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Real Life: The shops are too dear, we get everything from car boot sales

They do it three times a week. Five if they're lucky. Because for an entire bevy of bargain hunters out there, car boot sales are a way of life.

Seen anything you like yet? –  Col’s Car Boot near Himley attracts hundred of keen shoppers to its site every week. Picture by Steve Leath
Seen anything you like yet? – Col’s Car Boot near Himley attracts hundred of keen shoppers to its site every week. Picture by Steve Leath

They have turned their backs on the high street and supermarkets and instead get everything, from fresh food to furniture, from heaving trestle tables and blankets in the countryside.

Not only can they get some absolute steals – one veteran we spoke to paid £1.50 for two bookends that would later be valued at £800 – they are part of their own little world. A world with its own laws, language and way of life.

It's believed around one million savvy shoppers visit car boots every weekend, with the average spend being £9.61. And it all adds up, it's estimated around £1.5 billion is spent every year at UK car boot sales.

We're at Col's Car Boot in Himley, the biggest in the region. It runs every Wednesday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday just off the A449.

The ground is soft underfoot and the smell of bacon lingers in the air, sellers' cries about the deals of the day can be heard from the fruit and veg stall and the butcher in the meat van is on the mic. Think Les from Phoenix Nights.

The car boots, blankets and tables are stocked with everything and anything, from china dolls to Status Quo LPs, broken vacuum cleaners to brand new grills and gadgets. There's even a watercolour artist on site, painting and then selling the pieces as he goes.

Col has been up since 3.30am and on site since 6am, when the first of the traders start to arrive. He has been in the business for 18 years and what he doesn't know about car boots isn't worth knowing.

"You get people who are here week in, week out without fail," says the 53-year-old, whose full name is Colin Turley.

"And it's getting more popular all the time, what with the bad economy and people loving that vintage, second-hand look.

"People come here for the bargains, pure and simple. The prices at car boots are second to none.

"People really do buy everything too – sometimes I'll be walking past a stall and see a battered old ironing board and think 'no one will ever buy that' and then, two minutes later, it's gone for 80p."

Col walks us over to the bright pink doughnut stand, where we're meeting car boot queen Maureen Ward. As we dodge between the different pitches, pretty much every seller and several customers shout hello to him.

"Alright Col, ow am ya mate."

"Hiya Col, you alright love."

As we settle down for a cuppa with Maureen, she shows us the bargains she's already picked up for her four grandchildren. Inside her wheeled shopping trolley are Halloween masks for 10p and a collection of books.

"The kids'll love them," the 68-year-old from Bilston says referring to the scary masks. "I have been coming to car boot sales for 18 years, I usually do three a week. I buy and sell.

"I know all the booters but there are more and more people coming all the time. It makes sense though doesn't it? Why would you go into a shop and pay £10 for a kid's top when you could get one here for 20p?

"Everything I'm wearing today is from a car boot sale – it probably cost me no more than £3. And all my Joan Collins jewellery here was a pound. Is it any wonder shops are closing all the time? They're pricing people out and then paying the price themselves.

"I just love car boots. I love the fresh air, the exercise you get and, remember, for many older or disabled people this is their only outing in the week. You make friends here. Sometimes when I'm walking around in the sun, I feel like I'm on my holidays. I love the excitement and anticipation of not knowing what you're going to get that day. That rush can be a bit addictive. Car booting becomes a way of life, I couldn't go back to the shops now because I can get everything here for cheaper."

Retired florist Maureen also uses car boot sales to help in her charity work. She supports New Hope, Rosedene Dog Rescue and she also helps people who have been hit hard by the bedroom tax. She comes to the car boots to buy essentials and then passes them on.

"I buy blankets for the dogs or things like toiletries or kitchenware or clothes for the people I look after. It's all very useful and because it's so cheap, you can do a lot of good."

But what about herself? What's the best bargain she's ever bagged?

"I spotted some gold and marble art deco bookends that were on sale for £2," she explains. "I knocked the seller down to £1.50 but then, when I went and had them valued, I was told they were worth £800. It's brilliant. I've got them pride of place at home."

With that, we leave Maureen with her tea and head back into the thick of it.

Weekend has been tasked by the boss with getting as many random things as possible for under a tenner. Looking around, it shouldn't be too difficult. From the sublime (there's market-fresh fruit and veg at prices that put the supermarkets to shame) to the ridiculous (a mechanical hamster in a plastic pen anyone? Yours for only £3), the choice is overwhelming.

We go for the food straight away. Twenty mandarin oranges for a quid? Don't mind if we do. We also bag two bunches of carrots for £1 and a handful of spring onions for 40p.

We then pick up a quality piece of fiction, OK OK Katie Price's Paradise, for £1 followed by a rather fetching Toby teapot and CP Limoges saucer for the grand total of £1.40.

We try our first bit of haggling over a Stuart Surridge cricket bat. It goes well. We get a full 50p off and it's our's for a quid.

Five framed Disney prints complete the shopping spree at two pounds and the seller chucks in one of a Native American too. Bonus.

That's a grand total of £7.80. The rest of the cash we spent on a bacon sarnie and cup of coffee. Sorry boss. But it's tiring work lugging all that stuff around.

As we're doing the rounds, we bump into another car boot veteran, Ron Palmer from Wombourne. The 82-year-old retired machinist has been shopping at car boots for 60 years.

"I go to around five a week," he says. "The thing is, I can't get my mobility scooter in and around a lot of shops so this is the perfect answer.

"Plus, I like the social side. There's only me at home so I really enjoying getting out and about and meeting and chatting to people.

"The shops are just too expensive these days. I get everything from car boots. Today I've bought three fishing lines for a pound when usually in the shops they are two or three pounds each. I've also bought some batteries for just a pound. That's the difference. Why would you go anywhere else? We all know the secret."

Just as we're leaving the site, we bump into Col, who starts chuckling when he sees our black bag full of goodies.

"You've had a good day then," he says.

We agree and tell him we'll definitely be returning for the fresh fruit and veg again.

"See, I told you!," he says. "Once you go car boot, you don't go back."

Elizabeth Joyce

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