'CAR BOOT sales are where morons go to wait till they die," an Englishman told me. And I have unearthed some awfully sad finds, sifting through trash for treasure at Britain's weekend markets on wheels. Battered deer heads, Princess Diana cups/saucers/oven mitts, and a sausage sandwich crying out for carbon dating.
Indeed, at times it seems Death has already dropped by and unloaded his trunk of junk, with everything priced to go.
But still, there are plenty of lively bargains to be had before the last gasp. Imagine that every person in both the best and worst neighbourhood in town held a garage sale, in the same place, on the same day. As I soon discovered, car boots contain the most eclectic, eccentric and cheapest buys in Britain.
I toured south and eastern England with the online car boot calendar (www.carbootcalendar.com) as my guide. The subscriber website lists car boot sales and sizes on any given day throughout the year. I stuck to those within easy driving distance of London.
It was a perfect excuse to discover England's evergreen countryside and black rock seaside towns. One weekend my wife and I drove north-east to the coast at Southwold, in Suffolk. We stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast in Field Stile Road, where the elderly owner wore a green apron and referred to his wife as "madam" as he showed us to our room in the attic.
"We are off to a car boot sale very early in the morning and don't need breakfast," I told him. "Oh, madam will not have that," he said. And, true to his word, the next day we rose at 6am to discover two fruit cocktails in crystal goblets, fresh bread and tea on the dining table.
That morning we travelled to three car boot sales in the region, including an impressive market in a cow paddock in the inappropriately named Woolpit. On the way home, our hire car boot filled with books, an illuminated globe and a mustard-yellow poster about dental hygiene, we stopped at the Star Inn in Lidgate. Sitting next to a weeping willow in the lush beer garden, we ate roast pork and potatoes with three servings of pavlova (the Australian barman has had a welcome influence on the menu). We were sorry to return to London.
So the next weekend we again rose early. The best bargain hunters, many of them London store owners looking for vintage wares, arrive in the morning mist, pawing through first editions and fob watches, leather armchairs and antique jewellery even as the stallholders unload their cars.
Breakfast is a fried egg sandwich with extra bacon and a polystyrene cup of tea, served by a man with meaty sideburns and a Yorkshire accent so chunky you can carve it.
These early-bird shoppers wear gumboots against the morning dew and walk away with vintage and antique goods for far less than you pay at a garage sale or online - even after adding on postage back to Australia.
That morning in the New Forest, a glorious stretch of national park two hours' drive south-west of London, my wife spent only Â£5 ($12.50) on an entire tea service from the early 1960s - dainty cups, saucers, sugar bowl and milk jug, all in ceramic pearl with a gold trim.
I bought a vintage, dark brown leather suitcase with silk lining for Â£4. A tag on the bag announced that it had belonged to Mrs Joyce Jerram, who wrote in neat capital letters and once visited Montreal - if a worn yellow sticker on the suitcase is any guide.
And that is part of the charm of car boot sales. Every item has its own history, of travels to foreign lands, of long Sunday lunches or last century's wars. One morning in Bristol, within a horrid multistorey car park, I discovered a plastic green treehouse, like one I had loved as a child. I bought it for a pound, and later discovered someone willing to pay Â£60 for it on eBay.
I will sacrifice sentimentality for the right price. Car boot sales are so cheap you can lose perspective while hunting down the best bargain. My wife once walked away in a huff from a stallholder who refused to haggle over his Â£5 vintage glass cake stand. The next week she saw a similar stand selling for Â£25 in a London high street.
Bargains are harder to find in the capital, unless you venture out to London's leafy fringes. At the monthly market in Chiswick, in a large school grounds, I spend Â£20 on two striped, wooden deckchairs - the same type I have seen for $80 each in Northbridge. My wife paid Â£30 for an ivory piano accordion that has served us unfailingly as a doorstop for the past year.
Further from London, one of my favourite car boot sales is in Brighton, on Sunday mornings in a car park behind the train station. One weekend we bought eight bone-handle knives for Â£2 each. And then scrambled eggs and bubble-and-squeak from a greasy spoon, where the waitress gave me a funny look for declining a side order of hot chips.
Car boot sales open up the best and worst of (little) Britain. I fondly remember the old man in a knitted vest we met selling sweet treats at the market in a schoolyard in Norwich, Norfolk. "I baked the cupcakes this morning," he said, proudly. We bought two, plus one of his wife's sponges. And later a bevel-edged mirror for Â£8.
Later, at the same market I saw a young boy ask his father for Â£10 to buy an air rifle. It was like a scene from The Castle, shot in England. "Ten pounds!" Dad said. "Tell 'im 'e's 'avin' a laugh."