Bargain bastions: England’s second-hand treasure troves

It’s nearing closing time, so the hunt accelerates. Our eyes peruse the tangle of glass, metal and wood, scanning the confusing landscape for the perfect addition for our new home: a table? Lamp? Chair?

Where trashs turns into treasure; the Eastbourne Household Waste and Recycling Site

Suddenly, there! A four-foot, beveled-edge mirror, tucked behind a stack of cruddy paintings leaning against a wall. Experienced bargain hunters like us know to look beneath the stacks of dreck to find the good stuff. I exhume the mirror from its mildew-crusted grave and wrestle it to the “checkout counter,” which is a stained folding plastic table covered with bric-a-brac.

The attendant scratches her chin and picks a number out of the air: “Five pounds,” she says, and we are away with our bounty. So ends another successful stint at the Eastbourne Household Waste and Recycling Site, which in another day and culture (i.e., my youth, and the US) would be more simply referred to as The Dump.

Happy lady with latest acquisitions from the Eastbourne tip.

We are surprised but not shocked by the steal: An earlier visit to the shed yielded a glass water jug, ceramic gravy boat and a faux-crystal sugar and creamer set.“Five pounds” was the cost for that trip as well, leaving me wondering if the woman has the capacity to price the goods available for purchase at any other level. “The Shop” at “The Dump” is open limited hours, offering intrepid shoppers everything from dinnerware to tools, wicker plant stands to steel window casements, clothing, books and furniture. It’s an “if you don’t see it today, come back tomorrow and it’ll be here” open-air experience, a delightful place to wander, wonder and watch people of all kinds scurry away with their finds.

Creamer/sugar and gravy boat from the Eastbourne Household Waste and Recycling Site (aka, “dump”). Total cost: 5 pounds

This was one of the final hunts in the bargain safari we embarked on to outfit our two bedroom seaside flat in Eastbourne, yet another delightfully “why would you shop anywhere else?” experience in which we found everything we needed to set up our life in England without paying full price. Ours was an easy meander from village to town, shop to warehouse over 10 days. We got tips from locals about the best places to go (Leigh, the rugby-playing assistant manager at our gym told us about the British Heart Foundation shop in Hastings, which turned out to be a goldmine) and generally followed our noses to unearth the best deals.

 

The world’s largest jewelry box (30 pounds at AgeUK), at five foot tall, nearly big enough to handle Gabi’s earring collection.

We fanned out in search for bargains before we signed our lease: registered to receive alerts on Groupon for Eastbourne and Brighton, and signed onto the Eastbourne Buy and Sell Facebook page. Groupon helped with stuff like linens and duvets, but most of our acquisitions came from charity shops. By buying second hand we not only saved a ton of sterling but helped organizations from Cancer and Alzheimer’s research, to hospice and AgeUK.  Along the way we encountered delightful people eager to help, and a character or two.

There was Paul, the affable gentleman at Hospice in the Weald, Five Ashes (that’s a village about 40 minutes from our home), where we found a dining table and chairs (60 GBP), bedroom dresser (50 GBP), two bedside tables (15 each) and a TV stand (“aw, just take it.”) Paul was funny, helpful and entertaining, peppering us with steady banter while picking on my accent and keeping other customers from drifting into the “Staff Only” area (“Madam! Madam! That’s OK, pay no attention to all those signs that say “staff only;” be sure to have a good look around and make yourself a cup of tea whilst you’re there….”)

We found what we wanted and promised to come back the next day with a friend’s car that would be big enough to handle it all. “Splendid!” Paul said when we told him we would be back bright and early, “Breakfast would be grand. Cuppa and a bacon bap would be lovely.”

So we accommodated him, stopping at a roadside stand to buy a fresh bacon sandwich and cup of coffee. Paul was thrilled. As thanks, we got a discount, and help loading our car.

Comfy easy chair (15 pounds) and pouffe (3 pounds, one of a matching pair) were among our greatest finds

The additions from Hospice, along with the rest of our acquisitions, allowed us to set up shop for less than $1,000 US. The only new items were our mattress, a lamp from TK Maxx, a television set, six 20-inch photos from our travels (which made a terrific wall decoration!), a rug, a coffee table and a side table, and a plant. The rest:

Sofa, from the Heart Association in Hastings, 100GBP, along with end tables (15 GBP each) and a gorgeous oversized easy chair that had me sold before I found out it was only 15 pounds. We broke ranks by buying new IKEA-style coffee table and side table (meaning, “comes with incomprehensible instructions, more nuts and bolts than seem necessary and best wishes to figure out how to put this together”) for a total of 118 GBP at the Heart Foundation.

A bed (with vital drawers beneath!), new mattress, and headboard, from AgeUK, New Haven, along with two amazing finds that sufficiently capture our zany, eclectic tastes: a shoulder-height footed mirror that opens into the world’s largest jewelry box (and thus can barely contain Gabi’s impressive earring collection), and a weird seven-foot tall mirror-faced shelf that spins on a pedestal and has plenty of room for seasonal clothes. All for 340 GBP .

Before: Our barren seaside apartment before we hit the streets

And the pieces de resistance: matching light purple, swirly-flower-patterned footstools, which, after eyeballing the garish gold tassels around the base of the stools, we decided they could only be called pouffes. I saw them in the Alzheimer’s Association, Bexhill, and after being stunned by the shopkeeper’s promise that they were, indeed, only three pounds each, I spirited one into the back of the car. Two days later we decided it was cruel to separate the twins, went back and bought the other. The shopkeeper asked if we intended to re-cover them.

After. The living/dining room in our flat; finished, full, fun, and all for less than $1,000. A new sofa would have cost as much.

“Good lord, no!” I responded. “What an insult! They’re the perfect complement for our home just as they are,” leaving her to wonder, I imagine, what kind of home we live in.

Answer: the kind whose resident proudly hangs a 5-pound mirror in the living room and then writes a blog post about buying it at the dump.