sausage, cilantro, wooden ginger graters. Not to mention a hollowed-out, tin-lined, elephant-foot umbrella stand. (Just think what you could do with that come April Fool's Day.)
The shower stops, and we leave the Bug Lady's six-, eight- and 50-legged pals to return to the street. At least we try to return. Somewhere out there is a wooden ginger grater with our name on it, or maybe a brass bugle, or a Chinese coin from the Han dynasty. But it's Saturday, and the Portobello Market is bumbershoot to bumbershoot.
Navigating the sidewalk is hopeless. So we squeeze between a telescope stall and a steel drum band -- their CDs prominently displayed ($17 each) -- to return to the asphalt. Then there's no turning back. We're at antiques and collectibles, and, like it or not, the flood of shoppers is sweeping us toward fruits and vegetables three blocks away.
Notting Hill's centerpiece
The Portobello Market claims to be the largest antiques/flea market in Europe. Each Saturday around 1,500 vendors cram into the mile-long stretch of Portobello Road. Some, like the bug lady, operate out of small stores in the two- and three-story Victorian buildings that line the road; others occupy booths in indoor mini-malls; others set up street stalls, equipped with rolled-up plastic flapping in case of rain.
Every few blocks the merchandise changes. From old Turkish rugs and French farm chests at the south end; to ripe tomatoes and plucked chickens in the middle blocks; to what the Portobello Market association calls "new and second-hand goods," meaning the biggest collection of junk this side of the Atlantic, at the north end.
Need a gossamer fairy costume with wing and wand? No problem: There's a whole booth of them in birthday-cake colors. Perhaps a mummified hippo foot, for that special someone? They'll wrap it up for you. What about fresh eels, artichoke root, a bad rendition of Princess Di, an even worse rendition of a mermaid, toilet paper or asparagus? It's all here in one shopping trip.
Portobello, road and market, is the centerpiece of London's increasingly chic Notting Hill area, just northwest of Hyde Park and near the tourist attractions of central London. The neighborhood began as a huge estate on the edge of the city, then was swallowed up in a Victorian-era residential expansion that followed the railroad. A growing immigrant population after World War II led to race riots in the 1950s. Then came the flea markets, the antiques dealers and the produce men. In 1965, a local pageant called the Notting Hill Carnival began with a small parade through the streets of town. Since then it has grown into London's biggest party, a three-day blow-out over the last weekend of August. The carnival's wild floats, Caribbean food and ethnic bands attract millions.
As if it weren't already enough of a tourist attraction, the Portobello Market, last seen in 1964's "Mary Poppins," is making its Hollywood comeback in the movie "Notting Hill."
Starring Julia Roberts as the world's most famous actress and Hugh Grant as the humble, if impossibly charming, owner of a travel bookstore right off Portobello Road, "Notting Hill" is an old-fashioned romance by screenwriter Richard Curtis, himself a local resident.
"Notting Hill is an extraordinary mixture of cultures," Curtis says in production notes. "It is rich and poor and Portuguese and Jamaican and English, and it seemed like a proper and realistic place where two people from diffeerent worlds could actually meet and co-exist."